What Can FM Managers Do to Help Prepare for Wildfires

Wildfires can be extremely destructive to you and your building. Read more to learn about GSH’s recommendations for both your home and your office in the event of an emergency!

The State of California, home to 40-million residents has been ravaged by wildfires in recent years. In 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season ever recorded in the State saw over 8,500 fires that burned just shy of 1.9-million acres; tragically ninety-seven civilians and six firefighters were killed. Thankfully 2019 was not as destructive, but even still many homes and businesses were destroyed and approximately 200,000 people had to evacuate with still several fatalities.

Wildfires can start naturally when there is strong heat, lightning, and very little rain. They are also started accidentally and intentionally by human beings and modern infrastructure; by everything from a poorly discarded cigarette to an overheated electrical transformer. Regardless of the cause, the effects of wildfires can impact lives in a matter of seconds.  With wind speeds reaching up to 100 mph, extreme conditions routinely force states and regions to go into emergency warnings. With this in mind, it is very important to take precautions and follow the necessary steps in order to avoid catastrophe.

As Commercial HVAC Specialists GSH has a few recommendations for both the home and office in the event of a wildfire to remember:

  1. Never turn off HVAC Systems because it can disrupt the system and allow for dirty air to enter into the building.
  2. Filtration is very important and what most people don’t realize is that a light coating of dust and dirt is helpful because it will pick up particulates in the air much faster than a sterile environment.
  3. Increase housekeeping frequency to accommodate needs.
  4. If you’re unsure of where to stay in case of an emergency – the inside of your office building is always a safe bet. Most often your office space has a lower pollutant level than even your home. So, if you can’t get home or reach a designated shelter, your office is a safe alternative. It’s a good idea to keep a spare bag of clothes in your car (along with your emergency kit).

As a Facility Manager, the safety of your building and your employees are always your top priority. At GSH we pride ourselves on our emergency preparedness procedures that we have in place, companywide. At GSH, we have had several facilities and employees in California who have been affected adversely by wildfires. It is especially important for families and businesses alike to create a written Emergency Plan and to practice it several times a year. Along with the emergency plan there should be consistent trainings and briefings to ensure any building changes or upgrades that have recently occurred are acknowledged by all employees.

Safety equipment is also a key factor in preparing for a natural disaster as they are not to be taken lightly. Each employee should have a safety kit that is readily available whenever needed. The kit should be fully equipped with the essentials such as blankets, first aid, rope, bottled water, energy bars and batteries. The kit should be in a designated place that everyone knows about and if it is moved it should be announced. Having outside resources that are able to assist is also fundamental. Resources include your local police and fire departments, county emergency management, county health department, public works, senior services and others. Both families and facilities should maintain a list of contacts and social media sites (for news updates). This information should be given to all employees and stored online where it can be accessed anytime from anywhere, like your company’s internal portal. This information should be maintained to ensure its accuracy. If your location is in an area that has been affected previously, having meetings with fire agencies might be a good idea in order to identify any hazards within your facility that you can mitigate in advance.

Generators and electrical service equipment need to be inspected on a daily basis to maintain proper safety preparedness. Managers and chiefs should make sure outlets with heavy-draw equipment are properly shutdown and disconnected (if necessary) at the end of each workday.

Outside your building, landscape architects are designing into commercial properties natural firebreaks in the form of terraced/stepped parking lots that incorporate large rock walls that act as natural firebreaks. This ring of rock and asphalt is a fuel-free barrier between your building and the fire. Further preventative measures incorporate using naturally occurring trees and shrubs from the region, as they have become genetically fire resistant in their evolution, having survived countless fires over the millennia. Proactive measures outside also include properly storing fuel and managing fuel depots, removing abandoned vehicles/equipment/debris, and maintaining a smoke-free workplace.

Finally, but perhaps most important, is your facility should always have an Automatic Extinguishing System that is routinely inspected and maintained in perfect operating condition. As these systems are triggered by the detection of smoke, they will continue to work in the event of electrical shutdown or outage. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reports that in structures with an AES, the death rate over a thousand fires is just 1.4 deaths whereas structures without an AES witness a rate of 7.5 – that’s over 5X higher. With nothing more precious in life, all new structures should look to incorporate Automatic Extinguishing Systems into their design. And while an AES may trigger a false alarm and cause major water damage, the cost of losing your facility and possible fatality is far greater a risk.

Fire is one of the most destructive forces on the planet and it does not discriminate, instead it recklessly consumes everything in its path; wildlife, homes, businesses and entire communities. Citizens in high-risk areas must be vigilant in their approach to mitigating wildfires as one never knows when and where they will strike. As with most things in life, preparation is vital to survival.