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Here's the Drill

​THE RIOCAN YONGE EGLINTON Centre (YEC), which is located in midtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is a four-level shopping mall with more than 75 stores, movie theaters, and eateries, as well as two office towers, and large above- and below-ground public parking lots. Among its tenants are critical infrastructure companies, including energy, communications, and finance operations. RioCan Management, Inc., Canada’s largest real estate investment trust, which owns it, is also headquartered there.

In my role as manager of security and emergency management with RioCan, I was charged with taking a look at its emergency planning in early 2012. I found that while a comprehensive emergency and disaster management plan existed, YEC had not conducted comprehensive training for tenants, contractors, and other stakeholders nor had full-scale drills been conducted that included area first responders. I discussed the lack of training for stakeholders and the large population of private infrastructure-related businesses in the complex with YEC’s general manager and was given approval to develop and initiate a comprehensive training program. Afterwards, a full-scale drill was carried out. This drill tested both the overall YEC emergency management plan and the interoffice evacuation plan that each tenant creates. The 2012 drill provided lessons that led to refinements in the plans. This year, another drill was held to test the revised plans and pinpoint any lingering issues. Ahead are some lessons about training and drills that have been gleaned from our experiences.


A first lesson is that one should train to best practices, not to the lowest level required. For example, YEC trained all stakeholders on Ontario’s Incident Management System (IMS), which provides standardized organizational structures, functions, processes, and terminology that are consistent with internationally recommended practices. The IMS spells out coordinated responses to all types of incidents and was developed with input from more than 30 Canadian province emergency-response organizations. The government agency Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) does not require IMS training for stakeholders, but it does see it as a best practice.

For the tenants, the IMS training spells out what they need to know in detail—for example, that the YEC incident commander has been issued and will wear a vest with reflector stripes and a safety helmet and will use a fox whistle to gain the attention of the evacuees. It also gives them a broader perspective on what will be occurring around them, including the possible actions and interventions of various first responders.

The fact that YEC adheres to IMS and trains everyone on it has resulted in considerable positive feedback from first responders such as police, fire, and rescue crews, which previously arrived onsite without knowing who was in charge or having up-to-date information.

It is also important to make sure that the basic points from training have been learned. At the conclusion of the IMS training, YEC held a tabletop exercise to ensure that everyone understood their IMS roles. Staff, tenants, contractors, and the Toronto Fire Service participated. Toronto Fire Service also invited fire inspectors from different divisions to view the exercise in the hope that they would encourage high rises in their areas to consider implementing an IMS structure.

The role-playing revealed various issues that had to be addressed. One was that some stakeholder groups continued to silo information instead of sharing it, even in a crisis situation. Also, there was a tendency for some participants to offer help in areas where they weren’t qualified, and those in charge had to know to politely reject that help.

Workshops. YEC’s broader training includes regularly scheduled interactive workshops and lectures for the tenants’ designated fire wardens and their backups. At first, attendance at these events was sparse. That changed when we added catered food and advertised the sessions as “lunch and learn.” Once the food was included, the number of attendees increased to about 250, including both tenant participants and those from government agencies and the first-responder community.

As part of this training, we included take-away reading materials from the EMO and the National Fire Protection Association. We also offered one-on-one training for tenant fire wardens and further training on their specific floor in response to requests from the wardens. These visits have helped YEC identify problems that might have led to real danger during an emergency. For instance, one fire warden phoned to say that his company’s floor in one of the office towers was a “deathtrap” because the emergency exit was locked. When we investigated, we found that he believed that the door to the housekeeping closet was the emergency exit.

Records of all training given to various stakeholders and any problems identified during requested site visits (and their remedial actions) need to be kept to mitigate legal liability.

Mutual aid. In Canada, the Occupiers Liability and Occupational Health and Safety acts set a property owner’s duty to ensure the safety of staff, tenants, and visitors. The acts established the right of property owners to require occupants to clear the property during emergencies that could harm them and to allow first responders unobstructed access.

The area around YEC is surrounded by above- and below-ground public parking lots, community parks, apartment buildings, public institutions, and other retail malls that can serve as excellent refuges and staging areas when the complex needs to be evacuated. YEC tenants are required to identify designated meeting places, and backup meeting places away from the complex where they take attendance during evacuations.

RioCan has established mutual-aid agreements with two residential complexes nearby, as well as with the local public library. The agreements allow YEC to set up employee gathering points at these properties. In addition, one of YEC’s critical-infrastructure tenants made a mutual-aid agreement with a local nongovernmental organization to use its site during drill evacuations and genuine emergencies. YEC fire wardens are strongly encouraged to relay to their companies’ employees that loved ones should be aware of the staging area and the backup site during a genuine emergency. This is to keep worried family and friends from flocking to the company’s premises, which may have been evacuated and may not be safe to enter.

After-Action Report

All participants were invited to evaluate what went well and not so well at what is called the “hotwash” held after the drill. All the feedback from participants was analyzed by a third-party evaluator who prepared an after-action report. Some of this feedback from both the 2012 and 2013 drills is detailed below.

Start time. Some tenants had heard rumors of a start time for the annual evacuation drill and were upset when that time came and went. However, we advised the tenants in the months leading up to the drill that it would be held on a specific day sometime in the early afternoon. We never tell participants an exact time because in the past, during the five to 10 minutes prior, many tenants would come down on the elevator instead of the stairs. If a tenant genuinely needed to know the exact start time because of an important business meeting, then we provided it but asked that they not pass it around.

In the 2012 drill, some evacuees were unable to distinguish between the alert tone that sounded first and the evacuation tone. We addressed that issue in the 2013 drill by providing audio files of the tones to tenants, but there were still evacuees who did not leave in an orderly fashion, including those who paused to chat or send out text messages in crowded stairwells. This problem can now be addressed in the next drill.

Personal equipment. Tenants pointed out during the 2012 hotwash that some YEC staff and fire wardens did not wear their personal protective equipment properly. After stressing that personal equipment must be entirely and correctly worn during ongoing training sessions this year, we had no reports of YEC staff not complying in 2013, but noted that some fire wardens still did not wear their helmets. This will be emphasized again during the annual analysis presentation and in ongoing training.

Those responsible for taking headcounts as evacuees headed down the stairwells stressed that it was difficult to do so accurately while having to mark on a clip board. For this year’s drill, clickers were purchased and distributed to make the process easier.

Parking lots. At YEC, there are several shared parking lots below the residential buildings that are not managed by the property management company but are tied into the same fire alarm system. During both drills, we engaged the parking lot staff, who played a key role in communicating to the residential customers. On the day of the drill, they posted signage letting patrons know that the parking lot was closed.

The late shift. Employees working evening and late-night shifts were accidentally overlooked in 2012. That oversight has been remedied; they have now been trained, and they took part in this year’s drill.

Operations. In 2012, the central alarm and control facilities (CACF) room did not possess some of the reference material that those on duty needed during the response effort. As a result, a kit was developed that includes all response plans—including those for incidents involving fire, power-outage, bomb-threat, crisis-communication, and business-continuity issues. The kit also includes the IMS team vest and a bullhorn. These kits were placed both in the CACF room and at the off-site incident staging command post.

Another problem was that background noise made by staff members continuously going in and out of the CACF room made the information being announced over the complex’s loudspeakers difficult for evacuees to hear clearly. This problem was exacerbated by the individual making the announcements not speaking clearly. To fix this problem, YEC security was posted at the door to limit the number of people entering and leaving the room, and voice training was provided for the announcers.

Other recommendations that came out of the after-action report were that YEC implement a crisis communication plan to deal with the media; that future emergency exercises be made more challenging, with escalating scenarios; and that it implement a way to signal participants if the role-play becomes a genuine emergency, as has happened in the past.

Shortly after this year’s exercise, YEC was highly praised by the Toronto Fire Service, which lauded the professionalism and commitment toward ensuring the safety of staff, tenants, and responding emergency personnel. The fire service has begun to use YEC as a model example of how complex buildings should be managed during an emergency situation.

Keith P. Melo is manager, security and emergency management, at RioCan Management, Inc. He is also a part-time program coordinator and professor in the School of Emergency Management at George Brown College, Toronto; a provincial instructor with Emergency Management Ontario; and a certified Professional in Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCIP).