What is an Emergency Action Plan?
An Emergency Action Plan (EAP) is a written procedure detailing the appropriate response to various types of emergencies. An EAP is an essential component of an organization’s safety procedures. Creating an EAP and training employees on how to follow it can greatly reduce employee injuries, property damage, and can ensure the safety of visitors in the event of an emergency. OSHA has a helpful tool to walk organizations through the process of creating an EAP.
What Emergencies Require an Emergency Action Plan?
An EAP can be useful in a wide range of emergencies. The response to many emergencies will include similar components, but they will also have unique components that will require careful planning and execution. It is important to identify the emergencies most likely to impact your organization and plan accordingly. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, for an organization in Miami, Florida to spend precious time and resources preparing for power loss during a winter storm.
It is also important to recognize that some emergency responses will have radically different recommendations than others. Fires and tornadoes, for example, have two very different requirements. During a fire evacuation the main objective is to get out of the building as quickly as possible, while during a tornado the goal is to get everyone inside the building. Sometimes it will be even more complicated, like during an active shooter emergency, where hiding within the building may be the best option for some and evacuating may be the best option for others.
Key components of an Emergency Action Plan
No two EAPs will be identical. Building layouts, hours of operation, personnel qualifications and more will have an impact on the particulars of an EAP. There are, however, certain universal components that should be included in most EAPs, including:
- Evacuation procedures, escape routes and floor plans
- Reporting and alerting authorities
- Alerting staff and visitors of an emergency
- Accounting for people after implementing an EAP
- Notifying parents, guardians or next of kin
- Identifying a media contact person
- Training new staff
- Policies for updating and maintaining the EAP
We’ve broken some of the components into three distinct sections: considerations for emergencies that start or occur within the building, emergencies that occur outside of the building, and emergencies that come about from a health-related scare. Here are a few examples for each category for your reference:
- Emergencies Within the Building: fire, active shooter, power outage, etc.
- Emergencies Outside of the Building: tornado, lightning, extreme heat, etc.
- Health-Related Emergencies: heart attacks, seizures, drownings, concussions, etc.
Evacuation Procedures, Escape Routes, and Floor Plans
In the event of an emergency, people need to respond quickly; knowing where to go and how to get there is often an important part of a quick response. Depending on the type of emergency, people will either need to exit the building as quickly as possible or be prepared to navigate to a safer part of the building. It is important each person knows exactly where to go in the event of an emergency.
Current floor plans are an integral part of every written EAP. Regardless of the emergency, an EAP should contain an up-to-date floor plan for the entire property. The floor plan should include clearly marked evacuation routes and all emergency exits should be easily identifiable. Remember, this information isn’t only posted for the good of employees; guests, including emergency personnel, will rely on this information to navigate the building safely.
- Emergencies Outside of the Building — In most cases, when an emergency starts outside of the building, the safest thing to do is find a safe place within the building. Most often, emergencies outside of the building will be weather-related or natural disasters like a tornado, earthquake or lightning storm. These events provide different levels of warning before they strike, so it’s important to be prepared to respond to the emergency quickly.
- Emergencies Within the Building — For emergencies occurring inside of the facility (e.g., fires, power outages, etc.), the main goal is to get everyone out of harms way. To achieve this goal, staff should be aware of the fastest and safest way out of the building. It will also be necessary to ensure that evacuation procedures are easily accessible to customers or visitors inside of the building. Having a broad understanding of the layout of a building can help staff prepare for unanticipated detours along the most common emergency exits.
- Health Emergencies — If someone inside of the building is injured or harmed in some way, an EAP should be initiated quickly. Staff should be prepared to respond to a wide range of plausible health scares such as a heart attack, seizure, possible drowning and more. Depending on the emergency, local emergency medical services may be contacted. Be sure that these authorities will have easy access to the injured person and they’ll be able to exit the building quickly when it is time to do so.
Reporting and Alerting Authorities
Most emergencies will require the involvement of police, fire and rescue, and medical professionals. Contacting these authorities is usually as easy as dialing 9-1-1. With that said, it’s important that someone in the organization be designated to make that call. There’s nothing worse than a delayed response because everyone assumed someone else contacted authorities.
It’s important to note that some emergencies will require specialized emergency responders. For instance, a chemical spill will need the services of specialized Hazardous Materials unit and downed power lines or utilities issues will require the work of the utility company. Make sure the Emergency Action Plan contains all the emergency numbers and contact information that may be needed.
Alerting Staff and Visitors of an Emergency
In addition to alerting the proper authorities, it is equally important to communicate to all staff and guests that an emergency is occurring. The exact method of communication will vary based on the size and design of the facility and the type of emergency.
For example, in the event of a fire, the best way to alert everyone is to simply pull the fire alarm. For other emergencies an intercom system might be the most effective method. Some alert systems can be as simple as blowing a whistle (i.e., aquatic EAPs) or ringing a bell.
- Health Emergencies — It is important to note, however, that certain emergencies do not require alerting everyone within a building. For instance, if an individual suffers a medical emergency like a stroke or heart attack, there is no need to make everyone in the entire facility aware. The EAP for these types of emergencies will be much simpler and involve immediately contacting medical help and identifying individuals within your organization trained in First Aid to help stabilize the victim.
Accounting for Everyone after Implementing an EAP
After initiating and executing an EAP, the next step is to regroup. It will be important to identify if anyone was lost or injured during the process. For larger organizations, this is best accomplished by breaking up into manageable groups. In most cases these groups are based on departments or specific physical areas within the facility, but can be organized any way that makes sense for your organization.
Accounting for everyone after an emergency can be as easy as keeping a printed roster and asking people to check in when they’re in a safe location. It is also recommended to have each group meet in a designated area to make it easier to check each person in.
- Emergencies Outside of the Building — Hiding in a secured area is an appropriate response to emergencies that begin outside of the building like tornadoes or lightning storms. Violent emergencies like active shooter scenarios are also an appropriate time to hide. Note that these instances will make the task of locating everyone a challenge. Keeping detailed records can help alleviate some of the trouble, however.
Notifying Parents, Guardians, or Next of Kin
After an EAP has been activated it may be necessary to notify parents, guardians or next of kin for the people involved. Depending on the situation, family members may need to be alerted immediately to provide information or come and pick their children up. A good EAP will detail who is responsible for alerting family members, what emergencies require alerting families, and what information should be relayed. It is also important to maintain up-to-date contact information for all members.
Identifying a Media Contact Person
Depending on the type and severity of the emergency, there’s a possibility that a member of the media will contact your organization seeking information. When dealing with the media it is important to have a single individual identified as the media contact person. Instruct all staff within your organization to direct any inquires from both the media and the public to them. This individual should be well trained on how to respond properly to sensitive questioning and should know what information is and is not acceptable to divulge.
Training New Staff
Since emergencies can occur anytime without warning, it is essential to develop a policy to train all new staff on the various EAPs and their role within the EAP. As part of new employee training/orientation, give all new staff a copy of the EAPs and provide them a layout of the facility along with where all the emergency exits and escape routes are.
New staff should be provided with important locations in the event of specific emergencies, such as where to take shelter in the event of a tornado. Identify multiple emergency exits since certain emergencies may make the closest exit inaccessible. If there is a chemical spill, for instance, staff should be trained to avoid exits near the area and find another way to evacuate the building.
Policies for Updating and Maintaining the EAP
Change is constant. Keeping all EAPs current is a major undertaking, but is the only way to assure an efficient emergency response. EAPs should be reviewed and revised annually or more frequently as needed. Changes should be listed on the document. New hires, building redesigns, new programs, office changes, remodeling, and much more can all impact the effectiveness of an EAP.