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Preparing an Evacuation Plan for Your Office

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It's easy to dismiss the need for an office evacuation plan until a disaster actually strikes, but then it can be too late. And it isn't just large-scale disasters like floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks that require preparedness. When was the last time your office staff practiced a basic fire drill, or even discussed what to do should a fire break out in your building?

Fortunately, it takes relatively little time and money to draw up a basic, potentially life-saving evacuation plan. Start by expecting the worst, and take the following steps to fully prepare your office for an emergency:

  • Recognize potential disasters and decide which to prepare for
  • Prepare basic evacuation plans
  • Assign responsibilities
  • Gather needed resources
  • Train staff with periodic drills

Recognize Potential Disasters
Successfully carrying out an emergency evacuation requires teamwork and flexibility, in addition to a well-constructed plan. This goal is more easily reached when all members of the team provide input in the development of a plan that works. Survey employees to find out about their priorities in emergency situations and what possible disasters especially concern them.

You can also find out the recommended emergency preparations for your particular geographic area by visiting the Disaster Information section of the FEMA Web site.

Prepare Basic Evacuation Plans
Now that you're aware of potential disasters that may strike your office, you can begin developing evacuation plans accordingly. If you work in a small building with only a few employees, emergency evacuation might be as easy as heading out the back door. But if you're in a larger office building, you should turn to your building management for evacuation directions. Your building manager will be able to tell you what routes to take in case of a fire, and which to take in case of an earthquake, tornado, or other threat.

Once you've thought your way through the plan, you should be able to make the following preparations:

Before a disaster occurs:

  • Designate an evacuation route
  • Identify a location to meet after the evacuation
  • Post the evacuation plan (including floor plan with locations of fire extinguishers)
  • Periodically inspect fire-suppression and extinguishing equipment
  • Hold periodic evacuation drills
  • Assemble an off-site necessities kit

Assign Responsibilities
Before you can begin evacuating, however, you need to ensure that everyone knows what to do, and that means assigning responsibilities. Assigning responsibilities for key roles during a disaster evacuation will ensure that your evacuation plan runs smoothly when stress levels are high. Key responsibilities common to most disasters will include:

  • Evacuation coordinator — This person handles the checklist to ensure that all important steps are being taken.
  • Head checker — Ensures that all office members are accounted for and no one is left behind. If possible, a head count should be done before employees exit the building, and once again after everyone has convened at the designated off-site meeting point.
  • Emergency first aid practitioner — Be certain to have several office members on staff who are skilled in first aid, as they will need to tend to any wounded until a licensed medic can arrive. If you don't currently have anyone on staff with these skills, send some volunteers to a training program.
  • Alert manager — This office member calls 911 to alert the police and fire department that a disaster has occurred, closes office fire doors, and turns off the gas lines if an earthquake has struck.

Gather Needed Resources
If you're planning for a fire, you'll need fire extinguishers, flashlights, and fire blankets. Earthquakes require earthquake kits that include fresh food and water. And all disasters call out the need for a well-stocked first aid kit. Whatever disasters you're preparing for, make sure your supplies are on hand and up-to-date by checking them at least once every six months. Check out this detailed Disaster Kit Supply Checklist to ensure you have everything you need.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Training staff with periodic drills is often the key to a successful evacuation. Through repetition, employees are better prepared to find their way out of a smoke-filled room, and those with responsibilities will be more likely to remember all that they have to do. Practice your office's evacuation plan for all the potential disasters you've identified at least once every few months. Doing so will help you evaluate your efforts for areas that need improvement. The following checklist can help you get started; feel free to add or delete questions based on the potential disasters you've identified:

Office Evacuation Evaluation Form
Date: __________
Time: __________
Were employees evacuated promptly, safely, and without undue panic?   
Was the preplanned evacuation route used?
Did the staff meet at the designated off-site location?
Was the evacuation route adequate?
Was the plan effective?
Was the fire department alerted (in simulation)?
Were the office doors closed?

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