Most companies, schools, and religious facilities have developed plans for evacuation in the event of a fire or other type of emergency. But getting people out of a building is only part of the plan. You also need to give serious thought to where all those people are going to go, as well as what their next steps will be.
First, you need to make sure everyone is in a safe location and that their presence won’t interfere with the response. As first responders arrive at the scene, they shouldn’t have to fight their way through a crowd of evacuees. The best strategy is to designate a reunification site for each emergency exit. The site should be close enough for evacuees to reach it quickly, but far enough so they’re not blocking responders and are safe from additional hazards. It should be large enough to house the largest potential group of people who would use that exit. Don’t forget to consider the needs of people who have limited mobility.
You also need to have alternate reunification sites in case the normal site becomes unsafe. For example, if everyone is fleeing an active shooter, they should not be brought to a site which would be within the shooter’s range. If those alternate sites are at a distance, you may need to consider how occupants would be transported. Again, people with limited mobility may require additional planning.
Some facilities create what’s often called a “go” kit that’s placed near the emergency exits. Items in the kit may include diagrams of evacuation sites, signage to help evacuees find their way, flashlights and extra batteries, basic first aid kits, paper and pencils, as well as other material that may be needed.
As you develop your plan, be careful about depending too heavily on electronics for storing information or communicating. If the power fails during your incident, computer apps and cloud-based documents may be inaccessible.
Although you may prefer that the incident not be publicized until you have regained complete control of the scene, in an era of cell phones and social media, you probably won’t have that luxury. It’s likely that parents and other family members may panic and rush to the scene, particularly if your facility is a school or other organization occupied by young people.
If your site is likely to be visited by parents or family members who intend to pick people up, your plan should also address that process. You’re responsible for maintaining custody of children and others during the incident, and for verifying that they leave with the right people. One effective approach is to have parents and legal guardians arrive at designated locations that are away from where the evacuees are waiting. Once your personnel review their identification and verify that they are authorized to pick up evacuees, a runner heads to the reunification area to bring those evacuees to the pick-up site, at which point their parent or guardian can leave with them. Keep clear and accurate records of this process in case questions arise, such as if one parent arrives after the other has picked up the children.
If there might be a delay in reuniting evacuees with their family members, you may also need to consider whether you’ll need to arrange for temporary restroom facilities for both groups.
It’s important to maintain up-to-date contact information for parents and guardians, and to have an effective process for notifying them in emergency situations, whether that’s a phone call, a text message, or some other channel. Keep your notifications brief, with only the most important information. An example would be, “We have evacuated the school and students may be picked up at LOCATION starting at TIME. Be sure to bring your identification.”
Finally, while nobody likes to think about tragedies, your plan should include a protocol for informing family members about injuries or deaths. Ideally, those conversations should take place in a separate and quiet area.