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Disaster planning up close.

Imagine your worst nightmare as a property manager. You step off the elevator on the 11th floor of your high-rise office building. At your feet are six people in varying stages of distress--some with burns, some suffering from smoke inhalation, all in need of aid. As you progress down the corridor, you are stunned by the sight of 60 more victims, many near death, all burned and suffering.

My first emotion was one of thankfulness that the horror at my feet was the result of a city-wide disaster drill and not an actual emergency.

Planning for disaster is most often done in the mind, rather than in practice. Assuring that emergency services agencies and personnel in your city are familiar with your building and will respond rapidly to a disaster is often difficult, given the priorities placed on already stretched response personnel.

This article deals with how a concerned high-rise building staff in Anchorage, Alaska, organized, coordinated, and learned from an on-site simulation of a disaster.


Perhaps the most important step in bringing the city-wide drill to the building was developing a strong, positive relationship with the city's emergency personnel. The fire marshal and his staff were regularly invited to inspect the building, using their authority as a tool to assure compliance with such often-violated requirements as keeping stored items at least 18 inches from the ceiling and out of exit corridors.

Through this and other positive interaction, the property gained a reputation for being extremely cooperative with, rather than antagonistic to, city officials.

At the suggestion of the fire marshal, the building management contacted the coordinator of the city's Joint Medical Emergency Preparedness Group (JMEPG), who accepted the offer to use the Frontier Building as a training site.

Building management staff worked with JMEPG planners to develop a high-rise disaster scenario--an explosion on the 11th floor was followed by fire on floors 11 and 12. Adding to the severity of the disaster was a chemical spill in which several people were contaminated and had to be isolated.

Staging the disaster

Planning for the drill involved a variety of agencies including the city's police, fire, and mass transit departments, the four major hospitals, six secondary care facilities, the Red Cross, the Blood Bank of Alaska, the Amateur Radio Emergency Services ham radio group, and the Alaska Air National Guard.

The building's assistant manager acted as the building representative at all planning sessions, providing input as to the logistical possibilities of closing one driveway onto the site, designating a surface parking area for emergency vehicles and city buses, and providing empty suites for operations. Building management also provided temporary signage for the suites, along with directional signage to the various locations.

During the planning phase, newsletters were regularly distributed, explaining the scope of the city-wide disaster drill and the building evacuation. The newsletters were also used as a public relations/tenant retention tool by affirming to tenants the strong emphasis placed by building owners and management staff on each tenant's safety.

The assistant manager borrowed several tables, chairs, and two TVs and VCRs from tenants. The equipment was used to show disaster training films in the waiting areas. The local Red Cross chapter provided refreshments for victims, and the assistant manager guided them in the set-up and removal of their food, trash, and leftover items. Through the cooperation of all parties, no cost was incurred by the building in the planning and execution of the drill.

Disaster day

As part of the disaster drill, building management scheduled its annual building evacuations one-half hour before the city-wide disaster drill.

To create as little disruption as possible, the evacuation was scheduled at midmorning on a weekday, after the initial arrival of tenants and prior to the lunch hour rush. As a general rule, tenants are not informed in advance of building evacuations. However, because of the scope of the disaster drill, it was deemed necessary to give advance notice in this case.

As the evacuation began, building staff took their preassigned places either at the main life safety panel to coordinate with emergency personnel, outside the building to direct the safe assembly of tenants away from the building, or at preassigned stations as facilitators for the evacuation of disabled employees and visitors. Tenant floor monitors (TFMs) performed their tasks of assuring that their respective floors were fully evacuated, then reporting to a management team member coordinating assembly.

At the invitation of the building manager, the city's fire marshal and his staff attended the evacuation. Their agreed-upon task was to roam throughout the building, informing tenants who had not evacuated that they must participate in every drill, with no exceptions.

Disaster strikes

From the time the pull station alarm was activated by a member of the management staff until all tenants evacuated the building and returned to their offices, a total of 45 minutes elapsed. No problems were encountered during the evacuation.

As tenants returned to the building, emergency vehicles began arriving at the building in response to the report by the JMEPG on-site coordinator on the city's emergency radio network of an explosion on the 11th floor of the Frontier Building, accompanied by fire and a possible chemical spill.

Over 60 volunteer victims participated in the disaster drill, including many of the building's tenant floor monitors. In planning for the disaster drill, the building's assistant manager, who acts as coordinator of the tenant floor monitor program, briefed the monitors on the scope of the drill.

The monitors were offered the opportunity to participate as volunteer "victims," be moulaged (made up to simulate injuries), undergo triage, and be transported to one of the medical facilities in the city. Emphasis was placed on the value of learning exactly what happens to the victims of a disaster, so TFMs could better understand the importance of their roles.

Through the efforts of the JMEPG, other victims were recruited from the school district's career center emergency medical technician (EMT) training program. A local boy scout troop that emphasizes emergency preparedness also took part, as did a number of active EMTs in the community.

Reacting to disaster

Rapid deployment of the emergency units took place, with several fire, police, and emergency medical units responding. While one fire unit set up a decontamination station in the parking lot, other personnel entered the building to begin a search for victims.

The scene that the staff found on the 11th floor was bedlam--yet, the response by the fire and emergency medical personnel was quick, calm, and assured.

The payoff

How did the Frontier Building benefit from the drill? First, the building management and the maintenance staff gained a more realistic idea of the potential severity and confusion caused by a genuine disaster. Their learning experience caused a revision of planning, for dealing both with emergency personnel and with the media who are generally attracted to such a situation.

Second, tenant floor monitors have a greater appreciation of the importance of their responsibilities in case of emergency. Third, building tenants had another opportunity to hone their reaction skills for the next time they hear an alarm in the building.

Fourth, city emergency services personnel acquired a greater familiarity with the Frontier Building and how to enter, move around, perform within, and evacuate from it. Fifth, through a building management-organized effort at "getting the word out" to the media, television and radio coverage of the drill once again emphasized the fact that the Frontier Building really cares about its tenants, enhancing the leasing and tenant retention programs already in place.

Was the drill a worthwhile experience? Undoubtedly. Were there any lessons learned? Many. Will we volunteer the facility again? Absolutely. The value of such a disaster drill cannot be overemphasized.

The idea of a disaster actually happening in a building is cause for any property manager to lose sleep at night. Staging a disaster drill in your building and knowing that tenants, floor monitors, staff members, and emergency services personnel have had first-hand experience in dealing with the situation gives everyone involved a much greater sense of preparedness.

In the final analysis, practicing for disaster may not be pleasant to contemplate or simple to execute, but its value is beyond measure.

Jo Derry-Wood, CPM |R~, is vice president of property management in Alaska for TRF Management Corporation, a Washington-based commercial property management firm. She is the manager of the Frontier Building and supervises the management of an additional 750,000 square feet of commercial space in Alaska. She has also managed regional and community shopping centers and acted as a management consultant on shopping centers. Ms. Derry-Wood is a former president of IREM Alaska Chapter No. 97.
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Author:Derry-Wood, Jo
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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