How commercial building operators can empower civilians as the “true first responders”

People escape to fire exit door
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Clearing the way for those first on the scene

By Doug Araki

When the media talk of the “first responder,” images of brave fire fighters racing into burning buildings, or police of officers marching onto an accident scene, most often come to mind. These brave men and women with their countless hours of training, backed up with proven and advanced technology, are put in to harm’s way routinely to protect and help people during times of crisis. With their training and experience, they are able to quickly assess the situation, make decisions with the resources provided to them, and, in most cases, deal with an incident resulting in a favourable outcome.

Rarely, however, are these first responders on the scene of an incident when it first presents itself. In fact, most of the time first responders are three to five minutes away in the best of circumstances, and in the worst case scenario, maybe as long as three to five days.

Therefore, the “true first responders” (TFRs) are the civilians who are in close proximity to the event when it occurs and in a position to assist. In a building or facility, these are the building engineers, property managers, operators, security officers, janitors, tenant floor wardens, and ordinary occupants that wish to assist.

Building emergency response plans

The policies and procedures that the TFRs initiate prior to the arrival of the authorities can dramatically influence the outcome of the event either positively or negatively. The odds of having a positive outcome are directly proportional to the quality of the building emergency response plans, training programs, and tools provided to the TFRs.

It is important commercial building operators realize that without the support of these TFRs, the life safety of tenants and occupants could be at risk. They must be given procedures, training, and support to be able to manage an emergency event until such time as the community first responders arrive and are in a position to assume the responsibility for the management of the event. Again, in small events, this internal response duration may only be for a few minutes, whereas in a large event or regional disaster this may be up to several days.

The foundation of a building emergency response program must consist of an approved building fire safety plan (regulated by the fire code) and a comprehensive multi-hazard emergency response plan with detailed descriptions of the roles/responsibilities and how-to instruction for the TFRs involved in an emergency event. Commercial building operators also need to take into consideration plan continuity, scalability, and nomenclature when developing their building emergency response plans.

Processes, protocols and procedures

This fact was recognized by jurisdictions across North America, which has adopted the Incident Command System (ICS) as a cornerstone to their emergency management policies. This integrated system establishes a uniform set of processes, protocols and procedures that all emergency responders, at every level can use to conduct emergency response actions. They will have the same preparation, goals, expectations, and – more importantly – they will be speaking the same language. At the building or facility and corporate level, having everyone executing from the same play book is essential to a successful outcome.

Even though fire emergencies still pose the greatest risk and threat to building occupants, it is necessary to plan and prepare for a number of other life-threatening events such as earthquake, tornado, hurricane, flood, bomb threat, suspicious package, hazardous materials, power failure, medical and active shooter incidents.

Training, exercising and testing

Once the emergency response plans are developed, it is absolutely imperative these plans are implemented and maintained on an on-going basis. Consider your emergency plans as live documents that may need updating due to changes at your building or periodic changes in your TFRs. The training, exercising and testing of the plans and the TFRs on a continual basis is imperative or it will fail.

Training can be relatively generic for general occupants, but needs to be role and site-specific at the building or facility level. To manage changes and implementation, consider the use of technology that will allow you to leverage your time and costs such as online eLearning or the use of mobile technology to provide TFRs the knowledge and confidence necessary to lead your building occupants to safety.

By bringing awareness to the role of TFRs and providing them with the knowledge, tools, and disaster response, the end result will be a reduction in life loss, injury, property damage, reputation damage, liability, downtime, and confusion in dealing with an emergency.

Doug Araki is President at WPS Disaster Management Solutions.