Special Guest Blog
How to Manage Facilities & Security to Deal with the Threat of
Extreme Weather – The new Normal
by Caroline Ramsey Hamilton and Larry Wilson
In June 2012, a derecho of historic proportions and duration swept more than 700 miles from the mid-west to New Jersey in a matter of hours. No one – including seasoned severe weather analysts – predicted the storm system could travel such a tremendous distance . . not to mention sustain its destructive capabilities.
Result: Widespread structural damage from powerful, straight-line winds and massive power outages that shut down businesses and crippled local economies for days and even weeks after the storm. Worst of all, at least 13 storm-related deaths in states on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains, where most forecasters believed the derecho would weaken and perhaps even dissipate.
In October, 2012, Superstorm Sandy (dubbed “Superstorm Sandy” because meteorologists could not agree on how to define it in classical terms), roared up the east coast of the United States and painted a bulls-eye on much of the same geography ravaged by the June derecho. Still recovering from the earlier storm, many areas tried to brace for Hurricane Sandy’s punishing assault, only to later realize that late preparations were no defense in the face of such an enormous and dangerous storm.
Result: In areas along the coastline, Hurricane Sandy caused even greater and more widespread damage, affecting many who were still rebuilding from the derecho months earlier. Thirty-three people lost their lives in Sandy’s rampage through the U.S. and into Canada. In addition, more than eight million people – residential and business – lost power, many for extended periods despite the fact that utility crews from all parts of the nation worked ‘round-the-clock to restore electricity to an enormous swath of territory. Financial damages peaked at an estimated $165 billion in the U.S. and Canada.
Facilities professionals often find themselves dealing with the threat of new types, and new intensities, of severe weather. They are responsible for scores or even hundreds of lives as well as millions of dollars in property assets, but not much in the way of severe weather defenses. As “extreme” weather appears increasingly to be the new “normal,” risk assessment professionals are examining ways of helping facilities managers and directors to prepare for the challenge of these new threats.
Mark Twain wrote: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Today, most people know what the weather is likely to be, but an alarmingly few take the proper steps to protect against it. When I first do an assessment of an organization’s preparedness, I look at the controls already in-place. What type of threat analysis of the most likely natural disasters has the organization conducted? What do the frequency tables of those disasters look like? What preparedness and mitigation plans have been developed from the analysis? Have these plans been properly vetted? Most importantly, have the plans been tested under simulated disaster conditions. And, if so, what lessons have been learned as a result of the testing?
Not surprisingly, most organizations are guilty of incomplete risk management and contingency planning. This is a common problem; companies start development of contingency planning and disaster plans with good intentions, but often become distracted and fail to complete them because of time constraints, financial priorities, lack of organizational buy-in, inadequate commitment from senior management and the general attitude that “it can’t happen here.”
But one phenomenon that is virtually guaranteed to happen
here is Extreme Weather, which will become THE NEW NORMAL!
And for businesses not to take some rudimentary steps to safeguard their employees and
property is no longer acceptable, and may even be negligent. Severe weather now occurs in virtually every part of the country, and facilities professionals – along with their security partners, who play a vital role in emergency preparedness – would do well to recognize that as much as 25% of their jobs is devoted to dealing with potential disasters, both natural and human-induced.
Facilities professionals should, at a minimum, consider the following safeguards as part of their severe weather event plan:
- Keep security risk assessments and threat assessments current and updated annually. Because the threats are so rapidly changing, what happened over the last five years may be changing rapidly, so keeping current is vital.
Invest in a NOAA weather-alert radio and keep it active at all times in the “alarm” mode; the more contemporary all-hazards radio is a better alternative since it also can alert users of emergencies/disasters beyond just the weather.
- The first casualty of most severe weather is electricity. Facilities professionals should anticipate the prospective loss of power during any extreme weather.
If emergency back-up power is available, limit its distribution to critical-path operating systems and life safety features. Power interruptions may be prolonged in duration, so have a plan to shed loads from the generator in a prioritized fashion and consistent with the organization’s Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plans.
- If emergency back-up power is not an option, make certain life safety devices, such as fire alarm panels, emergency exit signs, stairwell/corridor lighting, etc., are equipped with fresh batteries. Batteries should be tested regularly or in compliance with applicable local codes.
- Another typical severe weather casualty is communications. Ensure that an emergency communications plan is implemented, if possible, before the onset of extreme weather. Establish and practice an assembly and rendezvous plan with the organization’s emergency management personnel in the event routine communications are non-operational for a prolonged period.
- Ensure that adequate emergency management assets, especially security personnel, are available and present, or at least on standby for your facility.
Additionally, organizations should make sure the staff has its own family emergency plans and supplies available home. They will do a better job in an emergency if they don’t have to worry about what’s happening with their families and homes. Point them to www.ready.gov to get started.
- Keep the facility’s rooftops and high-elevation open areas clear of debris and equipment that could be affected by extreme weather conditions.
- Consider a service agreement with a reputable disaster-recovery company to assist with the rapid recovery and restoration of damaged areas, consistent with the organization’s Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plans.
- Finally, take advantage of the inexpensive and frequently free assets available on the internet to monitor imminent threatening weather. Once a luxury few could afford, virtual weather stations now are a mouse-click away from the PC screen. Doppler interactive radar – the same radar used by professional meteorologists – is ubiquitous in practically all parts of the country, and monitoring it on a PC when severe weather threatens can provide facilities professionals precious time to prepare for and alert others to an imminent extreme weather event.
According to a 2013 report by the American Security Project in Washington, D.C., extreme weather across the U.S. – including derecho storms, tornadoes, droughts, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and heat waves – is likely to be the most acute threat to infrastructure and the livelihood of American citizens. The report highlighted increasing use of U.S. military forces which may be required to respond to natural disasters and their aftermath.
The year 2012 is just an example of extremes likely to come. The first quarter of 2012 was the warmest on record, breaking 15,000 warm weather records. By July 10, 61% of the country faced moderate to extreme drought conditions. The same year also ushered in the derecho winds, which caused widespread, catastrophic damage. And on May 31, 2013 in El Reno, Oklahoma, the U.S. experienced the largest tornado ever recorded, and it was also the widest, measuring almost three miles across.
The rising incidence of extreme weather in the U.S. may be the result of climate change, or it may simply be a cyclical feature. Whatever its root cause, it is logical to assume that it will continue, and equally logical to assume that its risk to people and property will increase proportionately. Savvy property and facilities professionals are conducting updated natural disaster threat assessments in recognition of this threat and are consulting with insurance analysts and risk assessment experts to fashion practical and economically-viable preparedness, mitigation and response plans.
We can’t change the weather, but we can plan for it, have the supplies on hand to keep our organizations functioning in spite of the extreme weather, and protect our people, our facilities and our role as part of the vital infrastructure of the United States. Whether you are a facility director, a security manager, or part of senior management, now is the time to make sure that this critical new threat, extreme weather, is addressed by your organization and that planning is put in place to address “the new normal”.
About the Authors:
Caroline Ramsey-Hamilton is a leading security risk assessment expert.
She was a Charter member of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Risk Management Model Builders Workshop and she served on the working group to create a Defensive Information Warfare Risk Management Model for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She works directly with companies, hospitals, healthcare organizations, financial institutions and government agencies around the world. In addition, she is a member of the ASIS Physical Security Council, SARMA and IAHSS. Contact Ms. Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Wilson is Facilities Director at Chase Brexton Health Services Inc.,
an innovative, Baltimore, Maryland-based health care group. He is an emergency management specialist and consultant who has led Community Emergency Management Teams (CERT) in Baltimore City since 2008. Wilson also is a long-time amateur meteorologist whose severe weather analyses are used for emergency planning and preparation by various companies and businesses in the Baltimore Metropolitan region. Contact Mr. Wilson at