by Caroline Pomilla — Originally published in the September/Octobert 2019 issue of BOMA Magazine
Like many things in the commercial real estate industry, our approach to emergency preparedness is not what it used to be.” So says Peter Franklin, DABFE, managing director of Physical Security Management and Risk Assessment for TAL Global and a member of BOMA International’s Preparedness Committee. Looking back on his decades of experience, Franklin can recall a time when each floor of a building was stocked with bags of (highly flammable) sawdust in case of a water flow incident.
While this approach has since been reevaluated, the example speaks to the fact that emergency preparedness in commercial buildings is an ongoing, dynamic and constant endeavor—one that calls property practitioners to improve on what came before. Thankfully, the collective insights of seasoned industry professionals offer valuable guidelines and lessons to aid that process.
Keep it simple
A sophisticated emergency preparedness plan should fulfill various objectives, but Priority One is “the protection of life,” notes Matthew Smith, director of Security for JBG SMITH and another member of the committee. But, of course, that same plan has to cover many bases, what Smith refers to as an “all-hazards plan.”
This, too, is a departure from the days of sawdust in the closets, when plans focused primarily on fire-related hazards and involved “fire wardens” rather than “floor wardens.” However, comprehensive does not necessarily mean complex. Smith explains that a preparedness plan should provide coverage of all probable incidents, but it should not be so complex that a person in an emergency has difficulty understanding the plan.
He breaks down this process into the few options available to building personnel during an emergency. “There are really three things a building staff member can do,” he says. “They can evacuate, relocate to a safer part of the building—like in the case of a tornado—or they can remain inside and potentially turn off the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] system, as they would if the issue is related to outside air contaminants. Keeping it simple means the building staff knows those are the general responses one can have in an emergency and they understand their individual role in executing each response.”
And, simple means less confusion. Smith points to June 10, 2019, when a helicopter crashed on top of a building in New York City. Most building plans are unlikely to anticipate this specific type of event, but it is always safe to return to the basic question of life safety: “Should I stay inside the building?” Then, next steps for any scenario become clear and simple.
“Boxer Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’; so, we keep our plans simple and train our staff to face the unexpected without becoming paralyzed,” Smith explains.
Be aware of vulnerabilities
Unexpected events do occur from time to time, but one can predict and prepare for many of them. Hazard probability can be determined based upon a number of factors, such as the area’s susceptibility to certain natural events, whether a property is located in an urban or suburban environment and even if a building’s tenant base is considered high profile or controversial.
Franklin also refers to the idea of foreseeability, or utilizing prior experience to inform new events, as one way to predict and prepare for hazards to which your building might be more vulnerable. He cites the 1981 collapse of a walkway at a Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, where a dance was being held. The walkway collapsed from harmonic vibration. At the time, Franklin was working for a client in San Francisco that had a Hyatt Regency within its portfolio.
He recalls that the San Francisco Hyatt Regency contained the same bridge design and held the same type of events. “We sent out engineering and business continuity experts to the site to evaluate the safety implications and the evacuation protocols,” he says. “Then, we imposed those protocols on our own local training. So, you update as things change, and they can change daily.”
A major issue with effective protocols is the can’t-happen-here syndrome. According to Smith, “If you hear something bad happening in the news, even if it doesn’t seem like it would affect your property, there are things you can learn and apply in an effort to prepare.” Smith takes inventory of nationwide preparedness and response protocols and strives to learn something new from each incident. He then will update his plan accordingly and communicate any changes to the affected people. This active process of reviewing lessons learned and being ready to change is what Smith calls a “living” plan.
Those lessons aren’t learned only from watching the news. In July 2016, Renee Matthews, RPA, senior vice president of Property Management for Stream Realty Partners, was the manager on-site when word broke of an active shooter threat on her building’s block in downtown Dallas. After spending a full evening on lockdown, Matthews and her team met to discuss what went well, what could be improved and what the experience taught them about the building—which they had taken over just two months prior to the event.
She explains that the incident helped her team learn very quickly about the things that needed to get fixed, such as a door that didn’t lock. “We were able to pinpoint our weak areas and come up with a plan to fortify them if we had to lock down in the future,” Matthews says. She credits the improvements made afterwards for the team’s smooth response to more recent incidents. “We try to go through them, learn from them and grow from them,” she adds.
Collaboration, not competition
According to Carol D. Moore, RPA, director of Training for Stream, collaborating with neighboring buildings on emergency preparedness can also be a “huge bonus. We are not competitors when it comes to emergency preparedness, we are collaborators,” notes the Atlanta-based Moore, who is another member of BOMA International’s Preparedness Committee. Which is why one of the urban buildings within her portfolio completes emergency response training with another building on its block.
The decision arose from a dangerous encounter in which Moore was approached on her property’s parking deck by an individual who had a knife. “It was horrible, but the experience inspired me to make sure we do what we can to deter a repeat occurrence. One step was to reach out to our neighbor building,” says Moore. “We need to be unified in responding to any situation—we need to do more of that collectively.”
Moore took away a significant lesson from this experience: Property owners and managers cannot adequately prepare and respond to emergency situations on their own. This calls for collaboration across the board, with neighbors, tenants, corporate headquarters and first responders.
“In property management, we’re generalists in everything, and we depend on the relationships and resources that we’ve developed over time and through networks like BOMA,” Moore explains. “The property manager can’t do it all; the team needs to have a plan in place with their partners and service providers, and that plan needs to be practiced again and again.”
Training: Always, everyone
Practice begins within one’s own management team, says Smith, but it also should include the full building staff. “Whatever the role, we want them to understand the basics so that they’re prepared to take action in a situation where they’re the only one there or they’re the main person in charge,” he notes.
You don’t want to forget about training your tenants either. “We make sure the tenants know that we’ll train the floor warden, but every tenant company really has to take responsibility for training their employees and getting the word out,” urges Moore. Tenant training can take many forms, from providing handouts to hosting lunch-and-learn seminars and even practicing simulated scenarios.
First responders also should be involved in these trainings. Smith shares that his company hosts annual seminars featuring leaders from the public safety industry. The meetings allow authorities to provide updates, exchange information and promote the value of networking so tenants feel comfortable reaching out directly. Smith explains: “These types of gatherings build relationships, which is what you really want to do; you want to establish a level of trust.”
Moore also emphasizes the value of having a relationship with local first responders, whom she routinely invites to the property to monitor drills and provide additional trainings. She recounts learning the value of this relationship years ago during a medical emergency when “the ambulance went flying past the building,” missing her property. Realizing that the responders might not know how to find the building’s loading dock or the best entry route, Moore invited them back to the building shortly after the event to gain familiarity. “I don’t want them to come to the building for the first time when it’s an emergency,” she says.
Don’t be a stranger
Even the simplest things, like maintaining open communication with tenants, can be helpful. “Within the course of just managing the building, we make sure to talk to our tenants regularly to keep the relationship going,” says Matthews. This encourages the tenants to feel comfortable looping management in on any concerns and allows them to work collaboratively in preventing or preparing for a threat’s escalation.
Advanced mass communication systems make this even easier (see “Emergency Preparedness at Your Fingertips,”), offering new technologies for property managers to send mass emails and text messages to their occupants. Franklin also recommends newsletters and lobby signage as additional ways for property professionals to maintain communication with building occupants. “Some buildings are even broadcasting local news on television monitors in their elevators,” he adds.
Preparedness plans have certainly evolved from their meager origins as a few hole-punched pages stored in a binder at a building’s front desk. In today’s complex and threat-filled environment, no one can afford to be so one dimensional.
Rather, modern commercial buildings require a “living” emergency preparedness plan—one that is actively developed, practiced and evaluated by building teams. As Matthews puts it, “We can’t sit back and think that what was done 20 years ago to prepare a building is going to work in this world.” Modern threats demand modern solutions.