In an emergency, every second counts. There's no time to debate. Everyone needs to know their responsibilities, who's in charge, and what has to be done.

It all comes down to planning. Every variable has to be accounted for and thoroughly considered well before the alarm sounds. A carefully constructed emergency response plan (ERP) can be the difference between an orderly evacuation, a panicked mob, or an outright tragedy.

An ERP is a substantial, specialized part of an organization’s overall safety program and it takes deliberate forethought to ensure its performance. Whether you are developing a new plan, or the one you have in place needs a checkup, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. What Types of Emergencies Are Plausible?

An ERP should consider all scenarios that are reasonably likely for a given site, with extra attention given to those that pose a higher risk.

Think of a sour gas leak. What would happen if one occurred? Coming from sour gas country myself, I know that’s a common scenario in ERPs because sour gas:

  • Is toxic
  • Moves in the wind
  • Rolls downhill
  • Is flammable

That makes it a useful example because it highlights the kind of planning and specificity that need to go into an ERP. Considering those factors, if your plan involves mustering downwind or downhill from the leak location, you might be planning a disaster.

A complete vulnerability assessment of the site is a starting point. It should consider the whole array of technological and natural hazards to come up with scenarios. It should also consider that emergencies are not discrete categories and can crossover and combine. An earthquake that starts a leak that starts a fire that leads to a building collapse that releases a toxic substance – are you ready for it?

Obviously you can’t write up a plan for every permutation possible, but the plans should account for the fact that combined events can happen.

(Learn more in Lessons from 3 of the Worst Workplace Disasters.)

2. Avoid Cookie-Cutter Plans

One size does not fit all. A well-constructed ERP should be customized to the site at which it is to be used. Starting from a template is fine, but it should be bolstered to include real numbers of personnel, emergency contacts, layout and geography, special considerations and conditions, and other site-specific factors.

The plan has to account for the unique nature of the company and all of its operations. Every step may introduce a new hazard – from raw material characteristics to types of equipment on site to environmental setting. For fire alone, you have to think about:

  • What kind of fire protection is in place?
  • Who is qualified to operate it?
  • Does it need an operator at all?
  • Is it static but nonetheless important to know, like fire doors or fire-rated walls?

(Find out What Should Be Included in Your Emergency Management Plan.)

All of this has to be considered well before it is needed. All of it is unique to each individual site.

3. What Does the Future Hold?

How are you supposed to know which events are likely (or even possible)? It is going to depend on a number of factors, and the company may or may not have direct experience to draw from.

A little research will help you determine the nature of emergencies that similar operations in your industry have encountered. Consulting a loss control or insurance specialist may be useful because they tend to monitor this kind of data. Especially in considering natural hazards, it pays to know whether an ice storm or an earthquake (or an ice quake?) is likely, and even which hazards can be safely ignored.

4. Don’t Go at It Alone

Any one person’s field of view is going to be limited. Planning for an emergency should include an interdisciplinary team, representing a cross-section of the organization. Experience, education, and training all inform how each worker perceives hazards and priorities. Management and frontline workers may not agree on what is most important, and yet both perspectives have value in establishing an emergency plan.

Creating a team has a dual purpose. You gain more comprehensive input, and because ownership of the plan is distributed you will have improved buy-in.

Furthermore, since people are prime in safety, you'll want to involve everyone who may be affected and ensure they understand their responsibilities.

(Learn more in 5 Reasons You Struggle with Safety Buy-In - And What to Do About it.)

5. Where Is Help Coming From (And How Can You Help the Helpers)?

A worksite may be spitting distance from a hospital, or it might be too remote for cell phone signals. An ERP has to consider what kind of access there is to emergency responders, as well as the safety of those that do respond.

To that end, it is a good practice to collaborate with emergency services in the area (where possible) to go over medical or fire response provision. They may request a copy of site plans or an inventory of chemicals, for example, to know what they may be heading into.

6. An Emergency Response Plan that Isn’t Drilled Is Just Paper

Once you have written up a comprehensive plan and considered everything, the ERP is ready to implement.

Except… you haven’t considered everything.

The only way to fine tune an ERP is to drill, recap, and revise - and it’s no simple task. Drills and tabletop exercises can highlight deficiencies in the plans, then those deficiencies have to be corrected.

An emergency plan should be audited once a year. This includes evaluating training needs, inventory of emergency supplies, contact lists, and an updated roster of emergency responsibilities. You need to make sure that the contact numbers still reach the people they should, and that responsible parties are current and cover all shifts. Depending on the scope of the plan, this could be a mountain of information.

Many sites are going paperless to help keep them organized and improve the ability to audit systems in a consistent way. Much of the manual tracking and record-keeping can be automated to improve effectiveness and keep the focus where it should be – on the plan itself. Digital and cloud-based solutions can also be integrated with security for better live data capture. A headcount at a muster point, for example, is no good if you don’t know how many people were on site to begin with, and where to look for them if they are missing.

7. Be a Good Neighbor

Even in remote and rural areas, there are likely to be a few residents or other workplaces and jobsites close by. You may need to consult with them to determine their needs in an emergency, and contact them in the event of a real emergency or drill.

Companies are mandated to exercise due diligence in protecting their workers and the public, so you can’t forget to include the Joneses when planning to keep everyone safe.

8. Management Commitment

As with all parts of a safety program, management commitment is crucial. Setting up emergency response plans shouldn’t be viewed as an exercise in legislative box-ticking, nor an administrative burden. Management should actively participate in the planning and contribute the resources needed for effective implementation.

This may involve a substantial financial and time investment, and one that is ongoing. But it is worth it. It is highly likely that at some point in time, under some circumstances these plans will be put to use in a real emergency. And when that time comes, being prepared is priceless.