After attacks, some agencies revise evacuation plans

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused evacuations at federal buildings across the country, several federal agencies have tweaked their emergency evacuation plans. Prior to the attacks, many agencies' evacuation plans were designed for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tornadoes, or for fire and bomb threats. After Sept. 11, several agencies realized they needed a better plan to get all employees out of the building and keep track of them once they were safe. "Before we had conventional emergency evacuation procedures, [and] there were no really specific designated locations other than to find safe harbor away from the affected building or area," explained Dennis Davison, a safety and environmental manager at the Navy SPAWAR Systems Center in San Diego. "Now, instead of having people in some 100 different locations, we have them focused into 17 designated locations and no matter what the emergency is, that's the location they go to." Officials at the Census Bureau's 37th floor New York regional office in Manhattan realized they needed a better plan for getting disabled employees out of the building, which they had to evacuate on Sept. 11. "Not everybody can walk down 37 flights of stairs," said director Tony Farthing. "You have to rely on a very good evacuation plan." Now Farthing and his co-workers meet monthly, revisiting their emergency plan and searching for ways to make it more effective in light of what they encountered following the attacks. "Typically when we would have fire drills in this building, we would go down three or four floors and that's [it]," Farthing said. "Now they are going to start doing full building evacuations in a drill, at least twice a year." After Sept. 11, employees at the Agriculture Department developed a guide for evacuating people with disabilities that other agencies can use. The Commerce Department has created a security coordination center to organize emergency evacuation plans for the department's 40,000 employees around the world. Now, it holds drills regularly to determine what plan works best for each facility, according to a spokeswoman. "It's one thing to design them around a conference room and another thing to see if they work," she said. In Oklahoma City, Okla., a committee is revising a template for an emergency preparedness and continuity of operations plan that was created following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. "We're dismantling what we had before and critically reviewing it, asking 'Is this still valid' and 'What else should we include,'" said LeAnn Jenkins, executive director of the Oklahoma Federal Executive Board. When the template is completed, the committee will offer a day-long training session for federal managers on creating emergency evacuation plans and assessing building vulnerabilities, she said. In addition to revising evacuation plans, Jenkins advised agencies to do "vulnerability assessments" to identify security weaknesses and to ensure that the agency's people and operations are protected. While all agencies and departments are required to have an emergency evacuation plan and continuity-of-operations plan, there are no governmentwide guidelines for evacuation plans. As a result, it's up to individual agencies and buildings to prepare for the worst. According to a General Services Administration spokeswoman, the 1,700 GSA-run federal buildings have tenant committees that meet regularly and develop their own evacuation plans. "If they need help our facilities people will work with them," she explained. "But there aren't any specific requirements, it's individual with each building." According to letters from several Government Executive readers, not all federal facilities are doing enough to ensure their employees' safety. Readers from the Army, Navy and the Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Agriculture departments said that nothing has changed since Sept. 11 with regard to their agencies' evacuation plans, or, that no plan exists at all. For the most part, there is a dismissive attitude about evacuations, wrote one civilian employee at the Utah Army National Guard in Salt Lake City. "I think that we have become very lackadaisical in listening to fire alarms, and such, and though all of them so far have been false alarms, people just assume there's nothing wrong," she said. "It really is not hitting home because I think a lot of people are saying, 'This is Utah, what's going to happen here?'" Another reader said her agency has no disaster evacuation plan and no plans to put one in place. "We have a fire evacuation plan for our building, but if a disaster occurred, we have no clue as to what we are to do. I am very disappointed with our leaders in this regard, and I have asked multiple times about putting a plan into place," she said.
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