Is your facilities management team prepared to overcome a catastrophic event?

No, we’re not talking about disaster recovery here, although focused training to overcome natural disasters is essential. We’re talking about the unforeseen circumstances that can occur during construction or operation. They’re the everyday mishaps that turn into catastrophic events.

Picture this.

A sprinkler head is struck by a lift during construction. Water is gushing into a corridor at 25 gallons per minute. Does the contractor know the location of the shutoff valve? Is it locked? Does s/he have a key? If 20 minutes pass, then that’s 500 gallons of water flooding the inside of the building. By the way, 500 gallons of water would fill 2.5 hot tubs and weigh over 4,000 pounds.

Now, what if the sprinkler head is struck inside an existing building? Even if the responding contractor or technician successfully unlocks the shutoff valve, what if it’s stuck because it hasn’t been operated annually (as required by NFPA 25)? Now the responder must use something as a lever to manually modulate the valve. If this scenario occurs within a hospital, then there’s an infection control issue to address in addition to possible mold abatement and insurance reconciliation.

In my book, that’s a catastrophic event. I particularly like this definition of catastrophe: unnecessary and unforeseen trouble resulting from an unfortunate event. The sprinkler head scenario above is perfectly described by that definition.

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Total Team Preparation

Building planning, design, and construction involves multiple parties, each with their own perspective. Owners, operation and maintenance staff, and contractors approach preparation for a catastrophic event differently.

An owner requires ready and responsive staff who support continuous business operations and functions. In healthcare, clinical services cannot cease regardless of external circumstances. Life and death are at stake.

Operators prepare by ensuring all services and utilities are in good working order and back online as soon as possible.

A general contractor is focused on risk and liability. Policies, procedures, and contracts are executed to address recovery and cleanup activities.

But here’s the thing. Staff, backup power, and policies are fantastic until the plan doesn’t work…nor does the backup plan. Then what?

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Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. –Mike Tyson
Rote memorization is more important than you think.

This is where focused staff training becomes critical. When I first started studying adult learning techniques, I paid close attention to the United States Army (and other military branches). Think about it – they have a vested interested in training our soldiers. Drills and rote learning are key strategies when preparing for combat. Repetition within scenario-based training sustains a level of sharpness and readiness necessary during a catastrophic event.

We practice the same methodology in schools with fire and other drills. Every kid in elementary school knows exactly what to do when that alarm goes off.

Surgeons and other clinicians continuously train and study within their field. They’re required to keep their fine motor skills tuned under pressure. Conversely, facilities staff oftentimes operate in the background with limited support and resources.

Rote learning is not an absolute remedy to crisis management. It’s important that technicians remember where shutoff valves are located. It’s equally important they have troubleshooting and critical thinking skills that result in successful crisis management. For this reason, real-life scenario training is paramount to preparing for a catastrophic event.

I’ll give you another example to bring context to what I’m talking about.

You might be familiar with virtual fire extinguisher simulators. I’ve got to admit – this concept is highly innovative. However, there’s a significant difference between extinguishing a live fire and a virtual one. My suggestion is to supplement the virtual reality training with scenario-based training.

Place someone in a room and instruct him/her to extinguish a fire in a specific location. Does s/he know where the closest extinguisher and nearest fire exit are located? This is where rote learning proves to be valuable. Does s/he “walk through the fire” to exit the room? Now the scenario-based training holds value. Time him/her and take notice how s/he responds to the unexpected under a time crunch.

This approach can be applied to numerous types of scenarios – flooding, power outage, equipment failure, active shooter, etc.

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Solving the Problem Together

Unfortunately, as an industry, designers, contractors, and owners are not intentionally training staff to overcome catastrophic events. The good news is there’s opportunity to improve.

If you’re an Owner, include specific training criteria in your requests for proposals (RFPs) when hiring contractors and consultants. For example, technicians should be taught the sequences of operation for the generators in case of a power outage – brown out and manual override. Have the contractor provide this training using the scenario-based methodology. Technicians must know what to expect and what to do when the generators become necessary for power. Keep reference material near the critical equipment so it’s readily available for all shifts. For critical function buildings, conduct monthly testing to maintain a level of readiness necessary during an emergency.

Hire for qualifications and not price. A fire sprinkler contractor should not just provide value in a fair bid price but also include water damage in the pricing structure. Specifically ask for a comprehensive list of exclusions from bidding contractors and the reason(s) behind them. Don’t allow yourself to become vulnerable in case of a catastrophic event.

If you’re a General Contractor, get involved in the Pre-Construction Risk Assessment (PCRA) development process. The diverse perspective adds tremendous value – be sure to include sub-contractors, too. It’s likely multiple members of the construction team have a “lessons learned” list that would further strengthen the quality of the PCRA. Consider creating a project-specific training session to address the high-risk issues identified and include a sign-in sheet for verification and record-keeping purposes.

Proactively create procedures and protocols before construction begins. Thoughtfully consider the “what if” scenarios with multiple examples of each. Don’t complete this exercise alone – again, engage a diverse team to solicit different and multiple perspectives. If you’re working in the healthcare environment, include clinicians, administrators, environmental services, clinical engineering, facilities management etc.

Remember, training is a process and not a single event. Continue the initial efforts with continuous training. NFPA 99 includes specific requirements for annual training, so become familiar with them if you work in healthcare.

The hope is that a catastrophic event won’t happen at your facility. However, when that day comes, the best and most effective way to promote operational resiliency is through preparation and continuous practice. Don’t wait for that day to happen to start training your facilities management team on catastrophic events and equipment failure.

About me: My career has offered me a whirlwind of opportunity in the engineering and construction industry, but my passion is rooted in developing and implementing training programs for facilities management teams. Every facility manager I have ever had the privilege of meeting simply wants to do good work, and my mission in life is to empower them to do more of it.

I have been responsible for the development and management of over $370 million in specialized energy solutions and infrastructure projects. Since starting my career in healthcare engineering consulting, I have provided healthcare facility managers with the tools and resources they need to make data-driven, well-informed decisions that improve their energy efficiency, building performance, and facility operations. The most recent of these solutions is a healthcare facilities operation and maintenance training program, the first of its kind in the industry.

Let’s connect: If you have a success story in facilities management, I’d love to hear about it and learn how you made it happen.

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