Before, during, and after a natural disaster strikes, facilities should have a plan in place to execute a comprehensive and flexible response to protect staff and critical assets. The need for such a plan is increasing.
A successful response to a severe weather event depends on thorough planning and groundwork. A smart plan should identify hazards, outline environmentally sound and cost-effective measures that aim to prevent disaster damages, determine the community support required, and estimate the costs to implement mitigation measures. It should also provide standard operating procedures in the event of a disaster. (Read more about hazard mitigation work here.)
The objective in developing and prioritizing mitigation projects should not only be the protection of assets and the community but also the implementation of measures that will minimize interruption to a treatment facility’s operations during a severe weather event and ensure staff safety.
Severe Weather Response: 12 Key Lessons Learned
As contract operators of public and private facilities throughout the country, Woodard & Curran has learned a number of important lessons during recent storms that have informed and improved the firm’s approach to severe weather planning and response.
To begin, coordinated actions should be completed days and hours before severe weather strikes. Emergency and regulatory agencies, subcontractors, and facility staff all need to be aware of their roles and responsibilities during an event. Never assume a facility will escape a direct hit. Develop policies that enable personnel and their families to have peace of mind during a storm.
Plan for the unexpected. Each type of weather event has unique hazards and response actions. For example, it is relatively easy to plan for locations on-site that will be impacted by flooding, and relocating equipment and personnel to higher ground is typically adequate. High wind gusts pose dangers that are more widespread and harder to predict. Increased danger exists due to downed power lines and trees, blowing debris, and wind uplift. Shelters and control buildings should be designed to withstand storm events to the extent possible.
Tier your response. In any event, actions taken in response to severe weather need to be in tiered levels to assure safety at every stage. Plans should cover:
- pre-storm activities to prepare for safety;
- standard operating procedures and clear lines of authority for duties during the event; and
- management and response efforts required after the storm to restore the site to normal conditions.
Watch the weather. This seems obvious, but staff should be disciplined in their observation and have the right tools at hand to be fully informed. Weather forecasting software is a helpful paid resource, which offers the ability to connect with live meteorologists online who respond to questions and provide feedback. The Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service and the National Weather Service River Forecast models also provide location-specific flood data and real-time weather conditions. Still, one cannot rely solely on a single one of these services as monitoring equipment can be knocked out during and after an event. Having open and frequent communication with staff at the site is essential.
Designate actions for all staff. Key actions for each staff member or contractor should be designated, and appropriate timing for each step should be identified so work can be implemented safely. The designated on-site project coordinator should have some flexibility and authority to evaluate conditions in the field and to determine when or if deviations from the written emergency plan are required or some actions can be delayed.
A plan should identify critical personnel and all others should be evacuated before severe weather creates hazards. This will reduce confusion and enable the site coordinator to keep track of personnel as conditions change quickly. The site coordinator should not add last minute requests that might place personnel in harm’s way.
Chemical safety should be of paramount concern. Plan for chemicals and residuals to be removed from the site, if necessary. Chemical suppliers should be on notice with scheduled dates to resume deliveries and should arrange for contingency plans to bring chemicals as soon as needed, if there has been an evacuation.
Arrange for off-site support. An emergency action plan should include a pre-arranged plan to establish back-up personnel that can respond in a weather emergency. Facility employees typically reside close to the project site and could have difficulties with damage at their residence that prevents them from covering a scheduled shift.
Establish procedures for booking several hotel rooms for use by staff before, during, or after an event. This can help ensure coverage at the facility for responding personnel.
Off-site laboratory support is critical. Plan to contract with environmental laboratories in advance at a location outside the anticipated impact area. Labs with multiple regional facilities or inter-lab agreements are desirable because a local lab is likely to suffer slowdowns after an event due to impacted employees or issues with the local facility.
Provide clear communication. Several forms of communication are needed. Phone and power outages, road closures, and safety issues can prevent proper notification and delay response after an event. Facility management should maintain contact lists for staff, suppliers, and contractors (including back-up phone numbers, home addresses, and lists of relocation sites when evacuations happen).
As soon as the facility is determined to be safe by the on-site project coordinator, there should be a clear communication plan to mobilize operations and security staff. Only then should damage assessment activities be carried out. The period immediately after an event can be as dangerous as the event itself.
Maintain security. Site security should be assessed to make sure fencing (where present) is intact and the site is as secure as possible. For sites staffed with security guards, the facility team should develop an action plan for the staff to know how to secure the location and when to stop rounds or shutdown a scheduled shift. Security personnel provided by outside contractors should receive adequate training to perform essential emergency duties by their firm and by the facility operations staff.
Continue to adapt and update your plan, especially following a storm. Once you provide recognition for a job well done and operations are back to normal, take some time to refine your response strategy and determine upgrades that are needed to better weather a storm.
Advanced planning helps maintain infrastructure integrity, improve operator safety, secure business continuity, and protect the environment when a hazard event occurs. The costs of developing and deploying these plans are far less than the expense of not being prepared.