As prolonged drought, heat, other climate factors, and population growth trends intensify wildfire risks in the Western U.S., parts of Australia, Europe, South America, Africa and several other industrialized areas of the world, many governments have expanded their precautions to reduce the likelihood or severity of these devastating events, including massive temporary electrical power shutdowns and large-scale evacuations of at-risk residential populations.
The combination of actual wildfires and government preventative measures have made it critical for businesses with operations, suppliers and customers in vulnerable areas to develop comprehensive plans to prepare for and manage power outages and operational shutdowns that can be implemented safely and quickly – especially during seasonal periods when wildfire risks are most severe.
From developing, adjusting and testing a business continuity plan to preparing for and evaluating the impact of potential wildfires, related government-mandated power outages, evacuations and highway closures, business leaders and managers need to assess their potential vulnerabilities to wildfire risk and develop and implement appropriate measures to mitigate them.
Accordingly, here are 10 steps for managing exposures related to wildfires. Note that many of these measures apply to areas where scheduled power outages may occur, but facilities may continue to be occupied and can be operational using alternative or back-up power sources.
1. Review and update your company’s emergency plan. This includes developing any contingencies that might need to be added to account for the evacuation or residential areas where employees with emergency responsibilities may be located. Ensure that personnel with assigned responsibilities will be able to get to the facility in the event of a power outage. Plan for the possibility that some employees with emergency duties may reside in areas being evacuated and won’t be available for work. If possible, choose back-ups who reside in different areas. Double-check that your communication plan is established and that you have up-to-date call trees so employees can be contacted on a timely basis when emergency situations arise.
2. Assess power-down procedures. Make sure they are up to date with respect to any new equipment or recent facility expansions or modifications. At the same time, be sure your managers understand the steps for restoring your plant or facility to full operation once power is restored.
3. Check emergency power resources. Start by testing and securing any generators available. In addition, make sure your company has adequate fuel to withstand multiple power outages within certain time periods.
4. Evaluate lighting and equipment. Ensure emergency lighting is operational and that computer systems are backed up and current. During periods of high wildfire threats, such as during extended drought conditions, employees with laptops should be instructed to back-up data on a daily basis and make sure they are fully up to date in the event they need to work off-site for extended periods. In the event of an outage, make sure desktop computers, mainframes, servers, and other critical electrical equipment is switched off, so it will not be adversely impacted when the power is restored. If the facility is to be vacated and time permits, consider removing valuable equipment.
5. Check perishable products and vulnerable inventory. Consider offsite warehousing for any products that may be affected by the loss of temperature or humidity controls. Alternatively, consider using reefer trucks and/or dry ice for maintaining appropriate temperature control to protect inventory and equipment during an outage.
6. Revisit facility security measures. Make sure all doors and windows are secure and consider restricting access to the entire property through the use of perimeter fencing. Keep in mind standard security alarm and access control systems may not be functioning in the event of power outages.
7. Request assistance from law enforcement. Notify local police authorities to request additional patrols and increase internal security rounds (as installed CCTV systems may be inoperable during any power outages that result from mandated, preventive shutdowns or those arising from the spread of wildfires).
8. Establish planned fire watches. Whether for preventive purposes or as a result of damage related to wildfires, any electrical power outage may result in impaired fire protection systems. As practical, businesses should designate a safety team member to conduct an ongoing fire watch during any area of power outages to spot signs of potential exposures as well as other system impairments. In areas where wildfires may be expanding, personnel should also continually monitor the news media for civil instructions regarding potential evacuations.
9. Consider options for reporting fires. Designate a safety, maintenance, security or operations team member to contact the local fire department in the event of a fire as a fire alarm system, transmission and notification may be interrupted during any electrical power outage.
10. Check premises for fire hazards. Trim foliage on property and evaluate risks of any combustibles on premises, including any being stored away from the building; if appropriate, consider relocating to indoors or other locations to minimize potential fire hazards. Eliminate any hot work or hazardous operations.
During the past several months, wildfires in various areas of the world have resulted in the loss of life, devastation of wildlife, caused several billions of dollars in damage and had a significant impact on business and industry. By taking steps to prepare for these exposures, businesses can help reduce their risks and speed their recoveries from these perils.
Jeff Borre, a director in Aon’s Property Risk Control Practice, manages the firm’s Field Services group, which provides a wide range of consulting services, including property risk control site surveys, to meet the property risk management needs of commercial and public sector clients. He joined Aon in 2001, after serving with Ahern Fire Protection and Nexus Technical Services Corporation where his responsibilities included designing fire protection systems. He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and holds the Associate in Risk Management (ARM) designation. A Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Illinois and Wisconsin, he is a member of the National Fire Protection Association, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, American Society of Safety Professionals, and American Society of Civil Engineers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.