Essay Major Incident Planning

The actions taken in the initial minutes of an emergency are critical. A prompt warning to employees to evacuate, shelter or lockdown can save lives. A call for help to public emergency services that provides full and accurate information will help the dispatcher send the right responders and equipment. An employee trained to administer first aid or perform CPR can be lifesaving. Action by employees with knowledge of building and process systems can help control a leak and minimize damage to the facility and the environment.

The first step when developing an emergency response plan is to conduct a risk assessment to identify potential emergency scenarios. An understanding of what can happen will enable you to determine resource requirements and to develop plans and procedures to prepare your business. The emergency plan should be consistent with your performance objectives.

At the very least, every facility should develop and implement an emergency plan for protecting employees, visitors, contractors and anyone else in the facility. This part of the emergency plan is called “protective actions for life safety” and includes building evacuation (“fire drills”), sheltering from severe weather such as tornadoes, “shelter-in-place” from an exterior airborne hazard such as a chemical release and lockdown. Lockdown is protective action when faced with an act of violence.

When an emergency occurs, the first priority is always life safety. The second priority is the stabilization of the incident. There are many actions that can be taken to stabilize an incident and minimize potential damage. First aid and CPR by trained employees can save lives. Use of fire extinguishers by trained employees can extinguish a small fire. Containment of a small chemical spill and supervision of building utilities and systems can minimize damage to a building and help prevent environmental damage.

Some severe weather events can be forecast hours before they arrive, providing valuable time to protect a facility. A plan should be established and resources should be on hand, or quickly, available to prepare a facility. The plan should also include a process for damage assessment, salvage, protection of undamaged property and cleanup following an incident. These actions to minimize further damage and business disruption are examples of property conservation.

Guidance for the development of an emergency response plan can be found in this step. Build your emergency response plan using this worksheet.

Protective Actions for Life Safety

When there is a hazard within a building such as a fire or chemical spill, occupants within the building should be evacuated or relocated to safety. Other incidents such as a bomb threat or receipt of a suspicious package may also require evacuation. If a tornado warning is broadcast, everyone should be moved to the strongest part of the building and away from exterior glass. If a transportation accident on a nearby highway results in the release of a chemical cloud, the fire department may warn to “shelter-in-place.” To protect employees from an act of violence, “lockdown” should be broadcast and everyone should hide or barricade themselves from the perpetrator.

Protective actions for life safety include:

  • Evacuation
  • Sheltering
  • Shelter-In-Place
  • Lockdown

Your emergency plan should include these protective actions. If you are a tenant in multi-tenanted building, coordinate planning with the building manager.


Prompt evacuation of employees requires a warning system that can be heard throughout the building. Test your fire alarm system to determine if it can be heard by all employees. If there is no fire alarm system, use a public address system, air horns or other means to warn everyone to evacuate. Sound the evacuation signal during planned drills so employees are familiar with the sound.

Make sure that there are sufficient exits available at all times.

  • Check to see that there are at least two exits from hazardous areas on every floor of every building. Building or fire codes may require more exits for larger buildings.
  • Walk around the building and verify that exits are marked with exit signs and there is sufficient lighting so people can safely travel to an exit. If you find anything that blocks an exit, have it removed.
  • Enter every stairwell, walk down the stairs, and open the exit door to the outside. Continue walking until you reach a safe place away from the building. Consider using this safe area as an assembly area for evacuees.

Appoint an evacuation team leader and assign employees to direct evacuation of the building. Assign at least one person to each floor to act as a “floor warden” to direct employees to the nearest safe exit. Assign a backup in case the floor warden is not available or if the size of the floor is very large. Ask employees if they would need any special assistance evacuating or moving to shelter. Assign a “buddy” or aide to assist persons with disabilities during an emergency. Contact the fire department to develop a plan to evacuate persons with disabilities.

Have a list of employees and maintain a visitor log at the front desk, reception area or main office area. Assign someone to take the lists to the assembly area when the building is evacuated. Use the lists to account for everyone and inform the fire department whether everyone has been accounted for. When employees are evacuated from a building, OSHA regulations require an accounting to ensure that everyone has gotten out safely. A fire, chemical spill or other hazard may block an exit, so make sure the evacuation team can direct employees to an alternate safe exit.


If a tornado warning is broadcast, a distinct warning signal should be sounded and everyone should move to shelter in the strongest part of the building. Shelters may include basements or interior rooms with reinforced masonry construction. Evaluate potential shelters and conduct a drill to see whether shelter space can hold all employees. Since there may be little time to shelter when a tornado is approaching, early warning is important. If there is a severe thunderstorm, monitor news sources in case a tornado warning is broadcast. Consider purchasing an Emergency Alert System radio - available at many electronic stores. Tune in to weather warnings broadcast by local radio and television stations. Subscribe to free text and email warnings, which are available from multiple news and weather resources on the Internet.


A tanker truck crashes on a nearby highway releasing a chemical cloud. A large column of black smoke billows into the air from a fire in a nearby manufacturing plant. If, as part of this event, an explosion, or act of terrorism has occurred, public emergency officials may order people in the vicinity to “shelter-in-place.” You should develop a shelter-in-place plan. The plan should include a means to warn everyone to move away from windows and move to the core of the building. Warn anyone working outside to enter the building immediately. Move everyone to the second and higher floors in a multistory building. Avoid occupying the basement. Close exterior doors and windows and shut down the building’s air handling system. Have everyone remain sheltered until public officials broadcast that it is safe to evacuate the building.


An act of violence in the workplace could occur without warning. If loud “pops” are heard and gunfire is suspected, every employee should know to hide and remain silent. They should seek refuge in a room, close and lock the door, and barricade the door if it can be done quickly. They should be trained to hide under a desk, in the corner of a room and away from the door or windows. Multiple people should be trained to broadcast a lockdown warning from a safe location.

Resources for Protective Actions for Life Safety

In addition to the following resources available on the Internet, seek guidance from your local fire department, police department, and emergency management agency.

Incident Stabilization

Stabilizing an emergency may involve many different actions including: firefighting, administering medical treatment, rescue, containing a spill of hazardous chemicals or handling a threat or act of violence. When you dial 9-1-1 you expect professionals to respond to your facility. Depending upon the response time and capabilities of public emergency services and the hazards and resources within your facility, you may choose to do more to prepare for these incidents. Regulations may require you to take action before emergency services arrive.

If you choose to do nothing more than call for help and evacuate, you should still prepare an emergency plan that includes prompt notification of emergency services, protective actions for life safety and accounting of all employees.

Developing the Emergency Plan

Developing an emergency plan begins with an understanding of what can happen. Review your risk assessment. Consider the performance objectives that you established for your program and decide how much you want to invest in planning beyond what is required by regulations.

Assess what resources are available for incident stabilization. Consider internal resources and external resources including public emergency services and contractors. Public emergency services include fire departments that may also provide rescue, hazardous materials and emergency medical services. If not provided by your local fire department, these services may be provided by another department, agency or even a private contractor. Reach out to local law enforcement to coordinate planning for security related threats.

Document available resources. Determine whether external resources have the information they would need to handle an emergency. If not, determine what information is required and be sure to document that information in your plan.

Prepare emergency procedures for foreseeable hazards and threats. Review the list of hazards presented at the bottom of the page. Develop hazard and threat specific procedures using guidance from the resource links at the bottom of this page.

Warning, Notifications, and Communications

Plans should define the most appropriate protective action for each hazard to ensure the safety of employees and others within the building. Determine how you will warn building occupants to take protective action. Develop protocols and procedures to alert first responders including public emergency services, trained employees and management. Identify how you will communicate with management and employees during and following an emergency.

Roles and Responsibilities for Building Owners and Facility Managers

Assign personnel the responsibility of controlling access to the emergency scene and for keeping people away from unsafe areas. Others should be familiar with the locations and functions of controls for building utility, life safety and protection systems. These systems include ventilation, electrical, water and sanitary systems; emergency power supplies; detection, alarm, communication and warning systems; fire suppression systems; pollution control and containment systems; and security and surveillance systems. Personnel should be assigned to operate or supervise these systems as directed by public emergency services if they are on-site.

Site and Facility Plans and Information

Public emergency services have limited knowledge about your facility and its hazards. Therefore, it is important to document information about your facility. That information is vital to ensure emergency responders can safely stabilize an incident that may occur. Documentation of building systems may also prove valuable when a utility system fails—such as when a water pipe breaks and no one knows how to shut off the water.

Compile a site-plan and plans for each floor of each building. Plans should show the layout of access roads, parking areas, buildings on the property, building entrances, the locations of emergency equipment and the locations of controls for building utility and protection systems. Instructions for operating all systems and equipment should be accessible to emergency responders.

Provide a copy of the plan to the public emergency services that would respond to your facility and others with responsibility for building management and security. Store the plan with other emergency planning information such as chemical Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are required by Hazard Communication or “right to know” regulations.

Training and Exercises

Train personnel so they are familiar with detection, alarm, communications, warning and protection systems. Review plans with staff to ensure they are familiar with their role and can carry out assigned responsibilities. Conduct evacuation, sheltering, sheltering-in-place and lockdown drills so employees will recognize the sound used to warn them and they will know what to do. Facilitate exercises to practice the plan, familiarize personnel with the plan and identify any gaps or deficiencies in the plan.

10 Steps for Developing the Emergency Response Plan

  1. Review performance objectives for the program.
  2. Review hazard or threat scenarios identified during the risk assessment.
  3. Assess the availability and capabilities of resources for incident stabilization including people, systems and equipment available within your business and from external sources.
  4. Talk with public emergency services (e.g., fire, police and emergency medical services) to determine their response time to your facility, knowledge of your facility and its hazards and their capabilities to stabilize an emergency at your facility.
  5. Determine if there are any regulations pertaining to emergency planning at your facility; address applicable regulations in the plan.
  6. Develop protective actions for life safety (evacuation, shelter, shelter-in-place, lockdown).
  7. Develop hazard and threat-specific emergency procedures using guidance from the resource links on this page. Write your emergency response plan using this template
  8. Coordinate emergency planning with public emergency services to stabilize incidents involving the hazards at your facility.
  9. Train personnel so they can fulfill their roles and responsibilities.
  10. Facilitate exercises to practice your plan.

Links to Emergency Planning Information

Multi-Hazard Planning Information

Pre-Incident Planning (Site and Building Information for First Responders)

SubheaProtective Actions for Life Safety



Hazardous materials

Natural hazards


Workplace Violence

Terrorism, Bomb Threats, and Suspicious Packages

Hazards to Consider When Developing the Emergency Plan

Natural hazards

Geological hazards

  • Earthquake
  • Tsunami
  • Volcano
  • Landslide, mudslide, subsidence

Meteorological Hazards

  • Flood, flash flood, tidal surge
  • Water control structure/dam/levee failure
  • Drought
  • Snow, ice, hail, sleet, arctic freeze
  • Windstorm, tropical cyclone, hurricane, tornado, dust storm
  • Extreme temperatures (heat, cold)
  • Lightning strikes (wildland fire following)

Biological hazards

  • Foodborne illnesses
  • Pandemic/Infectious/communicable disease (Avian flu, H1N1, etc.)

Human-caused events


  • Hazardous material spill or release
  • Nuclear power plant incident (if located in proximity to a nuclear power plant)
  • Explosion/Fire
  • Transportation accident
  • Building/structure collapse
  • Entrapment and or rescue (machinery, confined space, high angle, water)
  • Transportation Incidents (motor vehicle, railroad, watercraft, aircraft, pipeline)


  • Robbery
  • Lost person, child abduction, kidnap, extortion, hostage incident, workplace violence
  • Demonstrations, civil disturbance
  • Bomb threat, suspicious package
  • Terrorism

Technology caused events

  • Utility interruption or failure (telecommunications, electrical power, water, gas, steam, HVAC, pollution control system, sewerage system, other critical infrastructure)

Cyber security (data corruption/theft, loss of electronic data interchange or ecommerce, loss of domain name server, spyware/malware, vulnerability exploitation/botnets/hacking, denial of service)

Property Conservation

Taking action before a forecast event, such as a severe storm, can prevent damage. Prompt damage assessment and cleanup activities following the storm can minimize further damage and business disruption. These actions are considered “property conservation”—an important part of the emergency response plan. Much of the following guidance is directed to building owners and facility managers. However, tenants should also develop a plan in coordination with building owners and managers as well as public authorities.

Preparing a Facility for a Forecast Event

Body copy: Actions to prepare a facility for a forecast event depend upon the potential impacts from the hazards associated with the event. Conduct a risk assessment to identify severe weather hazards including winter storms, arctic freeze, tropical storm, hurricane, flooding, storm surge, severe thunderstorm, tornado and high winds. Also consider non-traditional hazards, such as a planned event involving a large crowd.

Property conservation actions should focus on protection of the building and valuable machinery, equipment and materials inside. Potential damage may be prevented or mitigated by inspecting the following building features, systems and equipment:

  • Windows and doors
  • Roof flashing, covering and drainage
  • Exterior signs
  • Mechanical equipment, antennas and satellite dishes on rooftops
  • Outside storage, tanks and equipment
  • Air intakes
  • High value machinery
  • Sensitive electronic equipment including information technology and process controllers

The review of building components may also identify opportunities for longer-term mitigation strategies.

Property conservation activities for specific forecast events include the following:

  • Winter storm - Keep building entrances and emergency exits clear; ensure there is adequate fuel for heating and emergency power supplies; monitor building heat, doors and windows to prevent localized freezing; monitor snow loading and clear roof drains.
  • Tropical storms and hurricanes - Stockpile and pre-cut plywood to board up windows and doors (or install hurricane shutters); ensure there is sufficient labor, tools and fasteners available; inspect roof coverings and flashing; clear roof and storm drains; check sump and portable pumps; backup electronic data and vital records off-site; relocate valuable inventory to a protected location away from the path of the storm.
  • Flooding - Identify the potential for flooding and plan to relocate goods, materials and equipment to a higher floor or higher ground. Clear storm drains and check sump and portable pumps. Raise stock and machinery off the floor. Prepare a plan to use sandbags to prevent water entry from doors and secure floor drains.

Salvage and Actions to Prevent Further Damage Following an Incident

Separating undamaged goods from water-soaked goods is an example of salvage. Covering holes in a roof or cleaning up water and ventilating a building are also part of property conservation. The property conservation plan should identify the resources needed to salvage undamaged good and materials; make temporary repairs to a building; clean up water, smoke and humidity; and prepare critical equipment for restart.

Resources for property conservation include the following:

  • water vacuums and tools to remove water
  • fans to remove smoke and humidity
  • tarpaulins or plywood to cover damaged roofs or broken windows
  • plastic sheeting to cover sensitive equipment

Compile an inventory of available equipment, tools and supplies and include it with the emergency response plan. Identify precautions for equipment exposed to water or high humidity and procedures for restarting machinery and equipment.

Identify contractors that may be called to assist with clean up and property conservation efforts. Keep in mind that competition for contractors, labor, materials and supplies prior to a forecast storm or following a regional disaster may be intense. Plan ahead and secure contractors and other resources in advance.

Resources for Property Conservation

Planning is an important avenue to community emergency preparedness. The practice of emergency response planning is best thought of as a process - a continuing sequence of analyses, plan development, and the acquisition by individuals and teams of performance skills achieved through training, drills, exercises and critiques.

The process varies considerably among communities. In some communities, planning is formalized by a specific assignment of responsibility to an office having an identifiable budget. In other communities, planning is informal: Responsibility is poorly defined, and a limited budget is dispersed among many agencies.

Similarly response plans and procedures may be mostly written or mostly unwritten. Such variability exists despite federal and state requirements for community emergency planning because local governments vary in their capacity (especially funding) and their commitment to emergency management. Thus, for many years, higher levels of government described their standards for emergency preparedness as "guidance."

Over the years, researchers have identified eight fundamental principles of community emergency planning that can be used to increase a community's level of preparedness, regardless of the amount of funding available:

1. Anticipate both active and passive resistance to the planning process, and develop strategies to manage these obstacles.
Emergency planning is conducted in the face of apathy on the part of some and resistance on the part of others. People are apathetic because they don't like to think about their vulnerability to disasters. Alternatively people resist disaster planning because it consumes resources that could be allocated to more immediate community needs - police patrols, road repairs, and the like.

Thus, disaster planning requires strong support from one of the following: the jurisdiction's chief administrative officer; an issue champion, also known as a "policy entrepreneur," who has the expertise and organizational legitimacy to promote emergency management; or a disaster planning committee that can mobilize a constituency in support of emergency management.

2. Address all hazards to which the community is exposed.
The plans for each hazard agent - flood, tornado, HAZMAT release - should be integrated into a comprehensive plan for multihazard emergency management. Emergency planners should conduct a community hazard-vulnerability analysis to identify the types of environmental extremes (floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes), technological accidents (toxic chemical releases, nuclear power plant accidents), and deliberate incidents (sabotage or terrorist attack involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive and flammable materials) to which the community has exposure.

After identifying these hazards, emergency planners should examine the extent to which different hazard agents make similar demands on the emergency response organization; if two hazard agents have similar characteristics, they probably will require similar emergency response functions. Commonality of emergency response functions provides multiple-use opportunities for personnel, procedures, facilities and equipment. In turn, multiple use simplifies the emergency operations plan by reducing the number of functional annexes; it also simplifies training and enhances performance reliability during emergencies. Only when hazard agents have very different characteristics, and therefore require distinctly different responses, will hazard-specific appendixes be required for any particular functional annex.

3. Include all response organizations, seeking their participation, commitment and clearly defined agreement.
To be effective, emergency planning should promote interorganizational coordination. Mechanisms should be developed to elicit participation, commitment and clearly defined agreement from all response organizations. These organizations would obviously include public safety agencies such as emergency management, fire, police and emergency medical services. However, they should also include potential hazard sources, such as HAZMAT facilities and transporters (pipeline, rail, truck and barge), and organizations that must protect sensitive populations, such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes. The reason coordination is required is that emergency response organizations of differing capabilities must nonetheless work in concert to perform the four major functions of responders - emergency assessment, hazard operations, population protection and incident management.

4. Base pre-impact planning on accurate assumptions about the threat, about typical human behavior in disasters, and about likely support from external sources such as state and federal agencies.
Emergency planning should be based on accurate knowledge of the threat, of likely human responses and of likely aid from external sources. Accurate knowledge of the threat comes from thorough hazard-vulnerability analyses. Accordingly emergency managers must identify hazards to which their communities are vulnerable, determine which geographical areas are exposed to those hazards (100-year floodplains and toxic chemical facility vulnerable zones), and identify the facilities and population segments located in those risk areas. Part of knowing the threat means understanding the basic characteristics of these hazards, such as speed of onset, scope and duration of impact, and potential for producing casualties and property damage.

Planners and public officials also need accurate knowledge about likely human behavior in a disaster. Contrary to widespread belief - and common depictions in the media - people do not flee in panic, wander aimlessly in shock or comply docilely with the recommendations of authorities. Instead, disaster victims typically act rationally in terms of the limited information they have about the situation. Following impact, they are the first to search for survivors, care for the injured and assist others in protecting property from further damage. When they seek assistance, victims are more likely to contact informal sources such as friends, relatives and local groups than governmental agencies, or even such quasi-official sources as the Red Cross.

Moreover, looting in evacuated areas is extremely rare, and crime rates tend to decline following disaster impact. Finally, concerned citizens believe they can best help the victims by entering the impact area to donate blood, food and clothing, even though doing so creates major problems of convergence.

5. Identify the types of emergency response actions that are most likely to be appropriate.
Sometimes the response that is usually the most appropriate one might not, in fact, be most suitable given the circumstances that arise in a specific event. Thus, emergency responders should be trained to implement the most likely responses to disaster demands, but they should also be encouraged to improvise on the basis of a continuing emergency assessment that identifies the appropriate response actions to the particular disaster well before those actions need to be implemented. In the highly charged atmosphere of imminent disaster, it is hard for an emergency manager to appear to be "doing nothing."

However, it is important to recognize that the best action might be to mobilize emergency personnel and actively monitor the situation for further information rather than initiate unnecessary hazard operations, population protection or incident management actions. Thus, planning and training should focus on principles of response rather than trying to define overly specific procedures that contain a multitude of details.

6. Address the linkage of emergency response to disaster recovery.
It is increasingly recognized that there is no clear line between emergency response and disaster recovery. At any point after impact, some portions of the community will be engaged in emergency response tasks whereas others will have moved on to disaster recovery. Moreover, senior elected and appointed officials are likely to be inundated with policy decisions that need to be made to implement the emergency response at the very time they must plan for the disaster recovery. Consequently pre-impact emergency response planning should be linked to pre-impact disaster recovery planning. Coordination between the two plans will speed the process of disaster recovery by ensuring that the priorities for disaster recovery have been clearly established so that recovery actions can be initiated while the emergency response is still under way.

7. Provide for training and evaluation of the emergency response organization at all levels - individual, team, department and community.
Emergency preparedness also has a training and evaluation component. The first part of the training process involves explaining the provisions of the plan to the administrators and personnel of the departments that will be involved in the emergency response. Second, all those who have emergency response roles must be trained to perform their duties. Of course, this includes fire, police and emergency medical services personnel, but there also should be training for personnel in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other facilities that might need to take protective action. Finally, the populations at risk must be involved in the planning process so they can become aware that planning for community threats is under way and be knowledgeable about what is expected of them under those plans. These populations need to know what is likely to happen in a disaster and what emergency organizations can and cannot do for them.

It is also essential that training be followed by evaluation in the form of tests and exercises to determine whether it has been effective. Emergency drills and exercises provide a setting in which the adequacy of the emergency operations plan, standard operating procedures, staffing, facilities and equipment can all be tested as well. Further, multifunctional exercises (exercises that test a jurisdiction's ability to perform all four emergency response functions - emergency assessment, hazard operations, population protection and incident management) facilitate interorganizational contact, allowing members of different organizations to better understand each other's professional capabilities and personal characteristics. And multifunctional exercises also produce publicity for the broader emergency management process, which informs community leaders and the public that disaster planning is under way and preparedness is being enhanced.

8. Recognize that emergency planning is a continuing process.
Preparedness is a continuing process because conditions within the community change over time, conditions outside the community can change as well and the products of planning itself change. Conditions inside the community include hazard vulnerability, organizational staffing and structure, and emergency facilities and equipment. Conditions outside the community include federal regulations (witness the requirements for communities to adopt the National Incident Management System). The preparedness process results in some products that are tangible and others that are intangible - hard to document on paper and not realized in hardware. An example of such intangible products is the development of emergency responders' knowledge about disaster demands, about their own emergency response roles and about other agencies' capabilities.

The potential for change in all three areas dictates that the emergency planning process detect and respond to these three kinds of changes and that all elements of emergency preparedness be audited periodically - and at least annually.


This article is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government, Second Edition (December 2007), published by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). See details about the book at the Web site. Reprinted with permission from ICMA.



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