An emergency can happen anywhere, anytime.
A fire, flood, natural disaster, or 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 percent of commercial property owners or condominium corporations take proactive steps to develop 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 action 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 is 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 action 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 action 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 the 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 great resources 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 the 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 workstation.
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.
Why you need to prepare a return-to-work security plan now
As lockdown measures are slowly eased across Ontario and the rest of Canada, organizations are preparing to return to the new COVID-19 workplace normal. But nothing is simple when it comes to navigating the uncharted waters of social distancing and industry-wide lockdowns–especially when it comes to developing a return-to-work security plan.
While a return to the business may still be weeks away for organizations in some parts of the province, no one can afford to be idle. As a business owner/leader, you need to start planning today to ensure that your workplace is as safe and secure as possible once your employees return to the fold—and that you comply with all relevant government health and safety rules and regulations.
Security plays a key role
Of course, safety and security planning is about much more than ensuring the availability of sanitizers and protective equipment, ramped-up hygiene practices, or establishing social distancing rules and protocols. Those are, of course, essential foundational elements. But there are many security-related components that need to be addressed in a comprehensive and strategic return-to-work plan, many of which will take time and resources to implement.
Cybersecurity, access control, monitoring employee movements and activities, and secure collaboration practices, are among many items that need to be integrated into a well-architected security plan. The good news is that your security provider can play an important role in helping develop and execute a fully integrated strategy—one that addresses the new (and in some cases, rapidly evolving) demands around health and safety compliance, risk mitigation and technology.
A return-to-work security plan should cover everything from basic policies around distancing rules and staffing requirements (some organizations may resort to staggered hours, for example, or a combined office/work-from-home model to minimize personal contact), to more complex technological initiatives around health monitoring and building access and control.
Conduct a security infrastructure audit
An integral part of the initial planning stages is a thorough review of infrastructure equipment. Planners need to examine what needs to be improved or updated. Are repairs required due to the protracted pandemic shutdown? This is an especially important checklist item for facilities that have been fully closed for a long period of time.
Organizations will also have to familiarize themselves and their employees with the plethora of new safety protocols that are being introduced, including those established by public health authorities and/or the building managers, or your company itself. With that, extensive retraining for both security personnel and other staff will be needed before doors re-open for business. This will need to be refreshed as new guidelines evolve in the months to come.
Bear in mind that security personnel, in particular, may be required to perform additional services, from temperature checks and entrance/exit screening, to more frequent patrolling and social distancing enforcement.
Analyze cybersecurity vulnerabilities and requirements
With the rapid transition to a work-from-home business model, organizations should also be making time to review their cybersecurity protocols. During the recent, rapid escalation in remote workers accessing cloud-based services from multiple devices, organizations had little time to assess their network security in an in-depth way. Now that you have a bit of breathing space, it’s time to develop or enhance your current digital security strategy as part of your return-to-work plan. This should include a rapid redeployment backup plan in the event of a future shutdown.
A safe and secure workplace will likely involve new technology investments. As you plan, consider the role security solutions can play in reducing touching of surfaces; tracking and tracing movements to quickly isolate and address potential outbreak situations; or responding to social distancing infractions (e.g., alerts when employees enter a restricted area).
There are a number of technology enablers that can be integrated into existing security systems to meet the demands of a post-lockdown work environment and ensure that only authorized employees or visitors can enter your premises. Examples of tools being implemented right now across some organizations include swipe pads on doors, touchless registration, “smart” barriers at entrances and exits, biometric scanners, remote locking systems and pressure sensors, and mobile two-factor authentication.
Additional video surveillance systems, along with thermal scanners and face recognition software can help identify suspected infections while tracking the contact and movements of anyone within range of a potentially infected person.
All of this needs to be supported by HR policies that clearly outline restricted areas, who has access, and policies around travel and sick leave—among others. Work with your HR team and potentially even a qualified labour and employment lawyer, to draft effective policies customized to the needs of your workplace and employee culture.
Getting your workplace ready to reopen
Global real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has developed a document entitled Recovery Readiness: a How-To Guide For Reopening Your Workplace. It’s a handy starting point that outlines six guiding principles on how businesses can ensure a safe and efficient transition to workplace readiness.
Here is a distilled version of the principles:
- Prepare the Building—Implement cleaning plans, pre-return inspections, and HVAC and mechanicals checks
- Prepare the Workforce—Create policies for deciding who returns, shift/schedule management and employee communications
- Control Access—Enforce protocols for safety and health checks, building reception, shipping/receiving, elevators and visitor policies
- Create a Social Distancing Plan—Follow guidelines for decreasing density, schedule management and office traffic patterns
- Reduce Touch Points and Increase Cleaning—Implement open doors, clean-desk policy, food plans and regular cleaning of common areas
- Communicate for Confidence—Recognize the fear employees may feel in returning to the workplace and work with them to alleviate their anxiety
Plan early and be flexible
There’s no question there will be a great deal of uncertainty as organizations plan their return-to-work strategies.
“It will happen in phases, it will be very complex and it will look different for every organization,” Bill Knightly, Cushman and Wakefield’s Chief Operating Officer of Global Occupier Services, noted in a recent webinar. “We know progress is unlikely to be linear … We know the rules of the game are likely to change as we’ve seen inconsistent messaging from health authorities and governments around the world.”
That being said, a safety and security planning professional can help alleviate the uncertainty and tailor a fully integrated security plan to meet the specific needs of an organization and its workforce. The key is planning early and often as the situation evolves.
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Winston Stewart, founder