What a rise in extreme weather means for FMs

How facility managers can prepare for and recover from catastrophic flooding events
Monday, December 2, 2013
By Michelle Ervin

The record rainfall witnessed in Toronto on July 8, 2013, and the severe flooding that devastated Calgary soon after, served to underscore why it is important for facility managers to be prepared for emergencies. An IFMA seminar in Toronto this November brought together senior leaders to share advice on how to minimize damage and hasten recovery when such catastrophic flooding events occur.

Geoff Coulson, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, characterized urban flooding as a developing issue. There is not currently a specific flash flood warning, Coulson said. Instead, Environment Canada issues severe thunderstorm warnings and identifies when there is a risk of flooding.

“Where we are now with the science basically allows us to identify a fairly large area where conditions are going to come together to generate short duration, high-intensity rainfall,” he said. “But we’re really not to the point of saying, as was the case on July 8, that big rain is going to hit Pearson and then those impacts are going to flow down through the watershed from there.”

Looking ahead, Coulson cited experts who are predicting an increase in the frequency and intensity of this type of heavy rainfall. Also, winters may see more precipitation in the form of rain and freezing rain, leading to a greater chance of ice storm events.

Preparing for extreme weather

With extreme weather events on the rise, insurance providers are increasingly going to look to flood mapping in order to assess flood risk based on location, said Peter Kennedy, national director of AON Risk Solutions’ real estate practice. Water loss represents the largest payout for insurance companies on personal policies, and makes up a growing share of its payout on commercial policies.

Commercial businesses are typically covered by their policies for flooding and water damage, Kennedy said. However, commercial properties located in flood zones face premium surcharges, higher deductibles for certain properties and lower limits.

Properties that are exposed to flooding risk should take measures to minimize potential losses, such as placing electrical outlets and mechanical systems higher off the ground, he said. Emergency service contractors should be co-ordinated in advance of these types of events.

When these types of events do occur, Kennedy recommended that facility managers act as though they don’t have insurance coverage. They should take reasonable steps to prevent further damage and document what they do. Facility managers should consider using a separate bank account to track the associated costs, he said. Damaged property should be photographed, and even kept if particularly valuable.

Emergency management is important, but so too is business continuity planning (BCP). Ann Wyganowski, vice-president of HZX Business Continuity Planning, highlighted the distinction between the two.

“Emergency management is what you do in the fire evacuation and business continuity is what you do after everybody’s safely evacuated,” she explained. “You can see the smoke coming out of the building, but you don’t know what the damages are and how you’re going to continue to run your business; business continuity is what you do next.”

She says that emergency management is generally seen as having five pillars: hazard identification and risk assessment; prevention and mitigation; preparedness; response; and recovery.

The BCP, which is how a business’ processes and services are recovered, falls under the recovery strategy. The facilities team should have a facilities-specific plan for recovering critical facilities, but Wyganowski said it is a mistake to create a BCP in isolation from other teams, such as human resources and information technology.

A facility’s BCP needs to incorporate event recognition, emergency response, notification, damage containment, damage assessment and, if required, the planning, fit-up and occupancy of an alternative site, she said.

So, how does this all play out in real life?

When record rainfall occurred in Toronto on July 8, it affected 40 buildings across University of Toronto’s (U of T) sweeping St. George campus. The next morning, 38 of those buildings re-opened.

For Ron Swail, assistant vice-president of facilities and services, timing was of the essence. U of T was fortunate that the flooding occurred when it did, Swail said, as 100 caretaking staff were arriving on-site. A number of staff were also called back to the site to assist.

A senior property manager was designated the incident manager as emergency response plans were put into action. Staff assessed buildings, updated the incident manager and focused on critical facilities such as data centres and labs with expensive equipment. Varieties of key external contractors were called, including asbestos abatement, disaster recovery and general contractors.

After the flooding event, debriefing occurred to assess what worked well, what did not and how to address those gaps. As a result of lessons learned, preventive maintenance was done for catch basins and drains, equipment with submersible pumps was purchased so staff wouldn’t have to wait for contractors to arrive, and the “extreme measure” of installing four large cisterns was taken in an area where drains are known not to be able to handle major storms.

The ultimate price tag to U of T was $180,000, a figure that Swail described as “pretty inexpensive,” adding that this was thanks largely to the participation of staff in remediation efforts.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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