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Emergency Preparedness: Battening Down the Hatches

Emergency Preparedness: Battening Down the Hatches

In times of disaster, facility managers put their plans and preparations to the test

If it seems like there's been a greater need for faith-based organizations to step up and pitch in following natural disasters in recent years, there's a reason. "It has to a certain degree because of the demographics and the way that the U.S. population is physically moving toward disaster-prone areas, so that when these disasters happen they tend to affect more people," says Armond Mascelli, vice president of disaster operations for the Red Cross based in Washington, D.C. As a result, there is a bigger demand for services to be provided to people following a major weather event.

Churches like Fellowship of The Woodlands in The Woodlands, Texas, located 50 miles south of Houston, stand as examples of just how much help a worship facility can provide in times of need. On the Sunday that followed Hurricane Ike in early September last year, Fellowship of The Woodlands held services with backup generators that juiced up just about everything needed for the worship service, save air conditioning.

Perhaps more importantly, Fellowship of The Woodlands mobilized 2,500 volunteers to help with recovery efforts. The church served as a distribution center for FEMA, providing ice, water and food for families. It also became a Red Cross cooking center, preparing meals that the Red Cross distributed at its feeding stations. "It's a constant flow of tractor trailers, forklifts and lines of people in cars," says Dave Marks, production and technical manager for the church.

The bustle of busy volunteers, the lines of cars eight-deep picking up emergency supplies, even the lights in the sanctuary all are the result of careful planning and preparation. Anthony Mireles, facility director of Fellowship of The Woodlands for the past 15 years, keeps a written disaster preparedness plan at all times that covers the steps to be taken in the event of every type of disaster from bomb threats to hurricanes.

The plan is updated annually with a church coordinating or management team that includes the senior pastor, the executive pastor, the director of facilities and other key pastors in the church. Not only is the plan reviewed for weaknesses in facility maintenance but also for weaknesses in the team members, to make sure each leader is suitable for his or her task.

"Because we are in a leadership position in the community, we want to provide as much as we can for the community within our ability to do it," says Mireles.

In the event of a weather event like a tornado or a hurricane like Ike, Mireles offers a few tips:

1)  Keep an updated contact list of all members of the coordinating team.

2)  Prepare to shut off all power, including gas, water and electricity, by a set date and contact the utility company to shut down the meters.

3)  Make certain there is a plan in place to ensure that all debris on the ground is picked up or anchored down.

4)  Tape windows and lock all doors.

5)  Notify the alarm company that the alarm will be shut down.

Once the church is buckled down, Mireles meets with key personnel from his maintenance crew. "I ask those key personnel to bring their families and to come bunker down at the church because I don't want them traveling once the storm starts," he says. "Then we all wait out the storm in the facility."

With his crew onsite, Mireles is able to begin to respond to the needs of the community immediately. His team can assess the damage and report the findings back to the management team. The assessment helps to determine if the church will be able to provide other services such as feeding, distribution or shelter. That initial assessment is followed by another meeting with the management team to devise a long-term recovery strategy.

Communications and Data

Jim Boyd, director of support services at Calvary Baptist based in Winston-Salem, N.C., and vice president of communications for the National Association of Church Facilities Managers (NACFM) based in Lubbock, Texas, says each emergency plan must be specific to the church or facility. Calvary Baptist, for example, is a large campus setting, so when power goes out, communication is picked up by handheld radio.

The first emergency preparation event at Calvary Baptist, Boyd recalls, was instituted in advance of Y2K, the projected year 2000 computer problem. The procedures included having backup generators to keep phone systems and networks running. Calvary Baptist also keeps an emergency preparedness manual. "The biggest thing is just having the information together so we have something to go to and to work from," says Boyd.

These days, facility managers can also employ software services like FacilityTree as part of their disaster readiness procedures. FacilityTree helps track and manage assets, work orders, preventive maintenance, inventory, space management and scheduling. In short, the software service tracks and manages everything that is purchased by a church or building ownerfrom tables and chairs to windows and steeples.

In the event of a hurricane or other disaster, FacilityTree can be utilized for preparations. Facility managers can use the service to manage maintenance functions, to make sure all of a church's assets are counted, in working order and in their place. The software service also negates the need for backup. Information stored on FacilityTree is kept at a company data center located in Greenville, S.C. Following an event, the inventory of assets is easily accessed via the Internet or downloaded on a Palm device.

"So you know where it was purchased, how much was paid for it, and then specifics such as name, serial number or model number," says Paul Claybaker, a consultant for FacilityTree based in Chicago. "If you incur a disaster, you're going to have a backup of all of this critical information so as you start to process insurance claims and you start to rebuild, you have all of this documented. That's one of the key first steps to making sure that you're set for any sort of disaster."

The cost per month for the core solution of FacilityTree is $100 per month, for a single building worship facility with an unlimited number of users; and includes the document and tracking of everything owned by a church, a work order or problem request function, and preventive maintenance function, which sends reminders to the user about recurring tasks such as landscaping activities, life safety and disaster backup inspections, or HVAC inspections and filter replacement.

In terms of sounding the alarm for fire, hurricane, tornado or other disaster, facility managers can also purchase a new mass notification system that can be used for fire alarm protection. Northford, Conn.-based Gamewell-FCI's E3 Series is a line of Expandable Emergency Evacuation systems which offer a local operating console, back-lit signage, high-threat switches, amber strobes, specialized speakers and giant voice equipment.

"Mass notification is a little different than a fire alarm. With a fire alarm, the only goal is to get people out of the building," says Gamewell-FCI's national sales manager, Mike Madden. "In a mass notification situation, you're not quite sure what the threat is. It could be fire or a tornado. It could be hazardous material if it was an industrial facility. It could be an intruder alert like they've experienced on some of the college campuses."

In addition to fire alarm protection, the E3 Series can serve as a mass notification system. It allows facility managers, church leadership or first responders (police or fire fighters) to communicate with the occupants of a building in real-time to provide instructions and updates on the situation. The cost for the base system, says Madden, is comparable to a standard fire alarm system. Though, he cautions, the usefulness of the product increases with the size of the worship facility.

Another product that helps with communication needs is PhoneTree, an automated congregational messaging system that allows you to combine voice, e-mail and text messages to ensure that your messages are accurately and promptly delivered. Developed in and for the church, PhoneTree, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., partners with major church software manufacturers and does not require a per-call fee.

PhoneTree provides fast and efficient automated messaging solutions enabling churches to send emergency readiness alerts to its members. Using voice and/or email communications, PhoneTree allows churches to notify members of event schedule changes due to increment weather, or to solicit volunteers to help others in times of need. Pricing can be obtained through the company.

Dangerous World

And as the variety of threats continue to growbombs, floods, hurricanes, terrorist threatschurches increasingly will be called to the frontline of recovery efforts. "If you look at the coastal areas in the United States from Texas all the way to Maine, we have a significant population there that now is at risk annually from hurricanes. That has grown substantially over about the past 20 or 30 years," says Mascelli of the Red Cross.

"A good example of that are wildfires. They've increased substantially in terms of their impact, in large part people moving into areas that years ago did not have population," he continues. "We had a fire in Santa Barbara last night, causing a large number of people to be displaced, where it wasn't an issue years ago."

If there was less devastation from Ike than Katrina, it may be attributed, at least in part, to aggressive outreach efforts by the Red Cross in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas to reach more community organizations on board. While the Red Cross has some 44,000 designated shelters across the U.S., the non-profit does not own the facilities. Instead, it partners with local organizations like schools and churches to provide shelter, or prepare food or to serve as points of distribution.

Such partnerships, says Mascelli, are formed through the local chapters of Red Cross, which can provide information, training and survey facilities for suitability to certain tasks. In return for facilities and often manpower, the Red Cross pays for any expenses incurred during an event, such as power to run the kitchen for meal preparation. In the case of a shelter, the Red Cross provides cots and blankets.

Like Mascelli, Mireles of the Fellowship of The Woodlands agrees that preparedness is key. "After every disaster, I go over my plan and see what worked the best and what didn't workthen I make adjustments," says Mireles.

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