A devastating event doesn’t always originate from a natural disaster. At any moment during construction or operation, something could go wrong — and it will. When the unexpected happens, it’s imperative that all team members are aptly prepared to quickly respond and recover from such catastrophic events.

Imagine a sprinkler head is struck by a lift during construction. Water is gushing into a corridor at 25 gallons per minute. Does the contractor know the location of the shutoff valve? Is it locked? Does  he or she have a key? If 20 minutes pass, that’s 500 gallons of water flooding the inside of the building. To offer some perspective, 500 gallons of water would fill two and a half hot tubs and weighs more than 4,000 pounds.

Now, what if the sprinkler head is struck inside an existing building? Even if the responding contractor or technician successfully unlocks the shutoff valve, what if it’s stuck because it hasn’t been operated annually (as required by NFPA 25)? Now the responder must use something as a lever to manually modulate the valve. If this scenario occurs within a critical facility, like a hospital, then there’s an infection control issue to address in addition to possible mold abatement and insurance reconciliation.

For context, within this article, a catastrophe is defined as unnecessary and unforeseen trouble resulting from an unfortunate event. The sprinkler head scenario above perfectly fits this definition. This article explores the two primary components of adequate preparation: critical infrastructure and trained staff.


Start with Thoughtful and Resilient Design

Preparing for unforeseen and devastating events starts with designing and installing the appropriate infrastructure to handle these types of disasters. Generally, when people discuss critical power as it relates to a catastrophic event, the facility’s generators are among the first talking points. However, generators are just one of many energy sources that could supply a building. Beyond electricity, critical building operation could rely on other resources, such as domestic water, natural gas for boilers, or even medical gases for clinical equipment.

NFPA 110: “Standards for Emergency and Standby Power Systems” provides performance requirements for emergency and standby power systems that provide buildings and facilities with an alternate source of electrical power if the normal electrical power source fails. These types of emergency and standby power systems include power sources, transfer equipment, controls, supervisory equipment, and secondary components necessary to deliver electrical power to the selected circuits.

In Chapter 5, NFPA 110 states, “For Level 1 (i.e. critical to prevent loss of human life or serious injury) installations in locations where the probability of interruption of off-site fuel supplies is high, on-site storage of an alternate energy source sufficient to allow full output of the emergency power supply system (EPSS) to be delivered for the class specified shall be required, with the provision for automatic transfer from the primary energy source to the alternate energy source.”

NFPA 110 strictly focuses on emergency power supply systems. This requirement could easily be applied to energy sources other than electricity as well as other aspects of emergency preparedness. For example, many critical facilities are now seeking means and methods for supplying a backup source of potable water to its occupants immediately following a natural disaster, especially a prolonged event like a flood. The same concept applies to gases that are delivered to a facility as well as trash and hazardous waste disposal. A plan should be in place in the event these deliveries and pickups are disrupted due to a natural disaster or a supplier shortage. Owners should carefully consider the amount of fuel source stored on-site and how long this supply will last the facility so it can continue with normal business operation.

Once installed, critical power equipment and infrastructure should be routinely maintained and tested.

Emergency generators should be exercised and tested under actual load conditions monthly in compliance with Chapter 8 of NFPA 110: “Standards for Emergency and Standby Power Systems.” Additionally, breakers in the EPSS gear, which are rated 600 volts or less, should be exercised annually; breakers rated more than 600 volts should be exercised every six months; and the transfer switches should be operated monthly. The facility should also have a mechanism in place to provide temporary generator connections should an incident occur to the generator plant(s) or if power is cut off between the generators and the building(s). If the generator plant is remote from the main facility, then more than one set of conductors, routed in at least two different paths, should be supplied from the plant to the building. If not, then establish a response plan if the conductors were to fault or incur damage to the extent that they could no longer carry power.


Next, Focus on the Human Element

Once a facility is constructed and operating as intended, additional measures can be implemented beyond the installation of redundant infrastructure and critical power supplies. For example, the facility’s electrical distribution system should be well understood and documented on a “one-line” type diagram. This diagram should be maintained as the building undergoes renovations and additions that might include multiple sets of drawings. However, a single one-line diagram should be continuously updated with “as-built” changes and then clearly displayed near corresponding equipment rather than partially documented on numerous sheets of paper within various sets of drawings and kept in a nondescript storage room. Sound familiar? Facilities management staff should be able to easily locate and refer to the diagram as needed and especially during an emergency. In an internal electrical event, facilities staff must be able to quickly identify the originating location of the issue, the affected areas, the necessary steps to temporarily resolve the issue, and the approximate amount of time needed to permanently resolve the issue. This simple approach is much more effective than waiting to receive complaint calls with no plan in place or inclination to what a temporary or permanent solution might entail. Some facilities publish and display a printed copy of their distribution systems by branch as defined by the National Electrical Code (NEC)/NFPA 70) from the utility service(s) down to every 100- or 60-amp panel.

Although simple, this proposed solution might seem cumbersome to owners with older or renovated facilities who have little or no drafting support. Even with skilled staff on hand, time is an issue. If this is the case, start with a partial, digital, one-line diagram. Leverage an existing on-call service contract with a local consultant and start by updating as-built drawings, even if only a limited budget is available. Begin with the largest block of one-line that can be managed. Then, when future projects are completed by a designer or contractor, have the design team modify the existing digital drawings in their work. This way, paid hours are productively spent to benefit the owner and the designer. Over time, the owner will have a complete and accurate one-line diagram to be used during a normal power failure or other disruption.

Project planning, design, and construction involves owners, facilities management staff, designers, and contractors. Each of these parties has its own perspective on how to prepare for a catastrophic event within the context of the project. Especially in a critical business environment, shutting down operation during a disaster is not an option. Owners require ready and responsive staff who support continuous business operations and functions. In health care, for example, clinical services cannot cease regardless of external circumstances. Life and death are at stake. Owners turn to their facilities management staff who must ensure all services and utilities are in good working order and maintained in that condition. A contractor’s perspective is focused on risk and liability. Together, owners and contractors develop policies, procedures, and execute contracts to address mitigation, disaster recovery, and cleanup activities.

But here’s the catch: Support staff, backup power, and policies are fantastic until the plan doesn’t work and neither does the backup plan. Then what? Like Mike Tyson delicately put it, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” True preparation goes beyond a written policy or plan.

Rote memorization is more important than one might think. Just ask the U.S. Army (and other military branches). Think about it — they have a vested interested in training their soldiers. Drills and rote learning are key strategies when preparing for combat. This is where focused staff training becomes critical. Repetition within scenario-based training sustains a level of sharpness and readiness necessary during a catastrophic event.

Primary schools practice the same methodology with fire and other drills. Nearly every child in elementary school knows exactly what to do when the fire alarm system goes off. This type of response results from rote memorization. Surgeons and other clinicians continuously train and study within their field. They’re required to keep their fine motor skills tuned under pressure. Conversely, facilities management staff oftentimes operate in the background with limited support and resources.

Rote learning is not an absolute remedy to crisis management. It’s important that technicians remember where shutoff valves are located. It’s equally important they have troubleshooting and critical thinking skills that result in successful crisis management. For this reason, real-life scenario training is paramount to preparing for a catastrophic event.

Applying this concept to facility operation, consider virtual fire extinguisher simulators. This idea is highly innovative and practical; however, there’s a significant difference between extinguishing a live fire and a virtual one. One suggestion is to supplement the virtual reality training with scenario-based training. Place someone in a room and instruct them to extinguish a fire in a specific location. Do they know where the closest extinguisher and nearest fire exit are located? This is where rote learning proves to be valuable. Do they “walk through the fire” to exit the room? Now the scenario-based training holds value. Time them and take notice of how they respond to the unexpected under a time crunch.

This approach can be applied to numerous types of scenarios — flooding, power outage, equipment failure, active shooter, etc.


Finally, Implement Comprehensive and Continuous Measures 

Unfortunately, as an industry, designers, contractors, and owners are not intentionally training staff to overcome catastrophic events. The good news is there’s opportunity to improve.

It’s imperative that owners have trusted relationships with competent partners in the contracting, service, and engineering industries that can and will respond on extremely short notice (i.e. one hour or less). This response time should be guaranteed whether disaster occurs in the middle of the day or night or during the work week or weekend. Many owners arrange a formal agreement with these partners through annual or multiyear on-call contracts for disaster relief or skilled service contracts.

Beyond on-call agreements, owners should prepare for catastrophic events by including specific operations training criteria in requests for proposals (RFPs) when hiring contractors and consultants. For example, facilities technicians should be taught the sequences of operation for the generators in case of a power outage — both brownout and manual override. Have the contractor provide this training using the scenario-based methodology. Technicians must know what to expect and what to do when the generators become necessary for power but do not transfer as intended. Keep reference material near the critical equipment so it’s readily available for all shifts. For critical function buildings, conduct monthly testing to maintain a level of readiness necessary during an emergency.

It’s been stated countless times before, but owners should hire for qualifications and not price. A fire sprinkler contractor should not just provide value in a fair bid price but also include water damage in the pricing structure. Although obvious to some, this type of line item is excluded by some contractors unless clearly and explicitly requested by the owner. Owners should mitigate their exposure to risk and proactively overcome vulnerabilities in case of a catastrophic event. Specifically ask for a comprehensive list of exclusions from bidding contractors and the reason(s) behind them. Inquire perspective contractors about their familiarity with writing a method of procedure (MOP) and their processes for implanting the MOP prior to work.

General contractors and subcontractors should seek opportunities to become involved with the pre-construction risk assessment (PCRA) development process. This diverse perspective approach adds tremendous value. It’s likely multiple members of the construction team have a “lessons learned” list that would further strengthen the quality of the PCRA. Consider creating a project-specific training session to address the high-risk issues identified and include a sign-in sheet for verification and record-keeping purposes.

Proactively create procedures and protocols before construction begins. Thoughtfully consider the “what if” scenarios with multiple examples of each. Don’t complete this exercise alone — again, engage a diverse team to solicit different and multiple perspectives. For example, those working within a health care environment should include clinicians, administrators, environmental services, clinical engineering, facilities management, etc.

Remember, training is a process and not a single event. Sustain progress from the initial efforts with continuous training. Chapter 12 (Emergency Management) in NFPA 99 includes specific requirements for annual staff training, which could serve as a good starting place for those just beginning to establish a structured staff training program.

The hope is that a catastrophic event won’t happen at any facility. However, when that day comes, the best and most effective way to promote operational resiliency is through thoughtful infrastructure design and installation decisions, preparation through current policy and procedure, and continuous practice and training with support staff. Owners should not wait for disaster to strike to start training facilities management staff on catastrophic events and equipment failure.

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