FM Articles

Handling “Velocity” Emergencies


The recent shootings in New Zealand serve as one more wake-up call reminding facility managers (FMs) they must be prepared for almost any emergency – or catastrophe – at just about any time in any of the facilities they manage. Shooting incidents such as this, whether they happen in schools, office buildings, or churches, synagogues, and mosques are becoming all too common.

Such incidents are also starting to shake up the FM world.  While most FMs have emergency planning programs in place to deal with a variety of building emergencies – from fires and smoke to indoor floods and power outages – shootings are altogether different and as we shall discuss, far more challenging to deal with.

Twenty plus years ago or more such situations were just not on the radar of many FMs.  For instance, as late as the 1990’s the Empire State Building in New York City had several open entrances to the building on the main cross street, in addition to open entrances in the alley directly behind the tower.

Security guards were posted only at the main entrance and in many cases, their primary job function was to help visitors locate their destination within the building.  As far as the other entries, not only were there no guards, most did not have security cameras.  Everyone and anyone could come and go as they pleased.

Of course, all that has changed today. Now there is only one main entrance to the Empire State Building. All the others are either locked, secured, or guarded and have security cameras installed.

FMs around the world need to have emergency planning programs in place to address such emergencies. Further, today there is even a word sometimes used to describe such emergency and risk planning, and that is “velocity.”

This word is typically used to describe things that happen fast and unfold swiftly. It is perfect for our needs here because, for instance, when an armed assailant walks into a facility with the goal of causing harm, usually his or her actions are sudden and are often followed rapidly by confusion and chaos.

Unlike planning what do to when there is a fire at a facility, velocity planning can be very complicated because there are few, if any, guidelines and many variables and issues that must be considered. But there are steps FMs can take to put an effective velocity emergency planning program in place. For instance:

Who will be in Charge?
Those of us old enough to remember the attempted assignation of President Ronald Reagan will recall that moments after the incident, there was considerable confusion as to who was in charge. No one knew where the vice president was, so then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig called a press conference saying he was “in control here in the White House.”  Actually, in this situation, the Speaker of the House would be in charge. The point being, FMs must have an orderly process in place to determine who is in charge of responding to a velocity-type emergency and, if that person is not available, who is next in line.

Leaving the Building
Panic is a normal reaction in the case of an armed assailant on the premises.  Should FMs use public address systems to instruct their tenants to leave as quickly as possible—by any means possible—or to stay locked in their offices?  There is no right answer for every situation, and even when a decision is made, it can have unforeseen repercussions.  In one velocity-type incident, FMs instructed tenants to leave as quickly as possible using the building stairs.  When leaving, one man dropped his smartphone on the stairs. In an attempt to find it, he climbed back of the stairs and caused several people to trip and fall over him.  This resulted in several injuries and delayed exiting for scores of people further up the stairs.  Further, it made a panic situation even worse.

Issues Directly After the Incident
The building is now a crime scene. Police and investigators may close the building for several hours or days.  In such a situation, what are the obligations of the FM?  If the building is closed for more than a couple of days, FMs are often tasked with finding other locations for their tenants to use.  Depending on the city and the management company, this can be a challenging task to accomplish.

Contingency Plans
Depending on the crisis, some building users may not want to return to the facility.  Will FMs obligate them to their leases?  This can be a very thorny issue to address.  Further, counseling services may be required of some building users.  If the local community does not provide this, should the FM provide such a program for tenants in their building?

Cleaning and Maintenance
Unfortunately, because there have been so many incidents where an assailant has begun shooting people in a facility, we do have plans in place to clean up after such events. Crime scene cleaning specialists should be called in for a variety of reasons.  They will have the tools, equipment, know-how, and people to handle what needs to be done; plus, they will be aware of all related regulatory, safety, and compliance issues.  The facility’s cleaning crew should not tackle the cleaning after such an event.

Many other issues must be addressed to be prepared to handle velocity emergencies.  FMs are advised not to go down this path alone. Seek help.  One option is to turn to local fire departments.  Over the years, fire departments have become more focused on preventing fires and emergencies than just dealing with them once they occur.  Further, consultants are available that can help guide FMs through the process. However it is accomplished, velocity planning is something all FMs must know how to address head-on.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning, building, and foodservice industries.