5 Large Scale Facility Evacuation Lessons

In a world where we deal with natural disasters, industrial accidents, and other emergencies, having a well-thought-out evacuation action plan (EAP) is critical.

In today’s uncertain world, where natural disasters, industrial accidents, and other emergencies can strike at any moment, having a well-thought-out evacuation action plan (EAP) is critical. An effective building evacuation plan not only ensures the safety of employees and visitors, but also minimizes panic and confusion.

Rick Rescorla
Rick Rescorla

No evacuation story is more compelling than that of Rick Rescorla, a British-American security expert known for his heroic actions during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC). On that fateful morning, Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley, heard the explosion and saw the North Tower burning from his office on the 44th floor of the South Tower. Despite initial instructions from building managers for everyone to stay in their offices, he led the swift evacuation of nearly 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees. His plan, prior preparation, and decisive leadership saved their lives.

We will explore five elements to consider when constructing evacuation plans for large facilities, drawing inspiration from Rescorla’s work.

Element #1: Build on Internal Experience for your Facility EAP

Rescorla understood the importance of preparation and planning. After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center’s underground parking garage, he was convinced terrorists would return and used his imagination to think of scenarios – including flying an aircraft into the building.

Emergency planners should understand the common causes of fatalities and injuries at their facility during crisis events. For instance, most deaths in building fires are not caused by burns, but smoke inhalation.

Rescorla worked hard to create a disaster plan for his WTC office. To do this, he secured the CEO’s buy-in and conduct regular drills with employees. This training considered the specific needs he had at the WTC, including working with people mobility issues, providing for use of both elevators and stairs. He specifically assisted development of an evacuation plan with multiple exit routes from the building. Rescorla’s approach emphasized preparedness, and his proactive approach saved lives.

Element #2: Have Clearly Designated Assembly Areas

Rescorla’s actions demonstrated the importance of pre-designated meeting points in a crisis.

Everyone who enters your facility, including staff, service employees and visitors, expects that the building manager will ensure their safety while onsite. This accountability is doubly critical during an emergency. Managers help prevent panic and confusion among the building occupants, provide guidance to team leaders during a stressful situation, and must coordinate with emergency responders.

But the real work happens before the emergency. Evacuation managers must train their organization employees to go to specially designated assembly points. At other companies, these might be called rally, muster, or meeting areas. Knowing where to gather is critical, especially if communication is disrupted or if it’s unsafe to reenter the building.

When selecting evacuation points, choose easily accessible locations away from the building, as well as backup locations. A best practice is to give a unique name to each area. Managers should hold frequent practice drills to meet at these various locations to reinforce their importance and familiarity.

Despite the chaos and confusion engulfing the World Trade Center, Rescorla remained calm and directed Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate the building and assemble at their rally point in nearby Battery Park, which was one mile away and a safe distance from the building when it collapsed.

Battery Park, Lower Manhattan – New York

Element #3: Communication and Backups

Effective crisis communication is the lifeline for building occupants. During an evacuation communication is critical to keep them informed about the unfolding situation. Good communication prevents panic, which is a major cause of injuries during a crisis. Backups to communication should be spelled out clearly in your building evacuation plan.

Redundancy is the key. A crisis communication plan should include multiple methods such as: intercoms, cell phone alerts, text messages, emails, computer alert banners and perhaps social media. Alternate visual or audible alerts communication methods must be available for those with disabilities. Be sure to regularly test communication devices and backup methods in case primary channels fail.

This need for backups was demonstrated clearly during the 9/11 disaster. Despite facing overwhelming obstacles, Rick Rescorla continued to communicate with Morgan Stanley employees, using two-way radios, landline phones and even a battery-powered bullhorn, providing guidance and reassurance throughout the evacuation process.

Element #4: Emergency Supplies and Essentials

Each facility’s evacuation plan will need to plan for their site-specific emergency supplies. Hospitals might need to have backup generators and medical supplies for a shelter in place event. Chemical plants or refineries could have personal protective equipment (PPE) like breathing apparatus or gas monitors. For every site, the emergency supply kits should be located in a highly visible, readily accessible location for staff and visitors.

As the WTC building’s security director, Rick Rescorla ensured emergency supplies and essential equipment, such as flashlights and first aid kits, were readily available to employees during the evacuation. His foresight and proactive approach helped to alleviate panic and provide comfort to those under his care.

Element #5: Practice and Review

Regular practice and review are essential for ensuring that an evacuation plan remains effective. Brief emergency procedures to new employees upon onboarding and the rest of the staff on an annual basis. Conduct evacuation drills at least twice a year to familiarize everyone with evacuation routes, assembly points, and emergency procedures. Use these drills as opportunities to identify any areas for improvement.

After each drill, gather feedback from the staff and make any necessary adjustments to your plan. Encourage open communication and collaboration and emphasize the importance of remaining calm and focused during an emergency.

For years at the WTC, Rick Rescorla conducted regular evacuation drills and training exercises based on his disaster plan. He instilled a culture of preparedness among the Morgan Stanley’s employees. When the time came to evacuate, they knew what to do and where to go. When Rick jumped onto his office chair and yelled through the bullhorn to evacuate, there was no panic. Everyone complied – and lived.

Final Thoughts

Creating a comprehensive building evacuation plan is essential to ensure the safety of all occupants in the face of emergencies. By addressing these five key elements, managers will be better prepared for any potential evacuation scenario.

Rick Rescorla was not supposed to be at work on 9/11 – but he came in so a colleague could have the day off. Sadly, after ensuring all of Morgan Stanley’s employees were safely evacuated, he went back into the building to help others and died in the collapse of the South Tower. We pay tribute to him by following his example to prioritize preparedness, communication, and resilience in our evacuation planning efforts.

Remember, the time to plan is now – before disaster strikes.

Please consider XPressEntry Emergency Mustering as part of your EAP. Our XPressEntry handheld badge and biometric readers are used by safety professionals around the world, integrate with 35+ access control systems, maintain facility occupancy, and can account for hundreds, even thousands of employees in minutes at assembly areas / muster points to make sure that personnel and visitors have safely evacuated in a real emergency.


Recommended Reading: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why by Amanda Ripley, which profiles Rick Rescorla

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