Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Emergency Notification

There is an interesting blog posting over at that addresses the issue of emergency notification processes. Walt Boyes asks the provocative question:
“So when your plant blows up because you and your management have not figured out that it is cheaper and more profitable to operate safely and securely, how do you notify people without getting more people hurt or killed, and without creating panic in the streets?”
While the loaded preamble of the question is a little over the top, the actual question is one that should be asked by any facility housing hazardous processes or hazardous chemicals. As reader’s of Walt’s blog are well aware, Walt seldom asks such valuable questions without providing some information that will be useful in developing useful answers. In this case that information comes in the form of a white paper from Federal Signal Corporation. While this white paper is in part the written version of an infomercial, Federal Signal sells an ‘integrated communication platform’ that provides ‘interoperational communications capability’, there is much good information in the document and it is well worth reading. The white paper makes a number of important points about emergency notification systems that should be considered by all personnel involved in the emergency response planning process. They do make one important point early on (pg 6) that many of us concerned with facility security issues tend to overlook:
“Though a potential terrorist attack is currently on top of peoples’ minds, it is worth noting that a chemical processing plant, for instance, is in fact far more likely to experience some other type of emergency incident. The likelihood of a fire, explosion, hazardous spill, toxic leak, as well as the potential for extreme environmental and weather conditions (tornadoes, floods, etc.) remain critical considerations in establishing objectives for a comprehensive approach to mass notification.”
Automated Systems Any effective emergency notification system will provide notification to on-site personnel, emergency response personnel, and potentially affected neighbors of the facility. Federal Signal has a vested interest in recommending an automated system for this notification, but they do have a good point in that during a massive emergency situation there are many things going on at the same time and it is easy to loose sight of the details of a notification plan. At the start of any emergency the management team is trying to define the extent of the problem, muster appropriate on-site response, and coordinate with any number of off-site agencies. An automated system keyed to pre-determined incident parameters could make routine notifications to potentially affected off-site neighbors, freeing up management for critical incident response needs. Of course users of an automated response system are going to have to take a good hard look at liability issues. Relying on an inadequately programmed system to make notifications could leave critical notifications unmade without management’s knowledge. Or making notifications on false positive incident indicators could result in costly unforeseen off-site consequences. Proper Planning A key element referenced throughout the document is importance of planning before the incident takes place. It is the old adage of “Prior planning prevents poor performance”. Funny, I seem to remember another ‘P’ in there… What ever emergency response notification system is used, it is important to sit down and think it through carefully during the design and implementation process. And don’t forget that the ‘prior planning’ includes periodically conducting live tests of the system with a variety of input scenarios to insure that the system works as planned. Finally, don’t forget the training as part of the prior planning process. As an old military trainer I am a firm believer that sweat in training reduces blood in combat. Most facilities will remember to train their employees about proper response, but will forget developing an easy training program for site transients like vendors and truck drivers. This can be a simple handout given to every site visitor outlining the responses expected of them in the event of an emergency on the site. Finally, don’t forget the training of off-site personnel. First responders need to be familiar with the hazardous chemicals at the facility that could have off-site consequences. That familiarity should include identification of the chemical in the environment, personal protective techniques and appropriate first-aid responses. Potentially affected neighbors need similar training as well as their responsibilities when they receive the emergency notifications sent by the facility. Emergency response can be done on the fly, without advance preparation. It won’t be done right; it won’t be done effectively, but it can be done. It can, however, be done much better with a little fore thought and planning.

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