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Vol. LVIII, No. 25
December 15, 2006

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Are You Ready?
Emergency Preparedness Plans for NIH Workers Take Shape

On the front page...

Crazy things happen—fire, flood, anthrax—therefore we plan. Preparedness is part of the NIH mission; it is also a mindset to which everyone contributes.

Mike Spillane, director of the Division of Emergency Preparedness and Coordination (DEPC), describes being prepared as “not specifically about terrorism—it’s about things we know will happen. If we prepare for them, then we can cover the unknown.” DEPC crafts emergency plans for all NIH facilities, both on and off campus; maintains shelter-in-place/evacuation plans; and develops responses, alerts, notification procedures and drills. The division also manages the NIH Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, which includes the PanFlu Management Plan (see NIH Record, Oct. 6, 2006).

Spillane’s turf includes the Bethesda campus with almost 18,000 workers on 306 acres as well as four other sites in the metro area (the leased space at Executive Blvd., Rock Spring Park, Twinbrook and Bethesda count as one site). These off-campus sites hold a total workforce of over 12,000. He also manages an automated communications system for voice and text messages to send alerts to NIH leadership and emergency coordinators within each institute and center.


NCI’s Dr. John Cole (l) and Robin Brown are OECs—occupant
NCI’s Dr. John Cole (l) and Robin Brown are OECs—occupant evacuation coordinators— at EPN in Rockville.

Spillane describes two overarching categories in emergency guidance for employees: shelter-in-place and evacuation.

Shelter-in-place procedures apply during conditions in which you are safer inside than out. For example, if a chemical tanker were to overturn, releasing a cloud of toxic fumes, you should:

  • Stay calm.
  • Locate an interior, windowless room.
  • Follow directions of the evacuation/shelter team member.
  • Listen to radio or television updates.
  • Do not leave the building until directed by authorities.
  • Shelter-in-place essentials include: bottle of drinking water; non-perishable snack(s); medications; flashlight.
  • This procedure applies to situations that last for a few hours, not days. Each IC determines whether to provide its workers with the above supplies; authorized items include batteries, flashlights and radios.

Evacuation procedure depends on the incident. Each building should have an occupant evacuation plan and an occupant emergency coordinator (OEC), which you can find on the Security and Emergency Response (SER) web site (

“There’s also an online handbook available about what to do at NIH, types of emergencies and what to do at home,” says Spillane, who stresses home preparedness. “My feeling with all this is: If we can’t get people to prepare at home, then what we do here won’t work.” His rule of thumb is to stock up with a 3-day supply of food, water, medications and cash (small bills). He adds that HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt now suggests that for pandemic flu planning, we should have home supplies “to be self-contained for 2 weeks.”

'Know Your People' Is Evacuation Coordinator’s Byword

“A plan is just a skeleton,” says NCI’s Dr. John Cole. “It needs muscles and blood and we are fortunate to have dedicated folks here.”

As EPN’s occupant evacuation coordinator (OEC), Cole, along with Robin Brown, has created a model plan for evacuation and shelter-in-place in their building.

Brown describes why she got involved: “I care about myself and others,” she says, “so I volunteered to make sure I’m part of the process, to make sure we get a good plan.”

“I don’t see how it can come from the top down,” says Cole. “ORF does have drawings, but buildings are renovated over time. So each floor warden here drew a current plan and identified space, by room numbers, that we could use to shelter-in-place.”

Cole and Brown also created a database with employee contact numbers and medical information that could be critical in case of emergency. They stress that the data be kept confidential and that its acquisition be voluntary.

Both describe a good OEC as alert and sensitive to changes. Say your colleague has knee surgery or is well along in a difficult pregnancy—with twins. The OEC should note such details, to be shared with fire and rescue personnel in case of emergency and then should delete such information once conditions change.

“It’s not a huge bureaucratic thing,” says Cole. “It’s just people on every floor who know their people.” If folks have difficulty using stairs, they wait by the elevators for the fire fighters to evacuate them. “We will know where they are,” notes Cole.

Because their building is multi-story, they follow “high-rise package” regulations to evacuate groups in stages, as alarms are staggered. The building stairwells are designed to hold positive pressure and reduce smoke entry. But building design features wouldn’t count without OEC’s dedication.

“It’s a team effort,” says Brown, “because people care about other people.”

To find your occupant evacuation coordinator, visit The NIH Preparedness Handbook is at pdf.

Spillane also says it’s wise to develop a family phone tree and have someone outside of this area that you and your family members can call to relay messages. He stresses that employees also need to know their children’s school plan, as well as their own local/community plan.

Meanwhile, back at work, if there’s an emergency off campus, call 9-911. On campus, he says, “If you smell smoke in your building or see fire, activate the nearest pull station (wall-mounted fire alarm) and evacuate the building. If you can safely call 911, then you can provide the fire department with additional details that will help them respond.”

Once outside the building, “wait and take direction from the fire department officer in charge. Our NIH Fire Department will assess the situation and decide if additional response is needed.”

Should the metro area require evacuation for a serious emergency, Spillane assures that the NIH gates would never be locked and employees would never be impeded from leaving. “I can’t see that ever happening,” he says, “although we may have to do something with the gates, redirecting traffic exclusively to Wisconsin Ave. or Old Georgetown Rd., whatever the needs of the community are.” Traffic would be directed according to the need at the time.

As policy, regional evacuation orders would issue from the chain of command via HHS, but the procedure itself would follow the overarching plan of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “So if you think of the center of D.C. as the hub of a wagon wheel,” he explains, “then we’re on the northern part of the wheel and we follow officers directing traffic and go north towards Frederick.”

Emergency Management Specialist Mary Ann Bell, who conducts safety and emergency preparedness training and drills, says evacuation routes are detailed on the online campus map. Click on your building and exit routes appear. She stresses that terrorism is not the norm; instead, “people need to prepare for everyday occurrences—hazardous materials or fuel spills, weather emergencies, building infrastructure failure, etc.”

In case of fire, the building alarm would sound and the OEC would use a walkie-talkie to contact floor monitors who would then sweep the building, alerting occupants and checking elevators, restrooms and people with disabilities. Once evacuated, occupants would meet at a designated area and be counted.

Off-campus leased buildings are under the jurisdiction of the Montgomery County fire department. Twice-yearly drills are required both on- and off-campus. NIHRecord Icon

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