The unbearable lightness of evacuation tests

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On March 5, during the morning, we learned from the Social Media that the buildings of the Sole 24 Ore and PricewaterhouseCoopers in via Monte Rosa in Milan were evacuated due to a bomb threat. The headquarter of PANTA RAY / HI CARE Association is a few hundred meters away, so we immediately applied our protocol that - in this case - is to lower the blinds and evacuate the offices away from the epicenter of the risk in direction of a predetermined collection point.

On March 5, during the morning, we learned from the Social Media that the buildings of the Sole 24 Ore and PricewaterhouseCoopers in via Monte Rosa in Milan were evacuated due to a bomb threat. The headquarter of PANTA RAY / HI CARE Association is a few hundred meters away, so we immediately applied our protocol that – in this case – is to lower the blinds and evacuate the offices away from the epicenter of the risk in direction of a predetermined collection point.

The situation that we found at the exit of our site was more or less the one described by journalists intervened in the area. Therefore, we quote the following excerpt taken from a few different sources of information, hoping to stimulate a series of reflections on evacuation procedures that, in my opinion, are necessary:

  1. ‘We put bomb your home, we put bomb your home.’ The alarm went off at 10:15 with this anonymous phone call with a strong foreign accent to the switchboard of the editorial site of the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. The controls of the police have completed at 2:00 p.m. with negative results;

Hint: creating an alert – even a false one, as in this case – is the most simple imaginable. With a minimal investment, one can cause significant damage and partially interrupt the activity of various companies – of relevant size too – for more than half a day.

  1. Laura Bettini, journalist and speaker of Radio24, says ‘The communication came before the alarm bell. It was about 11:00 a.m., it took about ten minutes to get out into the street. In addition to thousands of employees in the business today, there were many hundreds of people due to the Conference ‘Back to Work – Expo 24’;

Hint: coincidence or not, it is a fact that the only mention of the theme Expo attracts bomb alerts or other kind of threats. Such incidents are likely to intensify with the start of the event in May, so appropriate preparedness is crucial.

  1. ‘The police – says the Sole 24 Ore Group – have decided, as a precaution, to evacuate the premises for inspection of the bomb because a private event (BacktoWork24 Expo) was being held, with a significant number of external participants’;

Hint: contingency plans must always take into account the occasional visitors. They should be individually registered at the entrance and then guided through the evacuation for the reconciliation.

  1. The entrance of the building located at number 91 of Via Monte Rosa was completely isolated. The police have laid a strip of containment from side to side, on the front of the structure, for about fifty meters, creating a ‘protection area’, a quadrilateral, in front of the glass doors of the Company. On the sides of the street and in front of the site there are about a hundred journalists and curious;

Hint: the buildings in question was designed by Renzo Piano and is made entirely of glass. If there had actually been an explosion, do we really think that 50 meters of distance is enough to protect the safety? In addition, across the street, among curious people wandering around and journalists there were many employees of other companies forced to evacuate. They had no idea what was (and if there was) their aggregation point outside the building and they were trying to reconcile their own employees by calling each other via mobile phones.

  1. ‘The alarm is off, everything is very calm, we are out of the building but there is a very quiet climate’ – said Simone Spetia, a journalist of Radio 24, returned to transmitting live after the interruption of more than an hour. Moreover, Laura Bettini adds ‘The evacuation took place according to the plan even if that was meant for fire. Not surprisingly, once we were in the yard, the police made us go outside. Nevertheless, there is a flaw. Perhaps the exits are too few to allow for a rapid evacuation of so many people. I do not know what would have happened if there was a real bomb’;

Hint: we are going to disregard the use of Twitter and communications to the media by employees of a company in a state of emergency (it would generally be very serious, but in this case it comes from journalists and the exception is therefore understandable). However, the issues raised by Laura Bettini – in particular – forces us to think a lot about the situation.

In addition, in the immediate proximity of the ‘il Sole 24 Ore’ and PWC headquarters there are other Organizations sites (such as INPS or a branch of Intesa San Paolo Bank) that did not evacuate nor invacuated. Really, those who deal professionally with safety and security cannot ignore the many wrong notes in this story that fortunately ended with the announcement of ‘false alarm’ by the authorities.

And since I am sure that Companies like ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ and PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted evacuation and emergency drills as required by law, in the light of the ‘result’ of this forced stress test I wonder: what good does it make to perform evacuation tests just to fulfill the mere regulatory requirement? Answer: very little or nothing!

WHEN THE TEST IS USELESS

The test is useless if it is not a surprise: If you plan to pre-announce a test, do not even bother spending the time on it, since in case of real crises people will panic and tests will result useless. The participants to an evacuation must always doubt that there is a real problem and evacuate as quickly as possible. The time when the alarm is real, the people will evacuate neatly because they may have the doubt that it is just a test.

The test is useless if it is not realistic: if people take advantage of the evacuation to go and have a coffee, maybe exiting the building just before the pre-announced test so they can use the elevator, the exercise performed is not realistic, as it would not have a sufficient critical mass of people to crowd the stairs and exits. In addition, non-realistic exercises are never taken seriously.

The test is useless if it is artificially simplified: recently, someone told me about an evacuation test performed by the school. This person’s child, temporarily on a wheelchair for a skiing accident, was instructed to stay there alone while all the others were exercising the evacuation since the school was not equipped to transfer him during the test. Seriously wrong: wonder what would happen in case of a real crisis.

The test is useless if people do not gather at safe distance: the meeting point near the building (many schools gather the kids at the gym or in the inner courtyard) is dangerous and unrealistic. Unless we train people (especially children) to proceed quickly to a safe place, due to the panic during a crisis we will have serious issues caused by poor preparation for evacuation.

The difference between those who think that security is complied with a check in the box “done it!” and true Crisis Managers is substantial. The first ones are content to supervise a test evacuation to decree a fast return to the building and feel satisfied, while the latter are concerned to lead a real reconciliation and make people think on the following questions: do we know what to do in case the building is no longer fit for use? Do we know what kind of instructions we need to give to our staff? How do we pursue the continuity of our critical processes?

We prefer to be manager of the second kind: we certainly have more work and many concerns however we are not satisfied by mediocrity.

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PANTA RAY is a training and management consulting firm, specialized in organizational resilience. 

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