By Peter Steinfeld, SVP of Safety Solutions, at AlertMedia
Wildfires across the U.S. have burned nearly 4 million acres this year, an increase of 233 percent over the same period last year. The Dixie Fire, California’s second-largest fire in state history, alone has consumed more than 550,000 acres, destroying more than 1,120 structures while threatening nearly 15,000 more.
Each year it seems wildfire season grows in both longevity and severity. In California alone, Cal Fire estimated the season has increased by 75 days, and some experts believe the threat of wildfires is now year-round instead of during the traditional May to October timeline.
Exacerbating the threat is a historic drought that plagues more than 95 percent of the western U.S. and major heat weaves that continue to send temperatures into the 100s in usually temperate regions like the Pacific Northwest.
Summer of 2021 is proving to be the most extreme on record, and nearly every state across the country is feeling its effects. Regions as far as the Northeast reported experiencing poor air quality this month, and communities in Montana and Colorado saw heavy smoke blanket large swathes of land.
A wildfire has the potential to impact more than those in its direct path, and organizations everywhere need to be prepared. The following outlines three steps you can take to keep your people and your business safe.
Communicate before, during, and after a wildfire
One of the biggest challenges a business faces during any emergency, especially during a wildfire, is communication. Wildfires can grow from a small brush fire to an inferno covering thousands of acres in a matter of hours, leaving little time to react. Failure to quickly warn or supply accurate evacuation information can result in widespread panic, injury, or worse. For example, the Los Angeles Times covered several instances in 2020 where evacuation alerts failed to include accurate evacuation information, and in some cases, didn’t include any information at all. As a result, emergency responders were forced to warn residents by manually going door-by-door, wasting time and resources.
Paradise Valley Estates, a nonprofit senior living community in Fairfield, California, learned a similar lesson during a wildfire in 2018 that forced residents to evacuate. Staff members had to individually notify residents by going door to door because the organization could not rapidly send mass notifications to impacted residents about critical events. Fortunately, all staff and residents were safely evacuated, but the event served as a catalyst to modernize Paradise Valley’s emergency communication procedures.
A modern approach to emergency communication involves knowing how to get in touch with everyone in your organization, including employees, customers, and suppliers. Depending on the type of work your organization does, you may even want to alert the general public. Ensure you have their most up-to-date contact information for employees, including phone numbers, emails, and home addresses.
For help reaching a mass audience, seek out tools and technologies like an emergency notification system that can help you notify individuals continuously and in real-time, especially as the situation evolves. While local news and social media can be essential resources for updates regarding a wildfire, they can also contribute to the spread of misinformation. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found that businesses are the most trusted institution today, with 61 percent of survey respondents saying they automatically believe information from their employer. Employers have a responsibility to communicate critical, time-sensitive information to employees, especially during times of crisis.
Lastly, keep communication two-way and multichannel. In addition to sending out alerts via email, text, voice, push notification, and more, give employees the option to respond. Consider issuing surveys or multiple-choice questions to identify if someone needs help and turn on read receipts for peace of mind that the right people saw the alerts they need to.
Have an all-hazards emergency management plan
Unlike other severe weather events like hurricanes or winter storms, wildfires are harder to predict, leaving communities with little time to prepare. Evacuations sometimes happen within hours or even minutes, making planning in advance even more critical.
According to Stan Szpytek (aka Stan the Fireman), President and CEO at Fire & Life Safety, Inc., the most effective and thorough way to plan for a wildfire is to take an all-hazards approach.
His reasoning comes down to the fact that fires evolve every season due to the changing climate, and they often take on new behaviors that we’ve never seen before. By taking an all-hazards approach, organizations guarantee they have the capacities and capabilities to address any threat a wildfire may pose to their business or people. An all-hazards preparedness plan identifies all potential hazards and lists the steps to take before, during, and after should one occur. It should also outline a standard protocol for employees and other stakeholders to follow in any emergency.
For instance, maybe you’ve designated a specific group in charge of communicating with employees during an emergency and another group for executing your organization’s emergency response. Stock up on first aid kits and disaster supply kits, and ensure employees know where they are located. Develop a list of supplies, maintenance, and equipment that will be needed to keep operations going during a wildfire, and don’t forget to institute live training drills for employees, including fire and evacuation drills.
Create a wildfire evacuation checklist
Beyond having a plan in place, creating a checklist of all the items you need to consider during a wildfire evacuation can also help you stay organized. Your checklist should include actions for your employees to follow, including:
- Making sure your cell phone and laptop are charged
- Packing up important documents (e.g., insurance policies, contracts, etc.) or supplies
- Preparing a redundant worksite, backup computers, and critical software
But it’s important to remember that any action you take to prepare for a fire may also need to be undone once it’s safe to return to the office. For instance, general guidance from fire agencies and local fire departments includes shutting down air intakes to prevent smoke from getting into the office. But according to experts like Szptek, many organizations forget to open them back up once the wildfire threat passes, preventing the flow of fresh air throughout the office.
Another item to consider for your checklist involves interacting with your local fire department or state agencies. Know how to contact them, ask for additional wildfire resources, and make sure to stay in touch with them throughout the year. Should a fire occur, they’ll remember you and make sure you have everything you need in the event of an evacuation.
Lastly, the pandemic has already put tremendous strain on typical response systems—disaster relief, healthcare, and government aid—and this year’s wildfire season continues to worsen that strain. Hospitals are once again reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients, and with many people still working remotely, it’s more difficult for organizations to keep track of their employees’ locations. Having a plan ahead of time and a modern method of communication will ensure you get the most important messages out to anyone, anywhere. Above anything else, make sure your employees know when a wildfire evacuation is happening. It will save time and save lives.