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The Best Laid Plans

Boilerplate, or standardized formulaic language, gets its name from the metal plates on which news syndicates delivered stories to newspapers, which happened to resemble the plating used in making steam boilers. The image is appropriate, because boilerplate language is unyielding to the specifics of a situation.

Boilerplate emergency response plans are commonplace after 9-11, so organizations must resist the urge to rely on them. Preformatted plans do have their place, but only as a starting point for a tailored plan. The best plans are produced by those who carry them out. The main steps in creating a plan are an outline, a draft, a finished product, implementation, and review. Although these points apply generally to any company, to illustrate the process, let’s look at how these steps are carried out at the resort hotel where I work.

Outlining a plan. Like many written documents, the best emergency plans begin as outlines. Steps include identifying contributors to the plan, defining the plan’s intent, and understanding the site’s environment.

Contributors. The director of loss prevention, security, or emergency management typically spearheads the development of the emergency plan. For example, as director of loss prevention, I am responsible for the various plans at the resort hotel. (The hotel doesn’t have a single emergency plan per se, but rather separate plans for fires, hurricanes, and other incidents, which share common features.) Input also comes from the director of engineering, other senior managers, and various stakeholders.

Using resorts as an example, stakeholders would include each member of the hotel staff, owners, and the regional governing authorities. Because it is impractical to solicit the views of every staff person, my resort relies on department managers to represent staff.

In the process of identifying the stakeholders, the loss prevention department solicits feedback from department managers on what they see as hazards, what their role has been in such situations historically, and how they feel they can contribute to the plan. In the case of the fire plan, once it gets the opinions of the fire department representative and the hotel’s senior management team, the loss prevention department reaches a consensus of what needs to be addressed.

Mission statement. The initial phase of creating an emergency response plan is articulating a mission statement.

What is the plan intending to do? As an example, some facilities have separate plans for fire prevention and response. In other cases, fire plans are integrated documents that reference the identified hazards, chain of command, preventive maintenance guidelines, equipment inventories, and detection and suppression systems. My resort integrates all fire-related issues in one plan, but, as mentioned, uses separate documents for different types of crises. There is no one correct approach.

The drafters of the plan are expected to ensure that all possible requirements and issues are explored before setting down a statement and pursuing the plan based on that statement. They must take into consideration any local, state, or federal regulations.

Once objectives are clearly defined, the director of security, director of loss prevention, or whoever else may be in charge of developing the plan should draft the mission statement. This document summarizes the input of all concerned bodies and clearly states the ultimate intent of the program.

When finished, the statement should be reviewed by each of the parties that had initial input to ensure that their suggestions were correctly understood and that they approve the goals as articulated. If anyone objects, the document should be revised and recirculated until everyone is in agreement.

Specifics. In designing its emergency response plan, every company will have to lay out how it will achieve the broad goals in the mission statement through specific policies and procedures, taking into consideration any unique considerations for that site.

At my company, because it is a resort, a unique consideration is the large guest population. One intent of the fire plan was to make it as easy as possible for guests to evacuate safely. That’s a big concern given that the resort has more than 400 guest rooms and 32,000 square feet of function space. Evacuation at a resort is especially challenging because guests are visiting to relax, not to worry about emergencies, and unlike staff, guests cannot be trained in advance on the procedures.

The resort addresses these concerns in several ways. For example, the plan makes employees responsible for assisting guests in an evacuation by directing them to safe areas. It also calls for a system that employees can use to identify guests who have evacuated.

Another consideration that each company must address is the availability of assistance from the local authorities in an emergency response. For example, the resort where I work is located on a barrier island. Although there are law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical personnel on the island, a major incident would necessitate assistance from agencies based on the mainland. Those agencies might have trouble getting to the resort by bridge or boat, such as during inclement weather.

Thus, one goal that is included in our fire plan is for the resort to have the capability of itself responding to a fire. That entails the training and equipping of a fire brigade.

A related goal of the plan, as well as the other disaster plans, is to make the resort self-supporting in case it is cut off from the mainland. That requires the resort to have alternative sources of power and water, for example, as well as stores of critical supplies such as food and first-aid items.

Environment. Once goals have been set, it is time to collect detailed information about the environment and the risks that the facility must address. The findings will influence the specifics of the final product.

During this process, the person or persons conducting this survey should take extensive notes and photographs. A digital camera saves processing time and expense. Having this record allows for not just a point of reference but also a good understanding of the state of the environment at that time. If conditions change, this snapshot in time will still exist.

A review of the resort site revealed factors common to the luxury hospitality industry, including: on-site laundry and dry cleaning facilities, multiple kitchens, frequent special events (often including special effects, vehicles, and other potential hazards and complications), high accessibility by the public, and an irregular building footprint, which results in numerous potential egress points.

Each factor presents critical issues. On-site dry cleaning, for instance, raises hazmat issues due to some of the chemicals used in the process. In-house laundry areas are the site of many hotel fires, as are kitchens. The existence of in-house laundry and multiple kitchens at this resort increases the importance of fire-prevention training. Special events, such as holiday banquets and large corporate meetings, also create potential risks that might create the need for emergency response.

Benchmarking. Benchmarking is essential within the company, region, and industry. When revising an existing plan, the drafters should of course refer to previous versions. They should also compare them to plans at other company locations as well as plans for facilities of companies in the same industry or region.

Initial draft. With site data and perhaps benchmarked plans in hand, the person in charge should draft the basic plan. As with most research-based writing, it is advisable to draft an outline and fill in details as they emerge. Filling in the basic outline is largely a matter of applying lessons learned, common sense, and the input of stakeholders.

In this phase, it is essential that subject-matter experts contribute their expertise. As an example, if someone is writing a standard operating procedure for shelter-in-place (shelter-in-place, according to a Red Cross fact sheet, means “selecting a small, interior room, with no or few windows, and taking refuge there”), company personnel familiar with the HVAC system must be involved. They can provide not just the information on the building plans but also updates regarding any post-installation modifications that have occurred. They can also discuss unexpected effects of the system and other information only available through extensive first-hand contact.

This draft is not a fully developed and finalized plan; a brief explanation of the critical elements is probably sufficient. The goal at this stage is that each topic find its rightful place in the overall structure of the plan.

Once the outline is filled in, senior leadership must again approve it. The document might not be elegantly written at this point, but it should clearly convey the intent of the plan and how it will be executed.

When the team presents this draft to management, it should first review the plan’s developmental and approval histories before delving into the draft language. In this phase, the drafter is simply confirming that the initial goals have not changed and that the document reflects all of the agreed-upon objectives in a format suitable for the particular environment.

The document’s drafters should expect detailed questions from management. Thus, it is critical for them to thoroughly know the plan. Management might ask about concepts or techniques that have not been fully fleshed out in the plan. Some references that make perfect sense to security experts or emergency planners might elude people who aren’t immersed in the project.

In the case of my resort, the initial draft of the fire plan accomplished several functions. It identified departments with active roles, created a fire brigade, specifying qualifications of participants and explaining procedures for selection, training, and certification. It also explained prevention and response training for employees, listed required drills, described the fire-alarm system and other equipment, designated two evacuation meeting places, described duties assigned to certain departments, prescribed fire-safety inspections, and set forth a policy of coordination with outside agencies. Most entries had limited detail, with the emphasis placed on the overall intent of the program.

The resort restricts the types of special events that are allowed to be held on site and sets limits on what can be done. For example, it prohibits indoor fireworks and limits the conditions under which open flames or fog generators can be used. Aside from the obvious fire hazards, some of the smoke and fumes could activate the detection systems, requiring additional planning to avoid these situations.

The plan also addresses the maximum number of people that can be accommodated in the ballrooms and meeting spaces and provides that the resort can handle the evacuation of these populations in a reasonable period of time.

The plan avoids technical jargon. Where terms of art had to be used, clear definitions were provided.

One detail that had to be more fully explained, however, was the designation of two evacuation meeting places. Many facilities prefer a single location for convenience and accountability purposes. It became necessary to use two sites because of layout of the facility and its geography.

The resort is separated from the ocean by sand dunes. Between the facility and the sand dunes is a walkway that is only eight-feet wide. This was identified as a potential chokepoint. The goal was to prevent guests and staff from clogging that walkway while going to a single evacuation site.

Instead, evacuation sites were placed at each end of the hotel; anyone outside of the hotel on the ocean side of the building still has to use the eight-foot path, but they can evacuate to the side of the resort they are closest to. Anyone in the resort can also get to either evacuation site by passing through clearly marked exit doors.

Establishing two evacuation sites also required creating a reliable system of accounting for evacuees and communicating between these two locations. This would have to be spelled out in the finished plan, so it was mentioned in the initial draft.

Fine tuning. Once management approves the rough draft, the plan can be polished. Elaborating on the simple sentences or paragraphs in the rough draft might seem easy enough, but the drafter of the plan must remember to tailor it to its intended audience. A dry technical document written for engineers and facilities personnel is unlikely to be well suited to front-desk staff and housekeepers, for example.

All demographic factors related to patrons, visitors, and staff should be considered. Even if this analysis doesn’t affect the written plan, it may well influence how elements are implemented. For example, when explaining emergency signage, evacuation maps, and fire-safety guidelines to Spanish-speaking staff, a translator might be on hand to make sure that employees understand their significance.

At the Florida resort, we first filled in the details on the training for the general employee population, which aimed to help them prevent fires and spot suspicious activity by taking proper care of their work areas and to help them respond to a fire or other emergency by teaching them what they were responsible for. We were able to plug existing company training programs into the plan.

Duties and training. For each department, the document sets forth assigned duties and a tailored training program to be followed. For example, at least one person from room service/in-room dining and pastry—two departments besides loss prevention that are staffed around the clock—is responsible for getting a radio as he or she exits the building during an emergency evacuation, and that person must report to the nearest fire evacuation site.

Because any member of those staffs might be the person operating the radio, everyone must be trained in that function. At the evacuation site, that person assists in taking roll call of employees and guests, the document explains. In other cases, departments are called on to post an employee outside of a designated egress point to direct evacuees to a nearby meeting place.

Fire prevention and response plans had to be created for departments with special concerns, such as the laundry crew, which deals with hazardous chemicals. A fire brigade, staffed by loss prevention and engineering personnel, was established. Its team members are trained in how to investigate alarms without endangering themselves. The details of the program are spelled out in the plan.

Once the plan is drafted in final form, participants in the creation of the plan must again confirm that it meets its predetermined goals. Written copies of the plan should be given to senior management, with time allotted for their review and approval before the plan is considered final.

In the case of the resort, we reviewed the fire plan in detail with senior executives and the local fire department officials to confirm that the goals had been met and that the plan was sound. Because no additional complications emerged, and everyone approved the document, we began to roll out the plan.

Implementation. Enacting an emergency plan takes more than simply handing out copies and asking everyone to sign a “confirmation of receipt” document. For a plan to become a program, it must incorporate training and follow-up drills.

Training. Much like the drafting of the plan, training must be suited to the intended audience. For every group with a clearly defined role or responsibility, there must be a corresponding training program. Each group must be separately trained in its duties. Everyone who receives training should sign a “confirmation of training” document and receive their own copy of the materials used in the training.

Trainees should be encouraged to ask questions. Of course, this means that the trainer must be a subject-matter expert. It is not sufficient to assign training to a department manager who hasn’t mastered the subject matter. That manager will likely be confused about the program, and he or she may well convey confusion, uncertainty, and even incorrect information to the people he or she is attempting to train.

Prior to the most recent training phase at my resort, a written copy of the fire plan was distributed to all department managers, who had to sign and return a record of receipt affirming that they would properly store the binder and make it available to the staff at any time.

Focused training then began. Most staff had no specific assignment other than to evacuate themselves safely within a two- or three-minute window. The importance of evacuating within this time frame, as well as data on the speed of fire spread and the hazards of smoke and fume inhalation, was communicated to each group in monthly departmental meetings presided over by the director of loss prevention.

These discussions took the subject matter out of the conceptual realm and made it more real. More real still was the actual training in which the director of loss prevention explained the required tasks and led employees through role-playing exercises.

Most drills consisted of simulating an alarm and making sure everyone got out within two minutes and that someone picked up the department’s schedule to make sure everyone was accounted for. Follow-up drills are also conducted by individual departments without the participation of the director of loss prevention.

Because of its special duties, the fire brigade attended a half-day training class that introduced them to the basics of fire. It covered chemical reactions and essential components of this phenomena, and then moved into a description of alarm and suppression equipment and the various roles that members of the fire brigade might have to assume.

Drills. Once all conceptual information was delivered and participants had a chance to ask questions, the team underwent a series of drills designed to simulate potential situations. Each member had a chance to play each possible role in the response. Scenarios ranged from responses to garbage-can fires to a blaze adjacent to the dry-cleaning machine.

Careless or inattentive employees were instructed to “cease all radio traffic and lie down on the floor.” Their “deaths,” discussed in the post-scenario review, helped drive home the topic of safety.

Conducting drills right after training is a good idea. Drills must also be repeated regularly to keep procedures fresh in employees’ minds.

Full-scale drills are critical, but they shouldn’t be conducted until each piece of the overall response program is drilled separately. These drills should be performed by small groups at scheduled times. For example, drills can require that individual departments, or personnel stationed in certain areas, perform their assigned tasks, even if it is just evacuating themselves properly.

For full-scale drills, staff should have at least a week’s notice so that they are mentally prepared. Such notices also give staff enough time to come forward with questions or concerns.

Wardens, or monitors drawn from those familiar with the full program, should document the drill. They must be impartial, objective, and thorough. Any failure to identify and correct issues may result in catastrophic results in an actual emergency.

At the resort, each department receives an overview of the roles and expectations of the fire plan before specific drills occur. In any given month, as many as six different areas of the facility may go through limited evacuation drills to ensure that each person understands his or her responsibilities and responds with due care.

It goes like this: A senior member of the loss prevention team enters a predetermined area and either activates a strobe light or announces that a fire drill is underway. He or she then times the response. In each case, employees are expected to safely and efficiently evacuate the drill area, notify the loss prevention office, and get to the nearest evacuation meeting place. Fire brigade members are also timed, to ensure that they arrive at the scene and follow the appropriate safety protocol without undue delay. Guests are not involved in these drills.

Following each drill, participants are asked to critique the effectiveness of the various phases of the response to identify areas of improvement. One of the lessons learned was that in the normal course of the workday, employees inadvertently create hazards that impede their evacuation, such as leaving food carts in exit hallways. Staff have been retrained to safely put away potential obstacles.

Once the individual physical areas and departments are drilled, the entire facility is scheduled to undergo the same process. Although hotel managers have traditionally frowned upon full-scale drills for fear of disrupting guests, after 9-11 it has become evident that guests who are given notice appreciate these sorts of tests. Guests are invited to participate, and many do so. Some staff are exempt from drills so they can serve guests who have opted out.

Review. An emergency plan must be a living document if it is to remain effective. On completion of each drill, following any actual activation of the program, and also on at least an annual basis, the plan should be thoroughly reviewed.

If the review is done after an actual incident, it is important to ensure that everyone involved weighs in. The resort opens a discussion for employees to air their views. Often, it is a new employee, fresh from training, who notices a critical obstruction or offers the solution to a longstanding issue. The resort also distributes forms that allow respondents to express their opinions candidly, as well as anonymously if they prefer.

The plan review process allows the resort to incorporate changes in technology, regulatory requirements, and company objectives and initiatives. If any changes are made to the plan, they must once again be reviewed and approved by senior management.

Based on the changes made, some employees may have to be retrained to take on new or expanded functions. It is not sufficient to simply advise a person of his or her new role in the plan; staff must be exposed to the entire reconstituted plan to see how their role fits into the entire program.

Each aspect of the fire plan at the Florida resort is reviewed annually, as well as following any drill or actual alarm. During these reviews, the physical property is also reinspected to ensure that references and procedures have not become obsolete as a result of remodeling or expansion.

In one recent review, for example, it was noted that one of the designated evacuation places is the site of a forthcoming expansion of the resort. Not only does this require finding a new evacuation site, but it also will require us to modify the roles of four departments, change the evacuation route for half of the guest rooms, and change gas line connections and other critical equipment. Each of these factors will have to be reassessed and the plan significantly modified.

Just as boiler-room sales tactics may be good for quick results but detrimental in the long run, using boilerplate emergency plans without modification is shortsighted. An emergency plan is much less likely to go awry if it is developed, fleshed out, and reviewed systematically in the context of where it will be applied.

Michael Stroberger, CPP, CPO (Certified Protection Officer), CLSO (Certified Lodging Security Officer), CSS (Certified Security Supervisor), CPOI (Certified Protection Officer Instructor), CLSD (Certified Lodging Security Director), is the director of loss prevention for the Amelia Island, Florida, property of a luxury hospitality company. He has also worked for that company in Naples, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona. He has served as an independent security consultant and as a security professional in property management and retail. Stroberger sits on the Board of Directors for the International Foundation for Protection Officers, and currently holds the office of treasurer/secretary of that organization. He is a member of ASIS International.