How to Create an Emergency Evacuation Plan That Saves Lives [+ Template]
Fight or flight might have been enough when humans were being hunted by large predators, but in today’s threat landscape, you need a threat response with a little more planning involved. Learn how to document your emergency evacuation plan, so you can evolve beyond instinct to keep your people safe.
Fight, flight, or freeze. Those are the three primary automatic reactions your brain triggers when you encounter a threat or emergency. As soon as your brain senses danger, the flood of hormones and unconscious brain activity sends you into one of those three responses—though which one you default to varies from person to person.
These responses evolved to get you out of harm’s way as quickly as possible, but they were built for threats that we don’t usually face in the modern world. And in the case of an emergency that requires an evacuation, your automatic response could potentially put you at more risk, especially if your response is to freeze. Luckily, there is a way to override and work through the unconscious biological processes during an emergency: having a plan and practicing it.
With an emergency evacuation plan that you can practice over and over, your team will have a safe response imprinted in their minds and muscle memories. That way, when they go into survival mode, things aren’t forgotten in the rush. Training your team in your emergency evacuation protocols will save lives by decreasing the delay, hesitation, and wrong moves that could put your people at risk of injury or even death. You can create your plan in just a few steps, so you can get started practicing and get your team ready to respond safely to the next emergency.
Download Our Emergency Response Plan Template
9 Steps to Build Your Emergency Evacuation Plan
Here are the nine steps it takes to build out your emergency evacuation plan. You can also download this free emergency response plan template that includes guidance for an evacuation response.
1. Find your potential evacuation risks
First, assess your risks, and gather relevant details about the potential hazards that may lead to an evacuation response. Your effective evacuation plan will need to account for the unique circumstances of different hazards. For example, you might need to run a fire evacuation differently than a flood evacuation or a chemical spill. The specific type of emergency will determine the steps you’ll take, so start your emergency evacuation plan with a business threat assessment. Here are some potential risks you can look for:
- Fire hazards
- Natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc.)
- Workplace violence/active shooter events
- Suspicious package threats
- Severe weather
- Gas leaks
- Chemical spills
2. Determine your evacuation routes
Next, you want to map out your evacuation routes. Your escape routes should be the quickest and safest way out of the building or location. There should be ample room for building occupants to move through the route, and it should be clear of obstacles at all times. If you are evacuating multiple floors, be sure to use stairwells rather than elevators, which may create delays and even malfunction and trap people in the very place they are attempting to evacuate.
Depending on your industry, operational capacity, or even the day, there will be slight variations in what your emergency evacuation will look like. Those variations should be taken into account when you build out your plan, rather than in the moment during the emergency. Here are a few things you might want to consider when building your plan:
- Will there be customers, clients, or members of the public in or around your business?
- Do you have any mobility-impaired or disabled employees?
- Are there any evacuation routes that are likely to be blocked?
- Do you have a secondary assembly location?
3. Chose an assembly point
Once the evacuees are out of the building, they need a place to go, so you want to pick an assembly point that is safe. This assembly point should be at least 500 feet away from the threat. There should be plenty of space for everyone to gather so you can perform a head count and double-check that everyone got out safely.
For specific emergencies where evacuation might be interrupted by the need to shelter in place, such as with an active shooter event, identify multiple areas of refuge where people can wait safely until their path is clear again.
4. Post evacuation maps
Once you have your exit routes and assembly point, create a visual map of the evacuation routes using your specific floorplan that shows where people should go. Mark stairwells, egress doors, areas of refuge, and clearly mark the route on the map. Then post these maps in common areas across your facility. Break rooms, common spaces, and frequented hallways are good places to post them, since they are easy to access and view.
5. Document the evacuation procedures
The next step is to document your specific evacuation procedures. This plan should clearly explain what to do in a step-by-step process to evacuate safely. Here is an example of some procedural steps you might include.
When you hear the fire alarm or evacuation order:
- DO NOT stop to gather personal belongings
- Proceed immediately to the nearest evacuation route, closing doors behind you
- Convene at the designated assembly point for head count
- Respond to wellness/safety survey
- Follow instructions from the evacuation safety warden regarding return to work
Remember, your instructions should be clear enough to understand and remember during a high-stakes situation. You want important details, but not so much that the instructions become confusing.
6. Create a communication plan
A critical piece of your evacuation plan is communication. If you don’t communicate that there is an emergency, nobody will know to evacuate. You need to be able to get the word out to team members, customers, clients, or anyone who might be impacted on site. Take time to write out an emergency communication plan that covers the entire evacuation process, from the moment the emergency starts all the way through to operations returning to normal. That end-to-end plan might look like this:
- Inform safety leadership of emergency event
- Send out alert to impacted group
- Call 9-1-1 and/or emergency responders
- Remind impacted group of evacuation instructions
- Remind impacted group of assembly area
- Send out contingency plan information if situation changes
- Send out wellness survey to check if everyone is safe
- Alert first responders of anyone still at risk
- Communicate with company leaders about event status
- Communicate with family members or emergency contacts of impacted group if necessary
- Inform impacted group of recovery steps
- Give the all-clear to return to the building
One way to streamline your communications plan is to use communication templates. Pre-building your emergency communications means you don’t have to spend precious seconds typing out long messages. You can simply copy and paste the generalized message and add in the pertinent details of the specific event. Here’s one example of a template you might use in case of a fire emergency.
** FIRE REPORTED – EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY **
This is NOT a drill!
A fire has been reported in the [DESCRIPTION] section of the [LOCATION] office.
Please evacuate the building immediately. Do not use elevators. If the nearest exit is blocked by fire, heat, or smoke, use an alternate exit.
Once outside, stay back from entrances, check in at the designed assembly area, and await further instructions.
Contact [CONTACT NAME AND PHONE] if you need immediate assistance.
You’ll also want to make sure you have up-to-date contact information, especially phone numbers for all employees and any emergency contacts such as family members. Out-of-date phone numbers might mean you’re sending alerts people will never receive. You don’t want any of your employees left out of the loop in an evacuation notice.
7. Add your contingency plans
If emergencies were predictable, that would make our jobs as emergency managers and safety leaders much, much easier. But complications often arise, and there is likely to be a shift in the situation that requires a change in response. Maybe a gas leak has started a structure fire, or maybe a flood has created even more dangerous structural damage. This is where your contingency plans come in.
Build a list of potential contingency plans that you might need to enact if your emergency evacuation changes. You’ll know your contingency risks if you’ve done a thorough threat assessment. You may need to plan for a halt in evacuation that becomes a shelter-in-place, or you may need to stop the use of a particular evacuation route. Clarify in the plan what alternative actions should take place.
Evacuations are for more than just fires
One of the most common reasons for an emergency evacuation is a structure fire. But it isn’t the only reason, and you want to be sure you aren’t limiting your response plans to fire risks alone. Different threats behave and spread in different ways, which means you need to allow for slight variations in your planning. It’s also important to remember that even if your facility has a low risk of fire, you still may have other emergencies that could require an evacuation response, such as active shooter events, gas leaks, or severe weather events.
8. Plan for recovery
An evacuation might end once everyone is out of the building and safe, but your business still needs a plan for where to go from there. You can add recovery planning to your evacuation preparedness. Documenting your recovery steps in advance will give you a place to start in getting your business back on its feet once the dust settles. In some cases, recovery may be as simple as sending everyone back to their desks to start working again. But in other cases, there may be facilities work that needs to be done, and there will likely be some crisis communication PR work if there was significant public safety at risk from the emergency at your business.
One way to smooth out your emergency recovery is to integrate business resilience into your everyday operations. Business resilience is your organization’s ability to absorb and adapt to changes and work through and around emergencies or interruptions, all while maintaining business operations. It’s not about avoiding all risk; it’s a framework that enables your business to recover quickly and even move forward after a critical event.
“Resiliency is about making sure that we’re able to go forward. Some people talk about resiliency as bouncing back. I don’t want to bounce back. I don’t want to bounce back to where we were before. I want to bounce forward. I want to make sure I have stepping stones in place that I can use to propel over the next situation if I can.”
—Michele L. Turner, Author and Senior Director of Continuity and Resilience at Expedia Group
9. Train your team
Once you have your complete plan documented, you need to train your employees in how to follow the plan. This is where it becomes muscle memory. You can start with online training and tabletop exercises to teach your teams the steps and practice their response in theory. But it’s also good to run full-scale evacuation drills, so your employees know what the evacuation plan looks like in person. This is also a great chance to test out your alarm system.
In addition to the routes and procedures, you want to train anyone who might be sending out evacuation notices to use your emergency notification system. Practice drafting messages and using the system to select which notification channels to send to. This can be done during your evacuation drill to get the full picture of how your entire evacuation response works together.
Sending out test messages also gets your employees used to seeing emergency alerts, so there will be no mistaking it for a false alarm or spam message when it really counts. You want everyone to be comfortable with the process from start to finish so there is no confusion when it’s not a drill.
Practice Makes Prepared
Being able to act quickly and confidently comes down to knowing what the right steps are and practicing before you ever need to perform them. With an emergency evacuation plan, you’ll have one critical element of emergency preparedness accounted for, so you can be confident that your employees are as safe as possible while at work. If you want to level up your evacuation plan, and your emergency preparedness as a whole, consider investing in an alert notification system. AlertMedia’s intuitive interface and reliable mass notifications are the best way to keep your employees safe and informed in the event of an emergency.