Disaster Preparedness

You know, I’ve been watching some 9/11 specials on TV. One of them is titled The Man Who Predicted 9/11. It’s about a guy who was the head of security for Dean Witter. He assessed the threats to the twin towers and then took steps to minimize the impact to his company. He and a consultant (a friend of his) realized early on that the underground parking (which was unguarded pre 1993) was a major weakness. He developed escape plans, and he drilled the employees – complete with evacuations – about every month.

Everyone hated him.

Then 1993 happened. And he gained the support of management, and most of the employees.

After 1993, he re-assessed the threats against the building and decided that another attack would most likely be aerial. He was, in fact, so concerned about this that he tried to convince upper management to move away from the WTC. Meanwhile, he continued drilling the employees. They began to hate him again. Several of the employees who survived (and most of them did) talked about what a PITA it was.

But on Sept 11, when they saw the other building on fire, they left. When the guards at the lobby told them they didn’t need to evacuate, they left anyway. They left because their security officer had drilled it into them that if there is any danger – any danger – the first thing you do is leave the building.

Apparently, the company had security officers (volunteers, just regular employees) on each floor who were in charge of evacuating their floors. Guess what? They actually did it.

And most of the Dean Witter employees got out.

This was such an interesting program to me, as a former disaster preparedness person. When I was working, one of my interestingly varied duties was developing the disaster recovery procedures for my department (the financial department). This covered not only getting people out of the building (and drilling evacuations), but also where we’d set up operations if we had to leave the building, where we’d get supplies, how we’d get the systems back up and running, computer backups, what files did we need to have copied and kept off site, what supplies we wanted to have in our emergency boxes at the warehouse, etc. It was actually a really fun aspect of my job.

And one that the rest of the company hated. Really. They didn’t want to practice evacuating. They didn’t want to take the time to think through whether there were physical files that they’d really miss if they caught fire. They didn’t want to sit down to figure out alternate ways of getting information – or of how we’d handle reporting requirements if we were unable to get information on a timely basis. I’m not going to pretend that the stakes were as high in our 8 story building. (I often joked that I didn’t personally need an evacuation route, because if push came to shove, I’d just jump.)

But I was struck, while watching this program, about how, because he drilled and drilled for an emergency, the folks in his office knew what to do as soon as they realized it was an emergency. It’s important.

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