THE MAGAZINE

Gimme Shelter

By James D. Lee

In 2005, as Hurricane Rita was bearing down on Houston, few people were taking any chances. The recent experience of what Katrina had done to New Orleans was fresh in their minds. As a result, hundreds of thousands of families hastily packed and left home, heeding the city’s order to evacuate inland, away from the storm’s path.

Not surprisingly, highways became clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, gas stations were overwhelmed, and many who had not had a chance to fill their tanks before the evacuation order was given became concerned that they did not have enough fuel to reach safety.

Several employees of one major company and their families decided that rather than risk a problematic evacuation, a safer solution was to turn around and head to their corporate campus in Houston to weather the storm. They had that option because only a few months earlier their company had implemented a comprehensive shelter-in-place (SIP) program.

Many of the employees had participated in the planning for the program as sheltering needs were analyzed, safe shelter areas were designated, supplies were stocked, and training was conducted on each floor, in each building, and in each department. All of the employees had received awareness training, and several in each department had received more extensive training as shelter wardens or shelter team members.

While the company’s shelter-in-place planning had not anticipated that some employees might return with their families hours after the campus had been evacuated, the program was fully capable of supporting the situation. The employees and their families were welcomed by remaining security staff, directed to safe areas, and provided with needed supplies.

This was the first major test of the shelter-in-place program, and the results were gratifying. The company’s employees had shown confidence in the program, and the program had worked.

After facilitating the development and implementation of SIP plans at over 100 facilities in over a dozen countries, we have learned that each aspect of facility-level SIP planning must take into account employee reaction and behavior. That can only be achieved through employee participation.

This approach requires more time, effort, and resources than simply having management sit around a table and work up a plan. But employee participation greatly reduces the risk that the SIP plan will fall apart upon execution due to unanticipated behavior.

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