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The importance of emergency action plans

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Understanding the impact of Emergency Action Plans in building safety with expert Jack J. Murphy

Emergency situations demand robust, clear, and actionable plans to ensure the safety and well-being of building occupants.

Are our facilities ready to tackle such crises? To shed light on this critical issue, Jack J. Murphy from John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The Fire Science Institute, an industry leader in fire safety and emergency planning, shares his valuable insights to share about Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) and their pivotal role in managing emergencies.

Emergency Action Plans (EAPs)

Murphy describes EAPs as vital tools in preparing for various all-hazard threats, including natural disasters and man-made risk: “Local fire brigades should identify specific all-hazard emergencies to better understand their community impact.”

Highlighting the evolving nature of threats, he notes that some buildings, particularly high-rises, may need additional security measures or “hardening” to address these risks, pointing out the necessity for effective use of building transportation modes, such as elevators and stairs, for evacuation, especially in tall buildings not initially designed for total evacuation.

The scope of EAPs, according to Murphy, extends beyond high-rise buildings: “Today, Fire safety and EAP plans are used in hotels, sports arenas, malls, residential buildings, hospitals, and schools.”

Expressing concern about the frequent oversight of EAPs in businesses, he says: “They talk about it, but they don’t totally enforce it.”

He advocates for the presence of a qualified individual, like a fire and life safety director (1), who can initiate response actions before the arrival of the fire brigade, especially in large facilities.

He highlights a critical disparity between security measures and the enforcement of EAPs.

“While every large complex, corporation, and hotel has security, no law mandates it,” he points out, contrasting this with the more codified, yet often ignored, requirements for fire and all-hazard threats.

Building intelligence and QAPs

Murphy emphasises the importance of preparedness with a focus is on pre-emptive measures.

He uses an example to illustrate the evolution of this concept through his experiences in New York City, where he witnessed the transformation of an eight-page plan into a 29-page document after legal reviews: “I am not reading that in an incident, I have no time for that.”

Instead, he advocates for extracting essential information, or what he terms an ‘e-Building Intelligence Card’, tailored for first responders’ immediate use.

This intelligence is crucial as it provides necessary information for quick access to critical building areas.

He underscores the importance of knowing multiple entry points into a building, especially in complex situations like workplace violence or active shooters: “Knowing this information in advance is crucial to quickly mitigating threats.”

The creation of Quick Action Plans (QAPs) is a key strategy (2).

These plans are concise, focused, and designed for rapid deployment.

Murphy envisions the use of technology, such as tablets, to provide first responders with immediate, actionable information about a building: “A tablet can easily display the building’s footprint and vertical risers.”

This approach allows for quick orientation, enabling responders to deploy personnel efficiently.

Effective QAPs hinge on Murphy’s warning that: “If I don’t have any information, it gets worse,” highlighting the critical need for well-prepared, information-rich emergency action plans in today’s increasingly complex threat landscape.

Role of Fire and Life Safety Directors and Building Engineers

In discussing the critical role of Fire and Life Safety Directors (FLSDs) in EAPs, Murphy says they provide an indispensable contribution, particularly in complex environments like tall buildings and large public events.

He stresses the importance of these directors in conducting comprehensive facility risk assessments and creating situational awareness for various threats.

Murphy describes the FLSD’s role as akin to a Building Intelligence Representative (BiR) to first responders.

The responsibilities of a FLSD, as outlined by Murphy, include:

  1. Conducting an EAP Building Risk Assessment: This involves evaluating the structure, systems, and operations, including voice communication systems, transportation modes like stairs and elevators, and awareness of exterior premises and neighbouring facilities.
  2. Managing Fire Protection Systems (FPS): The FLSD oversees the inspection, testing, and maintenance of all FPS systems, ensuring their reliability and effectiveness.
  3. Coordinating with Various Departments: This includes working with property management and engineering on building systems, coordinating with security for life safety measures, and interacting with first responders like the Fire Brigade, Police, EMS, and Emergency Management agencies.

Murphy also points out the evolving nature of EAPs in response to diverse all-hazard threats.

He references the NFPA 2800 Standard (2), which provides detailed guidance on EAPs.

Key elements of this guideline include life safety, occupant load considerations, hazard identification, and training protocols.

Murphy stresses the importance of analysing EAP, conducting damage assessments, and regularly updating the EAP.

 He also stresses the role of a building engineer and their knowledge about the multi-layered building systems and their isolation control devices.

Evacuation challenges

The challenges of implementing Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) in large buildings are often a result of the complex nature of managing these structures during emergencies.

One of the key challenges Murphy identifies is the reliance on “guess-based knowledge, rather than decision-based knowledge.”

To counter this, he advocates for the use of critical building intelligence cards, which can be invaluable tools not only for first responders but also for new employees, especially those in building engineering staff.

His multi-faceted approach to disseminating building intelligence includes providing information to dispatch centres, ensuring hard copies are available in case of connectivity issues, and making the data accessible on computers.

Murphy also touches on the broader aspect of data sharing and inter-agency cooperation, envisioning a system where different emergency services, such as fire brigades and police departments, can build their own information silos and share them as needed.

This collaborative approach is crucial for effective emergency management, especially in large-scale incidents.

He highlights the need for proactive planning and comprehensive training.

He notes the importance of training personnel, such as fire and life safety directors, to initiate emergency actions effectively before the arrival of first responders.

He also points out the differences in alarm systems across different buildings, which can be a significant variable in emergency situations.

Murphy stresses the importance of situational awareness and the need for intelligent communication systems in buildings, suggesting that security personnel should monitor external news sources to stay informed about incidents that may impact the building, enabling them to make appropriate announcements and take necessary actions.

Training for building-specific emergency action plans is crucial.

Murphy emphasises the role of a competent person in the building who has experience and can take appropriate actions before the arrival of emergency services.

He also highlights health-related emergencies, underscoring the importance of understanding and responding to health department actions, such as a lockdown due to a contaminant.

Creating an EAP

Building intelligence and proactive measures for mitigating incidents are essential when creating an EAP.

Murphy begins by highlighting the importance of providing first responders with real-time building intelligence: “A key EAP aspect is how effectively building owners give first responders real-time building intelligence during an event.”

Murphy points out accessible resources for creating EAPs, such as the NFPA high-rise committee’s standards and resources.

This initial step offers a foundational framework for building a customised EAP.

After obtaining this starting point, Murphy advises seeking expertise to adapt the plan to specific building needs.

Key considerations include the nature of the building’s operations, potential hazards within the building, and neighbouring entities that might pose threats.

To further develop the EAP, Murphy encourages engaging with local emergency services.

“Engage with the local fire brigade and police precinct,” he advises, suggesting inviting these services to discuss issues like workplace violence and active shooter scenarios.

Murphy stresses the need for a dedicated individual in larger facilities who understands emergency procedures: “Don’t rely on minimally paid staff or inexperienced security personnel for emergencies.”

Instead, he advocates for hiring someone with experience in emergency response, such as personnel from the fire department, police department, or military.

The final step in the process, he says, should involve securing approval from relevant corporate legal teams.

This is crucial for protecting the interests of the building owner, clients, and employees.

Global Perspective on Emergency Action Plans

Looking at EAP’s from a global perspective, Murphy stresses the importance of preparedness and intelligence gathering across a wide array of potential emergency scenarios.

He reflects on a tragic incident in the United States involving a shipboard fire, underscoring the unpredictable nature of emergencies, highlighting the need for comprehensive planning even in areas that might sometimes be overlooked.

Murphy emphasises the value of creating what he calls a ‘legacy building intelligence database’ for fire brigades.

He shares his personal experience: “When my father retired after nearly 40 years as a fire captain, he didn’t pass on his knowledge.

I had to learn it myself.”

This drives home the point that vital information and intelligence should not be lost with the retirement of experienced personnel but should be systematically recorded and passed on.

The concept of a legacy database involves maintaining up-to-date intelligence on buildings and facilities: “Feel comfortable that you got the intelligence and maybe over a period of time, go back and look and see if there’s changes.”

He suggests integrating building permit information into fire brigade databases to ensure that any modifications to buildings are accounted for in emergency planning.

Murphy sees the potential of modern technology in enhancing emergency preparedness: “With computers and the emerging AI technology, we have new methods, which is beneficial,” he states, envisioning the evolution of ‘smart cities’ and ‘smart firefighters.’ The integration of artificial intelligence into emergency planning and response could significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency services.

Murphy’s insights offer a comprehensive view of emergency action planning, emphasising the need for continuous intelligence gathering, adaptability, and technological integration.

His advocacy for creating a legacy database and leveraging modern technology speaks to a forward-thinking approach in emergency preparedness.

His global perspective underscores the importance of being well-informed and proactive, not just at a local level but in a broader context, ensuring that emergency responders have the necessary tools and information to effectively handle a wide range of emergency situations and quickly restore normalcy.

Murphy is a co-author of the book, High-Rise Buildings: Understanding the Vertical Challenges.

In Chapter-7, If These Walls Could Talk (4), the reader will be introduced to the elements of pre-incident

planning, smart firefighting, the rationale for gathering building intelligence, the relationship to Battle Plans, and how to leverage electronic building intelligence for fires and emergency responses.

Contact Jack Murphy at: [email protected]


This article was originally published in the December2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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