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Evacuation planning and exercises are more important than ever in the tertiary sector since COVID19
by Leigh Harris

Has your university conducted an evacuation drill this year? If not, you should be placing this important (yet undervalued) exercise as a high priority.

COVID-19 saw extensive disruption in the otherwise predictable academic year. There were months of teaching students from home, increased staff turnover, and mass redundancies across the tertiary sector. Many staff hired during this period have only started to work at the university after the lockdown restrictions were relaxed. 

Could you confidently state that all of your staff:

  • Know where your evacuation assembly areas are located?
  • What their responsibilities are during an emergency?
  • Are familiar with the closest fire exits to their office or teaching spaces?
  • Know the Wardens in their building/s?

If you have answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, it is likely that your university is NOT currently best prepared for an emergency.

We need to remember, emergencies aren’t just fires. In fact, major fires in universities globally, whilst devastating, are not the most common emergencies you will encounter. Whilst fire alarms set off by burnt toast are extremely common, the more likely emergencies that you may encounter in the tertiary sector are:

  • Flooding
  • Chemical leaks and biological hazards (we are looking at you Science Faculties)
  • Aggressive or violent students
  • Dangerous members of the public
  • Bomb threats

The above is important to consider when it comes to planning and facilitating meaningful and productive evacuation exercises. Your Emergency Response Plan (ERP) should ideally outlay the key risks so that you can exercise against these scenarios, rather than simply sounding a fire alarm.

Tips on facilitating meaningful and effective evacuation exercises

If possible, only inform the ‘need to know’ staff about the drill. 

Inform only key senior staff who require to know that an exercise is scheduled. Stipulate that the time and date is not to be spread to other staff or students. When staff are aware that an evacuation is occurring at a specific time, they will generally plan around the ‘disruption’ by modifying their class, taking a coffee break in a different building/area of the university or evacuating before the alarm has sounded. This is not realistic and defeats the purpose of the drill. Furthermore, it provides ample ammunition for staff to refuse to leave as they know it is a drill.

Take non-compliance seriously!

The life safety of yourself, staff and students take precedence over everything else. Wardens should be trained and regularly encouraged to take names and report non-conformers. If there is no policy regarding compliance to participating in emergency drills, consider developing a policy that defines the staff and student requirements during an emergency situation (including exercises). Once this is developed, inform all staff, and follow through with any breaches. Formal warnings or other disciplinary actions can be enforced if deemed necessary. If one person does not comply, you will generally see many others following suit, as they are ‘following the herd’. This youtube video is an excellent demonstration of the power of herd mentality, showcasing a study conducted by the famous psychologist Phillip Zimbardo (known for his early work, in particular, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment).

‘Dangerous Conformity’ – Click here to watch

Are your evacuation diagrams up to date?

Staff and students can move between multiple buildings per day and are probably not fully aware of the closest fire exits to their frequented locations. People will pay attention to how they came in or out of a building, which is very likely not to be the safest path of travel when evacuating a building during an emergency. Evacuation diagrams are required to be installed in prominent locations so that a person does not need to search for one in case of emergency. Importantly, they must be accurate and not reflect previous building designs; universities are frequently upgrading and renovating areas; therefore, updating the evacuation diagrams should be placed as part of the project scope. The last thing you want is a group of people walking to a non-existing exit.

But our diagrams are up to date; we have not had a building upgrade since Bob Hawk was in power! 

That is great (well, not really, but it is fantastic your evacuation diagram is accurate). BUT, when was the last time these old diagrams were reviewed? All evacuation diagrams expire after five years as per AS 3745:2010, Planning for emergencies in facilities. 

Why does it matter if we comply with this standard if they are correct?

Whilst it may not impede the ability of your staff, students and visitors to evacuate safely in an emergency, if something does go wrong and you are facing a coronial inquest, non-compliance to the standard could potentially expose the university to civil or criminal action.

Scenario-based exercises create a more realistic experience

It is ideal to use realistic scenarios that are based on the current risks of the university. However, it critical to ensure that the complexity of the scenario matches the capability of your staff and wardens. If you make the exercise too difficult for staff, students and wardens to succeed, you potentially are setting them up for failure. This can lead to pushback from senior staff and decision-makers and cause yourself as the coordinator of the evacuation a lot of stress and unnecessary grief.

Consider multiple observers and surveys

Surveys are a great way to get feedback from the actual evacuees.; you can’t be everywhere at once. Engage with staff and students and encourage them to participate with small items such as mini chocolate bars, Chupa Chups, coffee vouchers etc. These surveys can help understand the current culture towards evacuation exercises, identify problems and frustrations, and, importantly, what information the staff and student body require from you to understand the process better.

External validation is available, and the best way to learn what is holding your campus back from being genuinely resilient in an evacuation scenario

Whilst many universities use internal subject matter experts (SME’s) to run the evacuation programme, a lot have turned to external professional organisations to develop scenarios based on the universities risk profile, train and educate staff members in emergency procedures, develop complaint and easy to read evacuation diagrams, and evaluate evacuation exercises. This external assistance can provide valuable insights and strategies to enhance the overall emergency resilience of each campus. 

Final thoughts

Planning for emergencies is critical. Particularly now where universities are operating in a COVID-19/post-COVID-19 environment, where many staff and students work or study externally and may rarely attend campus. While there are less staff and students on-site at any one time, that does not remove the requirements or lessen the university’s liability to ensure that they have adequately planned, prepared and exercised against credible risk scenarios in the emergency space.

If you need assistance in updating your evacuation diagrams or facilitating an evacuation exercise, please feel free to contact us on (02) 8074 5879 or INSERT EMAIL ADDRESS