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Preparing for Extreme Weather and Natural Disasters

Sept. 20, 2012
Don't let emergency planning get pre-empted by other priorities Assess, assign and be prepared to move quickly Consider emergency communications

Most industrial facilities are prepared for emergencies that originate inside -- accidents, fires, electrical incidents, hazardous-materials releases. Fewer are prepared for extreme weather and natural-disaster emergencies that threaten the entire facility. While it’s impossible to prevent these incidents, preparation can mean the difference between temporary disruption and sustained disaster for your people and your operations.

Don’t Put Off Planning for a Rainy Day

It’s human nature to let emergency planning get pre-empted by other priorities. But when a natural disaster is imminent, it’s too late to plan.

Are you confident in your ability to quickly secure your people and facilities if disaster strikes? If not, walking through risk scenarios with key people on your team will help determine your readiness. Stakeholders may include EH&S personnel, plant security, facilities management, and team leaders/supervisors, among others. Here are five key steps to help you work through potential threats and plans.

1. Assess specific risks.

Start by assessing your facility’s risk for various natural-disaster scenarios. The West Coast may mean earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides; the Midwest is at high risk for tornados; while the Eastern U.S. gets its share of hurricanes and severe winter storms.

Different threats require different responses. Once you’ve identified potential threats to your facility, walk through separate scenarios and plans for each. It’s not enough to plan for generalized severe weather or other natural disasters. For example, a hurricane threat may require you to evacuate while a tornado threat may require you to instruct your people to shelter in place.

2. Assign monitoring, alerting, and emergency response roles.

Once you have determined the threats you are most likely to face, consider early-detection mechanisms.

There are many ways to give your people as much time as possible to respond in an emergency. You may assign someone to monitor the National Weather Service online or be trained as a weather spotter to make sure you know when that storm watch becomes a storm warning. Other options include continuous threat-monitoring tools such as weather radios or weather alert smartphone apps.

However you monitor threats to the facility, it’s important that someone in your organization is responsible for knowing immediately when a potential threat becomes a real threat. Initial threat detection should be tied into the plant’s overall emergency plan. You’ll also need to establish who is responsible for decision-making in a severe weather or natural disaster emergency -- including overall decision-making and on-site back-up.

3. Work out the logistics.

An emergency in an industrial setting is the catalyst for a lot of things that need to happen very quickly -- equipment needs to be powered down safely, hazardous materials need to be secured, and gas, water, and power may need to be shut off. Existing inventory, vital records and other items of value need to be protected. Most important, people need to move to safety.

Can you do this within 13 minutes, the average lead-time you get in a tornado warning? Even with more slowly developing threats such as hurricanes, threats such as flash flooding can happen suddenly. If you have current evacuation plans, you may be able to adapt them for extreme weather and natural disaster emergencies. However, depending on what threats your site faces, you may also need to develop a shelter-in-place plan that includes designated safe areas. You may also need to set up an Area of Refuge -- a safe place where people with disabilities can shelter until first responders can help them. Make sure your plans accommodate visitors and temporary workers, too.

Your logistics discussions should include how you will document, update, practice and evaluate your emergency plans, and revise them as necessary. Depending on your current emergency practice schedule, it may make sense to incorporate severe weather or natural-disaster scenarios into existing drills. You may even want to coordinate with your jurisdiction’s emergency preparedness and response team.

4. Establish an emergency communications plan.

Having established what people should do in an emergency, you need a way to rapidly alert and instruct them. In a small facility, this may be as simple as a walking sweep of the plant floor. Larger, spread-out facilities need a more systematic approach. In some cases, this may mean training people to respond to varying tones and/or strobe light emergency “codes.” The effectiveness of these systems relies heavily on continuous training along with regular maintenance of the lights and sirens. Alternatively, public address systems provide a way for facility or emergency managers to provide specific voice instructions. In these cases, it’s important to ensure that someone is available to provide voice instructions in various languages spoken by facility personnel.

Internet protocol (IP) emergency communication systems takes this a step further, allowing simultaneous broadcast of different pre-programmed emergency alerts to different parts of the facility. For example, one alert may tell workers at the loading dock to immediately turn off equipment and move to their shelter-in-place locations, while another tells people working with hazardous materials to secure them first, and then seek shelter. These systems can be linked to monitoring systems and set up to trigger on-site alerts and instructions automatically.

Make Sure You Can Reach Everyone

Regardless of your communications approach, make sure you can reach everyone, including the sight- and/or hearing-impaired, and those wearing hearing or sight protection equipment. In addition, establish ways for people to communicate with emergency personnel—either from trouble spots or once they have reached safety -- and set up reliable communication channels to and from safe rooms and Areas of Refuge. Cellular networks tend to bog down when disaster strikes, so consider back-up communication options.

5.  Prepare for the aftermath.

After an extreme weather emergency, take special care when assessing the extent of the damage to structures and equipment. Also, be aware of the dangers related to storm clean-up. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a list of hazards that workers may encounter when working amidst potentially damaged structures and floodwaters in the aftermath of a hurricane. These include electrical hazards, carbon monoxide, musculoskeletal hazards, heat stress, motor vehicles, hazardous materials, fire, confined spaces and falls.

Even in less severe situations, your facility may be without continuous power after a weather-related emergency for an extended period of time. If you rely on generators to keep vital systems operational, plan fuel needs accordingly and prepare for the possibility that widespread storm damage will cause supply chain disruptions due to blocked roads and downed trees.

Finally, think about how you will notify evacuated workers about post-incident plans and work schedules.


Once you have prepared your people and site to deal with natural disasters, consider evaluating your major suppliers, their natural disaster risks, and their emergency plans. The preparations they make may insulate your operations as well. And, if you happen to be someone’s key supplier, your emergency plans can go a long way toward reassuring your large customers that their own supply chains are protected.

It may not be possible to avoid natural disasters, but with emergency planning, you can mitigate damage, minimize disaster-related downtime, and most important, protect your facilities and your people.

Timothy Means is director of product management for Metis Secure Solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]. Metis Secure delivers in-building and outdoor emergency communications systems. Security and emergency managers at commercial office buildings, industrial and research facilities, and universities can depend on Metis Secure systems for both outbound emergency notification and inbound “call for help” emergency communications.

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