Emergency preparedness is easing its way into the Digital Age.
At a small yet growing number of commercial properties, paper versions of emergency preparedness plans are being coupled with online editions, enabling building managers and emergency responders to quickly update and access critical information. What’s more, the move toward electronic plans comes amid a demonstrated lack of attention to emergency preparedness in commercial real estate.
Atlanta-based emergency preparedness consultant Greg Pattison estimates that in commercial real estate, far fewer than 10% of emergency preparedness plans currently are in electronic formats. But he and other experts say that number has climbed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as emergency management agencies have begun to embrace electronically stored plans and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ponied up funds to help create them.
However, experts say the vast majority of emergency management agencies and commercial real estate properties still rely on paper emergency plans sandwiched into three-ring binders.
“Some don’t even have a binder. Some just have two sheets of paper,” says Steve Mandic, managing director of Strategic Facilities Group, a division of Los Angeles-based Rothenberg Sawasy Architects Inc.
In the past several years, a cottage industry has emerged to help those agencies and properties craft Web-based emergency preparedness plans.
In general, emergency preparedness plans encompass myriad details on how to respond to a crisis such as a fire, tornado, earthquake or bomb threat. Among other things, these documents pinpoint the locations of offices, personnel, first aid volunteers, emergency exits, emergency equipment and emergency supplies. They also delineate off-site assembly areas for personnel and emergency teams. With the electronic versions, building personnel can monitor who has undergone emergency training and when emergency drills have been conducted.
Companies such as Strategic Facilities Group and Houston, Pa.-based US Life Safety Inc. organize emergency preparedness programs, store the plans electronically and host the plans on the Web. The cost is 10 cents to 15 cents per sq. ft. to devise an emergency preparedness plan, or $10,000 for a 100,000 sq. ft. building. At US Life Safety, emergency preparedness packages cost $2,500 to $15,000, excluding fees for licensing and storage.
One drawback of electronic plans is that “it just isn’t practical in a crisis situation to have to rely on a computer for data,” says Harrison Lobdell, director of the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center in College Station, Texas. Consultants emphasize that even during a crisis, printed plans are available to building officials and emergency workers.
“If terrorists infiltrate the data, they will know what the other side is planning based on the outlined scenarios,” says Pattison. Other consultants say that shouldn’t be a concern, as the data is encrypted and the plans are stored on several backup servers.
Whether plans are made electronic or paper, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The commercial real estate sector is the least prepared for emergencies compared with the chemical, energy, entertainment, health care and transportation industries, according to a 2006 survey commissioned by the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center.
The survey shows that the commercial real estate sector posted the lowest scores for emergency planning, training and drills among the six industries canvassed. Almost half of company officials (47%) responsible for emergency preparedness in commercial settings reported their emergency plans had been updated within the previous six months, 44% had conducted emergency training within that time frame and 31% had performed emergency drills.
Lobdell, director of the emergency center, says better preparedness in the chemical, energy and health care sectors stems partly from federal safety mandates — mandates that aren’t imposed on the commercial real estate business.
“People tend not to think about emergencies until they have an earthquake or a large fire near their structure,” says Mandic of Strategic. Mazda North American Operations, an Irvine, Calif.-based arm of Japanese automaker Mazda Motor Corp., hadn’t revised its emergency plans in about 20 years until it hired Strategic for that task. As part of the update, which was completed earlier this year, the firm digitally mapped four Mazda buildings in Irvine totaling about 250,000 sq. ft. The singular goal was to show the locations of evacuation routes.
“I want to make sure nobody gets trapped if they’re reading the old maps,” says Rumi Walsh, facilities and administration manager at Mazda North American Operations.