How to Prepare for a Disaster: Steps for Facilities Managers

Ideas to help you plan for the unexpected in your facility.

No matter where your building is located, a natural or man-made disaster is something you should be prepared for. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, power failures, gas leaks, bomb threats, active-shooter events, tornadoes or even ice storms can impact your facility and your business operations.

By knowing how to prepare for a disaster, you can reduce the potential for occupant injury, property damage and downtime after one occurs. Although each type of disaster is unique in the type of planning involved, these tips apply no matter what you're preparing for.

Preliminary Step: Store Critical Items in a Trusted Offsite Location

Before you can launch into crafting a disaster plan, make sure your business has an offsite storage facility to store essential business data. Critical information such as banking and insurance details, employee files and sensitive customer information should be safely kept offsite — either in a paper storage facility or digital warehouse, as needed. Information is vital to keeping the business running after disaster strikes, so having this backup in place should be a standard practice.

Know Your Building and Its Systems

When considering how to prepare for a disaster, gather information that will be useful to occupants and first responders. Things to document, study and use in your written disaster plan may include:

  • The types of fire/life safety and security systems installed
  • The location and condition of any emergency supplies or equipment (such as flashlights, batteries for all emergency devices, defibrillators, first aid supplies, water, food, blankets, etc.)
  • Connection points for all utilities
  • Communications systems, including two-way radios, phones, intercoms, mass notification systems, etc.
  • Floor plans, so you know exactly what types of rooms are located where (e.g., restrooms)

In addition to pinpointing the location and condition of relevant building systems, it's important to know the nuances of how they work. Which systems can continue to function without electricity due to a backup system (and for how long)? For example: How long can the emergency lighting safely guide occupants to exits?

Document Your Plan

After you compile your information, you can use it to create response plans in the event of any disaster. The good news is that you don't have to start from scratch. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers guidelines on how to prepare for a disaster, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety has an online tool to assist with your planning, and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) has gathered security and emergency preparedness information for facilities managers as well.

In your plan, you may consider including:

  • Evacuation routes, shelter-in-place instructions and locations, and lockdown procedures
  • Locations of emergency exits, fire alarm pull stations, fire extinguishers, etc., as well as gathering points by group or team
  • Step-by-step procedures for safe evacuation
  • Up-to-date floor plans
  • A roster of occupants inside the building, including notes about who may need help evacuating
  • Scripts for mass-notification announcements and speaking with the media

The information included in your plan should take a broad approach so that you're ready for any type of disaster.

Once a draft of your plan is complete, ask for feedback and comments from team members, leadership and occupants. This can help you identify any gaps, weaknesses or potential issues as you document how to prepare for a disaster.

Practice Your Plan and Adjust Accordingly

Once you've established an emergency preparedness plan, it's time to practice it. You can conduct "what-if" exercises, where you talk through possible scenarios with occupants. It's also important to establish a regular schedule for drills that involve everyone.

Practicing your plan can pinpoint potential problems, tell you how well occupants understand the plan and help identify aspects that need improvement. For example, were occupants confident about where to go during evacuation? If not, you can follow up and ask questions: Would larger exit signs be better? Would more frequent drills help?

By putting a disaster plan together, you'll be better prepared to face whatever natural or man-made event may occur and help your building and its occupants recover as quickly as possible. Don't forget to store a finalized version of your disaster plan in your secure offsite location, just in case the onsite copy isn't accessible during an emergency.