Preparing Your Employees and Business for a Wildfire Evacuation
When you get the alert for a wildfire evacuation, you don’t want to waste time worrying and wondering. Use these best practices to plan ahead, so you will feel prepared when it’s time to get out.
Every year, millions of people are ordered to leave their homes and flee from wildfires. And if you live in an area affected by wildfires, you may just face an evacuation yourself.
The last thing you want is to see smoke on the horizon and not know what to do. You don’t want to stall, wondering if you have all the right supplies or worrying about if everyone in your building knows they need to leave.
You want to be able to take confident action and protect your employees and business. Which means you want to prepare ahead of time.
Wildfires are a threat that is growing in intensity across many states. While 2020 had a comparable number of wildfires to years prior, recent fires are burning significantly more land, fueled by higher temperatures and extreme droughts. And the structural damage is increasing as well, with the loss of more than 17,000 structures and $16.5 billion in damages in 2020 alone.
A wildfire evacuation is a distressing event for everyone involved—business leaders, your employees, and family members. But the best way to keep everyone safe and protect your business is to plan ahead. In this article, we’ll cover where to find relevant wildfire resources, tips for evacuation planning, and best practices for how to best prepare your people and business for a wildfire evacuation.
Understanding Wildfire Evacuation Order Stages
Wildfires present unique challenges for emergency personnel. They move quickly and can change directions without notice. So, the first step in preparing for a potential wildfire is to know what the different threat levels are, get comfortable with the terminology used by experts, and begin formulating your response plan for receiving an evacuation order. You don’t want to be confused about terminology when the fire is imminent.
The most used framework for wildfire evacuations is the “Ready, Set, Go!” framework. It has three stages that help you prioritize your response and action items as the threat of a wildfire grows. Here are the three stages:
At this stage, there is a wildfire that is in your area, and you or your business face a possible threat of evacuation. This is a good time to pack and make sure you are ready for an evacuation. Be sure to keep a close eye on your local media and emergency alerts so that you know when your threat level increases.
At this stage, you or your business are under a severe threat and face an imminent evacuation. You should be completely packed, aware of available escape routes to depart the area, and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
At this stage, you must evacuate yourself, any employees, and animals (if applicable) to a safe location. This is your final notice, and it is incredibly important to leave immediately—there is no time to pack or gather belongings.
There are lots of different ways to find out whether you are facing a wildfire evacuation. It’s important to do research on the threats your location commonly faces, wildfires included. If you are in an area where wildfires are likely to occur, your best chance of preparedness is to sign up for local and federal alert systems like the Emergency Alert System—you can find more information on federal emergency alert systems on the FEMA website. For local fire alerts, check your local county, city, or state website. Many states—especially those prone to wildfire—have region specific websites (such as Cal Fire) where you can find in-depth information about wildfire incidents, emergency contact information, and other helpful resources.
If you want additional notice of any local wildfire threats or information tailored to your business locations (and employees’ locations), consider a threat intelligence system, such as AlertMedia, that will proactively alert you of any threats that may be affecting your area.
But knowing the terminology and having access to the proper emergency notifications are just the first step. In order to best ensure safety during a wildfire evacuation, you need to prepare beforehand. We’ve broken that preparation down into a few steps, and this post will walk you through them all.
Preparing for a Wildfire Evacuation
There’s a lot that goes into evacuating your business, and the best time to prepare is long before you hear orders from your local emergency personnel. Here are the basic things that you should have together well in advance of a wildfire.
Create a wildfire evacuation checklist
An easy way to help yourself stay organized in the case of a wildfire evacuation is to create a checklist that you can reference in the case of a wildfire. This checklist should include all the necessary actions for you and your employees.
There are several good examples and templates available online, but you should take care to personalize your evacuation checklist to include specific actions or locations of items critical to your business to avoid confusion if it’s necessary to evacuate with little notice.
Items on your checklist may include (but should not be limited to):
- Making sure your cell phone and laptop are charged
- Packing up important documents (e.g., insurance policies, contracts, etc.) or supplies
- Notifying employees about precautionary measures they can take to protect themselves, family members, and personal property (see homeowners list below)
- Communicating anticipated disruptions and relevant fire information with customers or business partners
- Distributing contact information for the local fire department, vendors, landlords, and key personnel
- Preparing/protecting your building by creating defensible space
- Preparing a redundant worksite, backup computers, and critical software
Once you’ve created your checklist, place a copy in several different locations, and let your employees know where it is. You should be able to access this checklist quickly and easily. Remember, during an emergency, you will likely be in a stressed or panicked state, so set yourself up for success before you need to evacuate.
Wildfire evacuation checklist for homeowners
Time permitting, in advance of an evacuation order, employers should also remind employees about how they can best protect their homes and belongings should they need to leave the area. Special attention should be paid to:
Flammable items such as patio furniture, trash cans, doormats, and outdoor toys should be placed in a garage, pool, or open spaces 30 feet away from any structure.
Hoses should be connected to outdoor spigots and placed in visible locations for use by firefighters. Fill water buckets and place them around the perimeter of your home and near decks and fences.
All doors and windows should be shut but left unlocked. Furniture and other combustible items should be moved to the center of the room, away from windows. Garage doors should be shut and all interior items should be moved a safe distance away.
TIP: Your business is likely constantly evolving and growing, so make sure you are auditing your packing list regularly. An all-hazards preparedness approach can also ensure your plans remain current and personnel are up to date on procedures.
Write a packing list ahead of a potential evacuation
Included with your checklist should be an evacuation packing list. Much like with a home evacuation, you want to know exactly what to pack and where you will find it. Remember that you will be leaving in a rush and will only be able to carry or transport so much, so only include what is critical to the function of your business.
Priority items include things like:
- Payroll and tax documents
- Employee records
- Valuable equipment (that you can easily transport)
- Hard drives with computer backups and/or important files
- Emergency supply kits
Remember that in the case of an evacuation, you may need to be able to operate your business from a different location for an extended period and/or endure prolonged power outages. Make sure that you list out everything you would need to function as close to normal as possible.
Once you have your packing list, it will be helpful to collect all those important items in one place, that way they are easier to grab in an emergency. You can also mark their location with signs or labels, and write them down on your packing list.
Just like with the checklist, make sure your evacuation packing list is easily accessible and placed in multiple locations throughout the building.
Plan your evacuation route
When it comes to wildfire evacuations, knowing where to go can be stressful and dangerous. The best way to make sure you and your employees make it out okay is to plan ahead. Have your evacuation routes mapped out ahead of time.
Here are a few best practices for planning your wildfire evacuation route:
- Have multiple evacuation routes going in different directions so that you are ready for a wildfire coming from anywhere
- Keep an updated record of nearby public shelters
- Have physical maps with your routes drawn on in case cell phone service is down
- Have a plan in case you and anyone you are evacuating with get separated
Be sure to keep your evacuation routes with your checklist and packing list, and distribute it out to your employees.
TIP: It might be helpful to include important documents like your evacuation routes in your messaging templates.
Set (and test) your communication plan
When preparing for a wildfire evacuation, it’s also critical to know how and what you are going to communicate with your employees if this kind of emergency strikes.
Having a plan ahead of time will ensure that you are prepared to get the most important messages out to anyone at risk, and it will mean you can better avoid any of the challenges that come with wildfire communications. Above anything else, making sure that your employees know when a wildfire evacuation is happening will save lives. As important as your paperwork, building, and equipment are, none of that is more important than the safety of your employees.
Set your communication plan long before you need it by updating employee records, integrating any mass notification systems, and setting guidelines for how you will be reaching out to anyone at risk.
If you are using a mass notification system (or even if you are not), it is critical to test your systems ahead of time with a fire drill or evacuation drill. This will help you identify and fill any gaps in your system before an emergency strikes.
You can also make communicating during a wildfire evacuation much easier by creating or setting up templates for your most likely/most timely messages. That way you will only need to press a few buttons instead of spending precious time writing out your messages when you should be packing or evacuating.
Additionally, it’s important to plan for how you will hear back from your employees on whether they are safe or not. Using a two-way messaging system can help you ensure that you know the status of everyone who might be in harm’s way.
With your communication plan set in advance, you’ll be able to focus on keeping everyone safe when emergency strikes.
TIP: Threat intelligence solutions—like those we offer at AlertMedia—can notify you of emergencies like wildfires in your area long before you receive an evacuation notice, giving you much more time to prepare.
When It’s Time to Evacuate
When a wildfire does occur in your area, it’s always best to keep track of it through your emergency alert systems and local news reports. Ideally, you won’t need to evacuate. But if you do get that alert saying that you’ve entered an evacuation level 3, it’s time to go! If you’ve taken the time to set yourself up with wildfire evacuation plans, you will be ready when that difficult time comes.
Evacuations are always going to be scary. To help you know what to expect and what you should do in a wildfire evacuation, here are a few best practices that you can keep in mind.
- Always listen to the emergency personnel and law enforcement
- Don’t wait! Leave early to avoid crowded roads and delays
- Take your emergency supply kit, phone, batteries, and any essentials like paperwork and medications
- Make sure you have adequate fuel, and carpool if you can
- Stay inside of a vehicle or building if you can—only travel on foot as a last resort
- Keep in contact with your employees and any external contacts throughout the emergency
While nobody wants to have to evacuate, being prepared and planning ahead can make such a huge difference when you have to get out safely. You’ll have much more peace of mind that you have everything you need, and you’ll be able to make sure that everyone at risk is safe. So if you do get those evacuation orders, it will be just a little less stressful.