No one in any type of business likes to think about all the things that can go wrong over the course of a day. But the worst thing that can happen when the worst things do happen is to be caught unprepared. As two crisis management experts told LODGING, there is much hoteliers can do to minimize the damage—to people, property, and business operations—by having processes, procedures, and other aspects of an emergency response plan in place to enable them to hit the ground running if it ever becomes necessary.
With 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Bob Rauch has encountered nearly every type of crisis that can confront hotel managers. Now, as chief executive officer and president of hotel management and consulting company RAR Hospitality, he focuses on advising hotels on crisis management as well as being responsible for 18 hotels and 700 employees. Thomas Wieczorek, director of the Center for Public Safety Management, LLC, through the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), in Washington, D.C., approaches the topic of crisis management from the perspective of the local government services poised not only to respond to crises, but also to offer the kind of advice and the risk assessment that should be part of every crisis management plan.
Types of Emergencies
Wieczorek breaks down crises into two broad categories. “You’ve really got two overarching umbrellas—either human-made, like shootings, bomb threats, and chemical spills, or natural events, like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods.” Rauch points out that flooding requiring displacement of residents can occur from non-weather emergencies like a water main break or an overflowing bathtub, and that a hotel fire can be caused by an intentional act of arson or a kitchen fire out of control, but says protocols for evacuation of residents and containment of the source of the emergency are still much the same.
Types of Responses
Both Wieczorek and Rauch agree that the highest priority in any emergency is the protection of human life. Therefore, the purpose of all plans is first to protect people, then stabilize the incident. At the very least, they maintain, every facility should prepare an emergency plan that includes prompt notification of emergency services, protective actions for life safety—starting with alerting everyone in danger and accounting for all employees and guests.
These protective actions for life safety include: evacuation—such as is practiced in fire drills, with everyone proceeding in an orderly way to marked exits to vacate the building; sheltering from severe weather such as tornadoes, where guests are directed away from windows to the strongest interior part of the building; “shelter-in-place,” when those inside and outside the building are instructed to seek safety above the first floor and away from exterior glass, as a result of an exterior airborne hazard such as a chemical release; and lockdown—when faced with an act of violence, exits are sealed and those inside warned to be silent. Rauch says law enforcement officials now agree on this advice in such a situation: “Run first to avoid, hide second, and fight for your life if you must, using whatever is at hand—a gun, knife, or fire extinguisher.”
Developing an Emergency Response Plan
Wieczorek, who is accustomed to handling risk assessments for entire cities, says understanding your own vulnerabilities by conducting a risk assessment is the first step in developing an emergency response plan. “Think first about the factors that are most likely to occur in a given location. Are you in a flood zone? An area prone to civil unrest? Is your structure sound enough to withstand an expected or potential weather threat? What populations are at risk due to age—old or young—or special needs, including physical or mental disabilities or speaking a foreign language?”
Emergency response plans, says Rauch, should define the most appropriate protective action for each hazard to ensure the safety of employees and others within the building and determine how to warn building occupants to take protective action. “Staff should be familiar with detection, alarm, communications, warning, and protection systems, have assigned roles, and be adept at performing their responsibilities, which should be practiced during drills,” he says.
Wieczorek says having at least a clear set of guidelines for dealing with specific possibilities and a trained staff to implement them are key. “It helps to conduct exercises with staff in realistic scenarios. What if someone points a gun at the front desk associate or the property receives a call about bomb? What will you do?”
Where Emergency Responders Come In
Wieczorek suggests properties get to know their emergency responders before they need them, saying it’s helpful to have a preexisting relationship and knowledge of how to work together. “Open communication with agencies early, not at time of disaster, and work with them to develop a well-thought-out plan. Most emergency management agencies I’ve worked with in cities around the country welcome the opportunity to connect with hotels, which can be a critical resource in providing shelter for residents of their cities during and after a disaster.”
Both Rauch and Wieczorek consider planning and communication equally important during a time of crisis. The success of a plan hinges on its successful implementation, and that means being able to alert guests and show and tell them what to do and where to go both during and after the incident.
When an emergency occurs, there is an immediate need to communicate with all affected. First to consider are those on the premises—mainly current guests and staff or other workers. But it may also include scheduled guests, media, the community, and other stakeholders.
Both Rauch and Wieczorek agree that having a designated spokesperson, with a backup, is best for providing frequent and accurate updates. This, says Rauch, is true for both guests and media, but it may be somewhat trickier with the media. Still, he says, honestly is the best policy.
“You can’t control the story. It’s the media’s job to report the facts, so don’t lie to try to protect yourself. If you communicate frequently and honestly and they feel you are being forthright and giving them the most up- to-date information, they will be less likely to go digging around, asking unauthorized personnel.”
When a hotelier decides to sketch out and make official his or her general approach to dealing with emergency situations that can be anticipated, as well as those that cannot, Rauch stresses building a culture of preparedness as well as concrete plans to enable a prompt and effective response, come what may. After all, a forecasted weather event may provide lead time, but a crisis stemming from an accidental or deliberate incident generally does not.
Rauch adds, “Apart from an appointed spokesperson assigned to handle communications in an emergency, every property should always have a manager on duty who is quick on their feet, knows what to do, and knows how to communicate; this, along with a plan of action, can save lives, property, and money.”
The experts suggest the first step in developing an emergency response plan is understanding your vulnerabilities to the different types of hazards most likely to affect your property. A risk assessment is the process used to identify these potential hazards and analyze what could happen if such a hazard occurs. Injuries to people should be the first consideration of the risk assessment. Hazard scenarios that could cause significant injuries should be highlighted to ensure that appropriate emergency plans are in place.