“What you saw after Katrina was a complete breakdown,” says Dave Frank, president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences, Highlands Ranch, Colo. “When an emergency happens, 95 percent of facilities will not be prepared for it and that was evident during Katrina.”

Whether it’s a natural disaster or an outbreak of disease, emergencies can happen anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, many businesses suffer from that-will-never-happen-here syndrome.

“There’s sometimes a cavalier attitude about it,” says Steve Spencer, facility specialist for State Farm Insurance, Bloomington, Ill. “If you lack planning, you’re going to fail. If you don’t fail it’s just by dumb luck that you get by.”

Smart managers plan for the worst and hope for the best. The best way to do that is to create a thorough emergency preparedness plan.

How ready is your organization for a crisis? What steps would you take if a chemical tanker truck overturns on your grounds? How would you ensure employee safety in case of an outbreak of avian flu? If you can’t answer these questions quickly and confidently, then it’s time to implement some changes.

A Group Effort
The housekeeping department should have an accurate, comprehensive and updated emergency plan in place. However, that document cannot exist in a bubble; it should be part of a larger, company-wide business continuity plan.

“During an emergency, a lot of what will impact housekeeping will be from other departments, and a lot of what housekeeping does will impact these other departments,” Spencer says. “What housekeeping has planned needs to dovetail with the overall preparedness plan of the facility.”

For example, if there is a pandemic and people must be quarantined, housekeeping will deal with hygiene issues, while another department handles food distribution.

A pipe that bursts will present cleanup issues for housekeeping, but associated power outages may affect the information technology department.

Representatives from every department should be at the table when the disaster plan is drafted. Key vendors, such as building service contractors, should also be involved. Bringing everyone together ensures that the key players’ individual or departmental plans mesh seamlessly.

Within the larger plan, the housekeeping department must define its role in an emergency (typically, it helps during the immediate problem and then cleans up afterward) and then outline its particular crisis procedures.

Where To Start
Too often, plans are left unwritten and instead one person serves as the walking encyclopedia of crisis management. What happens if that person leaves the company or dies? A business continuity plan needn’t be as thick as the Yellow Pages, but it must be meaningful.

“It’s not a matter of how big it is, it’s a matter of how accurate it is,” Frank says. “It could be only 12 pages as long as it identifies what everyone is doing. Without an effective plan, everybody scrambles in an emergency.”

Most helpful is a plan that has specific strategies for every potential scenario, which may take serious brainstorming. To come up with a comprehensive list, use these prompts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):

• Historical: What emergencies have occurred at this facility or in this community in the past?

• Geographic: What can happen because of the facility’s location? For example, is the building near a flood plain, an airport or a nuclear power plant?

• Technological: What could result from a system failure? For example, what happens if the computers crash, the HVAC system fails or the power goes out?

• Human Error: The single largest cause of workplace emergencies, human error can result from poor training, misconduct, substance abuse or fatigue. What emergencies might your company face because of employee error?

• Physical: What types of emergencies could result from the design or construction of the facility?

Analyze each potential emergency from beginning to end. While approaches may vary depending on the type of crisis (for example, a fire requires building evacuation, while a tornado keeps everyone inside), there are some basic issues that should always be covered.

The first step in any disaster is to account for all building occupants (depending on how the company’s plan is structured, housekeeping may only be responsible for locating it’s own crew). It may also be necessary to call in additional employees to help with the disaster. For both of these reasons, the first page of a preparedness plan should establish the chain of command during an emergency and include a phone tree for contacting staff.

“In the event that there’s a disaster, who’s in charge and if something happens to that person, who’s next on the bench?,” Frank notes.

Step By Step
The first part of a plan deals with the “what;” the next part should explain the “how.” Transportation could be an issue — how will you get staff to or from the facility?

When it comes to emergency cleaning, it is important to be incredibly detailed about who will do what and how. Identify those situations when outside help might be required. For example, in the case of a fire, will a restoration company always be hired to deal with smoke and water damage or will it be treated in-house when the damage is limited in scope?

For crises to be handled internally, establish priorities. Which areas will be cleaned more frequently and which will be reduced or ignored? The plan should list normal cleaning frequencies and then what changes should be implemented in each scenario.

For example, if a highway closure reduces your staff by half, you might change twice-daily cleanings of restrooms to daily checks. Or in the immediate aftermath of a tornado, you might switch from deep cleaning of all restrooms to simply disinfecting them at an industrial level.

Be very specific about how each cleaning task is performed and with what supplies. Stock your closets with a 2- to 3- month supply of fundamentals in case of a shortage, such as the one experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The crisis plan should include an inventory of what’s available, as well as emergency contacts of your suppliers or with rental companies in case you need items you don’t normally stock (such as a dozen wet vacs for flooding or freestanding lights for a power outage).

The procedural section of a preparedness plan must be written in simple terms that even a layperson can understand. It should be detailed enough that even a person who doesn’t understand cleaning, or isn’t familiar with the facility, can pick it up and run with it. This is important because in times of emergency, it may take all hands on deck to pull through.

“If I can’t get people to show up, who’s going to clean the building?,” Frank says. “Are the occupants of the building capable of performing the tasks and do I have the supplies available for them to do that?”

When a pipe broke in a restroom on the first floor of a State Farm building recently, the water was 6 inches deep and leaking into the basement before someone found it. The cleaning crew was called in to handle the emergency, but they needed help. So, the business continuity plan was activated and people from five different departments jumped in to assist.

“In an emergency, you need manpower fast,” Spencer says. “If you only have four cleaning people in a building and you need 15, you bring in people from other departments. Many times departments will be given responsibilities that are not part of their normal daily routines.”

This arrangement is a two-way street. Members of the housekeeping department can expect to be called upon to help other departments when emergencies arise that don’t require immediate cleanup.

When a large fire ripped through the University of Texas at Arlington campus last year, Executive Housekeeper James Brewer and several other managers helped secure the evacuated buildings adjacent to the fire to prevent looting and to keep people out for safety reasons.

Last But Not Least
When the business continuity plan is complete, distribute it to all managers and to any relevant community agencies. Key personnel should keep a copy of the plan in their homes. Each person who gets a copy of the plan must be responsible for updating it as changes are made.

Establish a schedule for reviewing, testing and updating the plan. Every year management should double-check for any changes to the plan. Has there been turnover of key employees? Have cleaning procedures changed? Are you using new products or vendors?

Train new employees on the procedures upon hire and then hold yearly refresher courses for everyone.

“Does everybody need to know the whole plan from A to Z? No, but you need to know what your part of the plan is,” Spencer says.

Make the most of annual training sessions by turning them into trial runs. Just as major cities do, simulate a crises to put your plan — and your employees — to the test.

“Each employee must be trained at least yearly so that confusion is replaced by trained reaction,” Brewer says.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Smart Podcasts For The Commercial Cleaning Industry

Listen to George Thomlison, manager of human resources and procurement for buildings and grounds services and facilities management, and Robb Gillis, facilities services manager, at the University of Alberta, Canada, explain the steps they took in developing an effective emergency preparedness plan.