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Playing by the rules - October 2017

25 July 2017

Whenever there is a largescale catastrophe, anywhere in the world, thousands of facilities managers (FM) give silent thanks that the disaster didn’t take place in their building, says Julie Kortens.

IT CAN be almost anything, from flooding to a terror attack and from heat waves to having no food in the office canteen, inevitably, the FM on site is going to be found at fault. This is multiplied exponentially when you’re confronted with a tragedy like that which took place at Grenfel Tower. 

The apparent cause of the fire was a fridge that caught fire in one of the apartments in Grenfel. In the immediate aftermath people discussed the safety concerns surrounding this model of fridge, they criticized the lack of sprinklers and fire suppression systems in the tower, as well as the practise of storing combustible materials in common walkways. Not to mention all of the investigations in to the cladding. Every FM in the country has experience of these sorts of problems, and the difficulties in getting people to do something about them. 

Undoubtedly though, for anyone running a building or workplace, the underlying priority is to prepare for disasters. The authorities should be included in this process, and we should continue to listen to them throughout a building’s lifespan. Preparation and practice come into their own when a disaster happens and we can see from the ciriticism of various council officials that even planning what to say and what not to say to the media has a huge effect on your reputation

Wider collaboration

However, there also needs to be more general collaboration, I remember running a major disaster recovery practice event where we evacuated all of our London buildings and asked staff to gather in St James's Park. We cleared this with the police and the Royal Parks in advance. On the day in question, I had several hundred people gathered in the park and we were carrying out a roll call, when I was told by a mounted police officer to move everyone on! This caused more discomfort to staff but it also really helped emphasise that the best laid plans can go wrong! 

Over my career I have worked with some amazing members of staff who took disaster recovery very seriously. So much so that we had a box that contained money for cab fares, plans for operational staff to reach an alternative site, even a pair of trainers for the finance director to wear in an emergency! 

Disaster recovery plans

My concern is that unless proper planning and testing procedures are implemented then the entire weight of disaster recovery rests on only a handful of shoulders. The heads of security, the heads of FM and a few others are expected to handle the entire process but there is no guarantee that they will actually be on site when disaster strikes. It is essential that a range of deputies understand the disaster recovery strategy, these deputies must be fully trained in evacuation procedures as well as have everyone aware of who these people are, what the plan is and have that plan tested.

Obviously, disaster recovery plans as well as safety procedures in general have come on leaps and bounds over the years. The reason tragedies like Grenfel Tower are so newsworthy is because they are so rare, it might not be possible to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again, but with close co-operation, improved clarity, planning and preparation we can continue to make them even more an exception, not the rule.  

Julie Kortens is a former chairman of the British Institute of Facilities Management