How to Deal with the Unexpected

How to Plan in Place to Deal with Facility EmergenicesWith freak weather occurrences, from hurricanes and tornadoes with associated flooding, to wild fires, blistering heat and prolonged subzero temperatures headlining the news throughout the country, it seems that risk has become the new normal. If that is so, what preparations and precautions are necessary to protect commercial office tenants?

Building codes and energy requirements have become more stringent in the past couple of decades, but weather conditions have also become more challenging. Is there anything Crow Wing building managers can do to prevent damage and assure that business operations will continue, despite what seems like more frequent storms?

The fact is weather conditions in all parts of the world seem to be regularly more extreme than in recent years. Those extremes pose more challenges not only for public utilities, but for building managers and city officials as well. No matter how well buildings are constructed to withstand winds, pounding rains, ice, snow and cold, or extreme heat, it's the day-to-day operational challenges that must be met in order to keep workers comfortable and the wheels of commerce turning.

Advance Planning is Key

Facilities managers must assess the specific risk factors for their own locations. In most of the Midwest, and in the Twin Cities specifically, it's winter cold that challenges building managers. Even though freak weather conditions wreak havoc in unlikely locations, predictable natural disasters are more regional: tornadoes throughout the plains, flooding in coastal areas and along major rivers, earthquakes and wildfires predominantly in the West. Disaster planning, then, should be location-specific. However, an action plan must also address unknown hazards.

Building managers should plan for worst-case scenarios, and develop a list of critical systems in their buildings. Deb Kolar, general manager of operations at the IDS Center in Minneapolis, is a veteran of hard winters. But last season's Polar Vortex was a challenge even for this pro.

She didn't hesitate to act when faced with a forecast of 24-hour low temperatures that hit a "feel like" reading of 50 degrees below zero. The decision was immediate: the building's heating system would stay on for the duration of the extreme cold snap. The goal was to maintain interior temperatures at 67 degrees, both to keep tenants happy and to prevent building pipes from freezing. She notes the additional cost was "well worth it."

Focus on Preparedness

Taking a key from Kolar's playbook, every business should develop a checklist to allow an action plan to be implemented on short notice. That's a key ingredient when there is early warning, but a plan should also be in effect to deal with unexpected emergencies. Recommendations include:

  • Review Insurance Coverage: Although periodic insurance review should be standard operating procedure, a routine seasonal review (or pre-storm check) is a must. Confirm contact information and procedures in the event a claim must be made, and assure that everyone with authority to make emergency contact has up-to-date information.
  • Review Critical Procedures: Building managers should keep tenants, leasing agents and maintenance staff in the loop. Individual business firms should also keep every employee well-informed.
  • Have a Tactical Plan: Building managers must have a complete tenant list, either on paper or accessible from off-site (cloud storage), with emergency contact numbers. Know what critical services each tenant requires. Individual firms should also have such a list of key personnel and department heads, and a notification plan for all employees.
  • Assess Priorities: Know what building or business services can be shut down, or "sacrificed" in case of emergency, and what systems must be maintained at all costs.
  • Become Familiar with Warning Systems: In case of predicted storms or emergency situations in your vicinity, know what alert systems are in place, and the contact hierarchy. Also become familiar with all responders who will be available following an emergency situation, from law enforcement and disaster response teams, to plumbers, electricians, window repairmen, general contractors; perhaps even caterers and temporary employment services.

The Emergency Plan Checklist

Planning and preparation are vital. But there are some additional precautions that are equally important.

Routine building inspections can identify vulnerabilities that might become critical weaknesses during severe weather. High winds can make flying projectiles out of seemingly "innocent" signs or trash containers. Heavy snow or ice buildup is devastating to specific structural elements. Awnings, signs and outdoor furniture that can be damaged or destroyed should be stored if at all possible.

Perform periodic checks of backup generators and emergency lighting and communication equipment, and institute an emergency communication plan—between managers, tenants and vendors, varioius department and individual employees, as well as with city staff, emergency personnel, and general operations staff. That is an essential element of preparedness, according to Kolar, before, during and after a weather emergency.

Other building managers attest to the value of developing personal relationships with key utility contacts and repair services, as well as the value, in case of necessary repair work, of having readily accessible building plans. In case of damage, timely repair and restoration is the number one priority.

Managing a major business center is no easy task, even when all the wheels are turning smoothly. But in the event of a major weather threat, or in case another type of emergency disrupts normal operations, a wise building manager will already know how to react quickly.

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