Time To Get Out? Building Evacuation in Terrorist Times

The closest most companies are likely to come to a terrorist attack is responding to a bomb threat or evacuating a building. It sounds easy, but do you know how to do it right?

The initial response of the international press to the first set of terrorist bomb attacks in London was one of surprise. Not so much surprise that the terrorist bombings had occurred, but surprise at the apparently orderly reaction of the emergency services and the people of London. Stoicism, and British “stiff upper lip” became the journalistic clichés of the day.

Journalists often see what they want to see, and some of this is journalistic rhetoric. There is behind it a degree of truth — this is, after all, a city which continued to function during eight months of fairly continual aerial bombardment during World War II. Subway usage may be reduced, but my sister still complains (as she did after the Madrid bombings) that even with the terrorists it's difficult to find a seat on the train.

But what the press really saw was the difference between a scenario that the emergency services had trained for (and the public had long expected), and one that nobody was prepared for and therefore caught everybody by surprise.

Practice makes perfect. During the IRA terrorist campaign there were approximately 10,000 telephone bomb warnings in the Greater London area during one year. Of these, some seventy were made by terrorists, and of those 10 were for genuine bombs. If you have to deal with 10,000 bomb warnings a year, you have no choice but to get good at it. Practice makes perfect.

In 2003, the emergency services conducted an exercise to respond to a simulated terrorist attack using chemical weapons at Bank tube station. London Underground performs regular emergency drills: the one took place just three weeks before the terrorist bombings. Practice makes perfect.

Are things different on this side of the Atlantic?

When I lived in England, I don't recall ever being at a school or working for an employer who didn't have an annual fire drill. (One drill, at boarding school, included smoke canisters, missing pupils, and a “dry hose” deployment by the local fire service). After moving to North America, I've never seen a single fire practice at any place I've worked. There might be a safety lecture with instructions on what to do in the event of fire, but that seems to be about it. In some buildings the alarm bells sound, unremarked, every week as some apparent test that the system will work, but this is the most I've seen. High risk industries may be different, but the tendency seems to be to react, rather than to prepare.

Building evacuation in terrorist times isn't an easy decision. Evacuating the building may actually put the occupants of the building at greater risk — even the 13 and 11 year olds who set off the fire alarm so they could open fire on children and teachers at Westside Middle School in 1998 recognized that. Evacuating to a nearby car park isn't sensible. Evacuating to a clearly marked evacuation point in a public area isn't sensible. (Think: Where would be a good place to put a car bomb?). Evacuating to a location within 550 yards (500m) of your building isn't sensible. (If there's a suspicious package or vehicle next to your building, that will be on the wrong side of the police cordon.) These aren't the sort of decisions you should (or can) make on the fly.

And if you receive a bomb threat, will the person who answers the telephone know what to say, ask, or do? Will they get the essential information off the caller? (Where is the device? What does it look like? When will it go off?) Who do they tell? And who decides whether and where to evacuate the building? And if the senior managers are at their annual three-day off-site meeting, who is in charge? Remember that with the arrival of voice mail and “press 1 for sales” it's no longer just a small group of receptionists or telephone operators who will have to handle a bomb threat.

Most of us will never be the target of a terrorist attack. The nearest we are likely to get is being forced to evacuate a building due to a bomb scare. A fire, whether deliberately or accidentally caused, remains a much more likely threat. But don't be caught by surprise. Be prepared for what might happen. You need to figure out in advance what you should do and which decisions you need to take.

You probably can't prevent a terrorist attack, but you can be prepared if one occurs. As the great Russian field marshal Alexander V. Suvorov put it: “a hard drill makes an easy battle”. More prosaically, practice makes perfect. The nearest your company may come to terrorism is having to evacuate a building. Make sure you can do that right.

Note: The MI5 website provides good advice for business continuity planning in terrorist times. Read it.

29 July 2005

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