An emergency can happen anywhere, anytime.

A fire, flood, natural disaster, an incident involving a disgruntled employee threatening violence. Preparing for an emergency is critical to ensuring the safety and security of employees or residents across your properties. But if that’s the case, why are so few commercial property owners prepared to handle just such an event?

In our experience, fewer than 10 per cent of commercial property owners or condominium corporations take proactive steps to develop a comprehensive emergency preparedness and disaster response plan (EPDRP). Those that do rarely communicate the plan or conduct drills to ensure that, in the case of an emergency, the plan is executed properly. To say this is an oversight would be a huge understatement.

It’s critical for organizations to maintain an easily-deployed EPDRP to avoid any unnecessary loss of life in the event of an emergency, as well as to mitigate the threat of litigation or penalties for not taking the necessary, reasonable steps to be prepared. Now, you may be wondering—particularly if this your first time thinking about the topic—how to design an EPDRP. It’s a good question and one that we’re asked whenever we engage a new client.

With that in mind, here are seven steps for designing an emergency response plan that makes sense for your commercial property and assets:

Assess the risk—This is the critical first step we recommend when developing any EPDRP. Every property is different, and so are the individuals who either work or live there. To fully understand the risk, you’ll first need to understand what could happen in an emergency situation, even unlikely ones. If your building is in a known flood plain or a tornado-prone area, for example, your plan should reflect those potential risks. If yours is a commercial property, assess the risk from the kinds of activities that are conducted on the premises. If you produce chemicals, for example, your risk levels will be far greater than those at a warehouse facility. In addition, do a headcount to determine how many individuals live or work on site. If you’re a condominium corporation responsible for the well-being of thousands of tenants in an ultra-high-rise building (a scenario I discussed in my last post), the complexity of designing an emergency evacuation plan will be far greater than in a building of fewer than 10 stories.

Ensure full legislative and insurance compliance—Depending on the location of your property, there may be a set of provincially-mandated emergency preparedness rules and regulations that need to be followed in order to ensure full compliance with local legislation and requirements set out by your insurer. Work with your lawyer, HR team and stakeholders such as local fire or police departments to understand your obligations and ensure that your EPDRP not only complies, but even exceeds those minimum requirements. The last thing you need in the event of a catastrophic emergency is to face litigation or legislative penalties because you didn’t take necessary steps to obey relevant laws pertaining to emergency preparedness and evacuation procedures.

Consult with your security firm and appropriate first responders—Again, police, fire and paramedics are a great resource to contact when developing an EPDRP. Whether preparing plans designed to respond to a potentially horrific incident such as a live-shooter scenario at one of your properties, or taking steps to ensure speedy evacuation in the event of a major fire, first responders are obliged to provide information pertaining to legislative requirements and are (at least in my experience) eager to help mitigate risk for property owners, while minimizing the threat of loss of life in an emergency situation.

Of course, your security firm will be another important resource to help develop an EPDRP. Any reputable firm should even be able to offer a templated plan, then assist in customizing it to suit your specific needs.

Train all security staff—This is a critical step. In our case, all Wincon security personnel are fully trained to manage on-site emergencies, even in cases where a formal EPDRP hasn’t been drafted (we typically work with clients to prepare these plans as part of our onboarding process). Your security team members will usually be your very first responders and will likely be the ones making a call to police, fire or paramedics in the event of an emergency—while also meeting first responders and answering questions when they first arrive on site. Security personnel should be fully trained to handle any emergency incident that could reasonably occur on your property. Remember, every building is different, and its occupant population is unique. An EPDRP must be customized to suit all stakeholders’ needs.

Have a plan to stabilize the situation—So, you have an emergency, your security team helps evacuate the premises and now you have several hundred residents or dozens of employees waiting outside the property for first responders to arrive. Now what? Any comprehensive EPDRP should also have a stabilization plan that includes details on where to shelter accident victims until help arrives on scene, for example, or a relocation spot in the event of a natural disaster that threatens your property. Simply clearing the building isn’t good enough.

Communicate the plan—Many companies go through the motions of creating an EPDRP, only to let it gather literal or proverbial dust on a shelf or in a hard drive. The only effective plan is the one that your security team, management, staff and other key stakeholders fully understand. Include an EPDRP briefing in your employee onboarding process, then provide a refresher on the plan at least once a year. We even recommend giving everyone from security staff to rank-and-file employees a brief, basic quiz to ensure they understand key points such as how to exit the building from their work station.

Practice—Remember those annoying fire drills you used to do in school? Well, it turns out they were a pretty useful tool—and they still are. Be prepared to practice emergency procedures such as having employees or residents evacuate your building, and execute steps laid out in your EPDRP. Drills should be conducted at least twice a year—and at random times—to make sure your people know how to respond if, or when, disaster strikes.

Winston Stewart, founder

Wincon Security 

The New Year brought with it new challenges for owners of small and medium-sized businesses across Ontario.

On January 1st, The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act—better known as Bill 148—came into effect. The legislation makes significant changes to Ontario’s labour and employment law landscape, from extending paid vacation for qualifying employees, to making it easier to unionize. Other new compliance requirements will be rolled out this year and next.

But there was one major amendment that sent shockwaves across the province’s entrepreneurial community: an increase of the minimum wage to $14 per hour from $11.60, with another $1 jump slated for Jan. 1, 2019.

Almost immediately, business owners took action to protect their bottom lines. Some laid off workers, while others eliminated paid breaks and rolled back some paid benefits. The latter was the case at several Tim Hortons franchises in Cobourg, Ont., owned and operated by Ron Joyce Jr. and his wife, Jeri Horton-Joyce—the son and daughter of company founders Ron Joyce and Tim Horton, respectively.

In response to the Joyce’s cost-saving moves, Premier Kathleen Wynne decried the actions of the Tim’s franchisees and cautioned others who might consider similar changes in future. The Ministry of Labour promised to crack down on any organization that violated the Employment Standards Act to protect its profit margins in the wake of the minimum wage increase.

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn followed by saying this: “The problem with the minimum wage was that the baseline was too low. We were doing it the right way, but we started from too low a place. So, what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to politicize this issue again.”

He’s right. ‘Politicizing the issue’ is exactly what should be avoided.

To be clear, our organization stands firm in its support for a strong living wage for our employees—many of whom earn at or near the minimum. In our view, providing adequate pay helps our staff make ends meet, helps ease the many financial stresses they might encounter, and helps them be better, more productive employees—not to mention engaged members of society who don’t have to struggle simply to put food on the table. That’s a win-win for our province and everyone across the political spectrum.

The challenge with raising the province’s base salary by nearly 30 per cent literally overnight is that it created an unbearable burden for entrepreneurs. And no, most business owners are not multimillionaires who can afford to shoulder the burden of such a rapid increase in overhead costs.

According to the Great White North Franchisee Association, which represents more than 50 per cent of Tim Hortons franchisees, the new minimum wage will cost the average Tim’s franchise $243,889.10 per year. Those numbers are staggering. Worse, they could send some franchises into bankruptcy. But the ripple effect doesn’t end with restaurants and food services companies. Other, far larger, firms such as Wal-Mart announced layoffs soon after the wage spiked.

I think we can all agree that our small and medium-sized business owners contribute a great deal to Ontario’s economy, including innovative new products and services, all while driving economic activity and helping to create jobs that fuel our province’s growth. A simple compromise—namely, a more gradual increase in wages—would have helped mitigate the impact of these changes.

It’s important to remember that entrepreneurs are not bullies. We’re simply trying to earn a living ourselves, while also keeping our staff employed in the face of crippling changes to the provincial business landscape. That’s not an easy task at the best of times—less so in the face of sweeping amendments to employment standards laws and compliance requirements.

Winston Stewart, founder

Wincon Security