Developing an emergency evacuation planning strategy for your business continuity program

It's critical to have a reliable and safe evacuation plan included in your DR/BC plan. Use these tables to construct one.

Paul Kirvan

What you will learn in this tip: Developing an emergency evacuation plan is an important part of business continuity planning. Learn how to develop the best emergency evacuation planning strategy for your business in this tip.

One of the key objectives of business continuity (BC) and disaster recovery (DR) plans is to protect human life in the aftermath of an incident. A key part of that objective is to ensure that all affected individuals are located in a safe and protected area. This is why a comprehensive business continuity program should include evacuation plans, primary and secondary assembly areas, and a process for "counting heads" to ensure that all employees are safe. Even though emergency evacuation planning is often the primary responsibility of building management, facilities and/or security departments, BC/DR plans should include evacuation plans that are synchronized with the building plans. Emergency evacuation plans should also be tested regularly like DR plans, so they can be invoked during a disaster.

Any building, regardless if it's a single story in a campus or a 70-story high-rise in a major city, needs up-to-date and regularly tested evacuation plans. These specialized plans ensure that all occupants, especially those with disabilities, can safely leave a building and assemble at one or more designated locations. Once all occupants have been evacuated, the next steps are to determine that all occupants are identified, and relocate them to a safe area (or direct them to go home) until the building is safe to re-enter.

Evacuation plans may be separate entities or part of a larger set of plans to deal with fires, severe weather, power outages, hostage situations or other incidents where it is deemed appropriate to evacuate the building occupants. In some instances, a partial evacuation may be appropriate. During a partial evacuation, only certain parts of the building are evacuated, such as the affected floor and two floors above and below it in a high-rise. This contrasts with a full evacuation, in which all occupants leave the building.

Emergency evacuation plans can be as detailed as necessary, but simple is better. Unless the building has a complex floor structure with multiple elevator banks and mid-rise and high-rise landings that connect elevator banks, a sufficient evacuation plan can consist of a few sentences or paragraphs. For more complex buildings, emergency evacuation diagrams of each floor, with stairwells and exits clearly marked, should be displayed on every floor in conspicuous areas, such as adjacent to elevators, stairwells, and common areas (e.g., cafeterias). Evacuation plans should be reviewed and updated as needed at least annually, and certainly any time there is a physical change in the building that may affect the evacuation routes. Evacuation drills are usually combined with fire drills, because both generally require occupants to exit the building and assemble in a specific area. These should be conducted twice annually, or as mandated by city, county or state regulations.

The following checklists provide general emergency evacuation plan development tips and additional emergency management planning tips for special situations, such as single-story and high-rise buildings.

Emergency evacuation planning checklist

  • All drawings of floor plans should identify stairwells and building exits.
  • Identify primary and alternate assembly areas to take headcount of all building occupants; ensure that all occupants know assembly points.
  • All drawings of floor plans should identify emergency phones for wardens and first responders.
  • Ensure that emergency notification system has warning signals (lights, sirens).
  • Have paging speakers in place so that audible announcements can be made.
  • Display floor plans and evacuation paths on all floors near entrances/exits, elevators, cafeterias, and other places where employees congregate.
  • Identify and train volunteers to serve as floor wardens (facilitate the evacuation with building staff and first responders) and searchers (look for people in bathrooms and other areas).
  • Have battery-powered emergency lighting in all stairwells and evacuation routes; test regularly.
  • Have luminescent signage in stairwells indicating steps, corners, floor entry/egress, location of doorways and location of exits.
  • Provide evacuation information to all employees and building occupants.
  • Prepare a list of all building occupants with disabilities so they can be properly evacuated.
  • Prepare a list of all building occupants for subsequent headcount verification following the evacuation.
  • Periodically review evacuation plans with building management and local fire departments.
  • Ensure that evacuation plans conform to local and state code.
  • Ensure that stairwell floors incorporate non-skid surfaces.
  • Periodically exercise emergency evacuation plans on scheduled and unscheduled basis.
  • Ensure that emergency teams are clearly identified by armbands, hats, vest, etc.
  • Check all access paths prior to occupant re-entry to ensure they are clear and ready for use.

Single-story building tips and general evacuating planning tips

  • Provide emergency lighting within the building.
  • Clearly mark and illuminate exit signs.
  • Make sure aisles and exits are not obstructed.

High-rise building tips

  • Discuss evacuation plans with local fire department for guidance on how to coordinate evacuation of multiple floors.
  • Conduct periodic evacuation drills of groups of floors as well as the entire building.
  • Identify primary and alternate stairwells for evacuations.
  • Identify primary and alternate elevators for evacuation, if available.
  • Ensure that elevators can be programmed to automatically return to the ground floor.
  • Ensure that alternate evacuation paths are available and can be used based on the situation.

These checklists will help you formulate evacuation plans that will quickly and safely move building occupants to a safe location. Be sure to review emergency evacuation plans with local building inspectors to ensure compliance with local codes. Also go over the evacuation plan with your fire department to ensure they are aware of your plans and have copies available if needed.

About this author: Paul F. Kirvan, FBCI, CBCP, CISSP, has more than 20 years experience in business continuity management as a consultant, author and educator. He is also secretary of the Business Continuity Institute USA Chapter.

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