Recent events in the Middle East show that emergencies and disasters can strike anywhere and at any time. With the help of regional experts, this article outlines how such situations should be properly planned for and what kind of procedures should be put in place.

In June last year, a fire broke out at a new 40-storey tower under construction in the Jumeirah Village Circle in Dubai, UAE. Fortunately, no one was injured and firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control within just two hours. Less than three weeks later and 2,500 kilometres away in Egypt, a major explosion at a petrochemical warehouse injured 12 people. Had the situation not been contained quickly, the incident could have had a significant impact on Cairo’s adjacent international airport. Around the same time, major sandstorms in Saudi Arabia led to road disruption as well as thousands of motoring incidents and temporarily interrupted oil exports. Weeks later, a tanker transporting two million barrels of oil in the Red Sea was struck by missiles. Houthi rebels claimed responsibility and the Saudi government suspended tanker shipments in the region for a time. In October, Qatar was hit by extreme weather leading to major flooding after a year’s rain fell in just one day. Similar weather-related incidents occurred in November affecting both Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

What is clear from these events is that they can strike at any time and cause severe damage, injury and disruption. In order to be suitably protected from the consequences of fires, explosions, toxic releases, sandstorms, extreme weather, deliberate acts of sabotage and other 15 incidents, organisations need to have a robust emergency plan and set of procedures in place.

Where to begin?

According to Shermin Shali, a good place to start when developing an emergency plan is to imagine a variety of scenarios and allow for unpredictability. Shermin is the QHSE Manager for a major international global engineering and technology consultancy firm in Abu Dhabi with responsibility for different business sectors such as oil and gas, industrial, and infrastructure. She holds a NEBOSH International Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety and has considerable experience of emergency planning in various industries.

Shermin said: “The case most often talked about in our profession is the Piper Alpha offshore disaster of 1988, where an explosion and fire killed 167 people in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. Emergency procedures instructed workers on the platform to make their way to lifeboats, but fire meant the route was blocked. Their backup plan was to head to the helicopter deck and await rescue, but smoke prevented any kind of helicopter landing and, so tragically the men were trapped.

“you can only know how well prepared you are if your emergency procedures are put to the test and then regularly and thoroughly reviewed”

“Piper Alpha led to many lessons being learned. In particular, it showed that things hardly ever go to plan. If we imagine a fire breaking out at an onshore location in the UAE, for example, it would be natural to assume that the emergency services would be able to attend reasonably quickly. However, what if the fire occurred during a sandstorm event where traffic movement was severely impacted? It is these kinds of scenarios that must be imagined, so that the worst case can be considered before determining what the response might be. In any real situation it is essential to have a flawless, coordinated and cooperative process, so that we can match urgent needs with available resources.”

Test your plan

Risk Management Consultant, Amitabh Bhattacharya, agrees that one of the most common flaws in emergency planning is to assume that what is laid out on paper in an emergency plan will operate seamlessly in a real-life situation. Amitabh, who is also NEBOSH-qualified, holds an MBA in Disaster Management and has worked in both the oil and gas and waste industries in Saudi Arabia.

Amitabh said: “You can only know how well prepared you are if your emergency procedures are put to the test and then regularly and thoroughly reviewed. “This means going through practical drills and exercises involving the entire Emergency Response Team, workforce and external agencies. This kind of testing uncovers many things that will ultimately help to refine your plan. Something simple, such as blocking an anticipated escape route when conducting a fire drill, for example, will highlight how people might react. Testing also brings the added benefit of rehearsal. People tend to panic in a real emergency situation, but they are far more likely to respond calmly and effectively if they have some kind of learned experience they can draw on.”

Shermin added: “I’ve been involved in many in-house response team drills where first aiders have arrived really quickly, but without any first aid kit, or fire drills where not one fire warden has been available. Yes, it can make you laugh at the time, but in a real emergency this kind of mistake can quite simply cost lives. Unexpected things always come up and it’s important that lessons are always learnt.”

Developing emergency procedures

Shermin recommends developing emergency procedures in accordance with Clause 8.2 of the Occupational Health and Safety Management System standard ISO 45001:2018, which addresses ‘Emergency Preparedness and Response’.

“The Clause requires organisations to establish, implement and maintain a process to prepare for an emergency situation,” Shermin explained. “The organisation shall address all potential occupational health and safety impacts, including establishing an emergency plan with first aid provision, providing appropriate training and periodically testing the organisation’s capability to respond.”

Other aspects that the emergency response process should address, according to Clause 8.2, include:

  • Evaluating the organisation’s performance and, as necessary, revising the planned response, including after testing and, in particular, after the occurrence of an emergency situation
  • Communicating and providing relevant information to all workers on their duties and responsibilities
  • Communicating relevant information to contractors, visitors, emergency response services, government bodies and, where appropriate, the local community
  • Taking into account the needs and capabilities of all relevant interested parties and ensuring their involvement, as appropriate, in the development of the planned response

In addition, Shermin points to Element 6 of the OSHAD Abu Dhabi Occupational Safety and Health System Framework, a local legal requirement which may also prove useful to other organisations based in the Middle East. Element 6 covers ‘Emergency Management’ and can be downloaded from the website.

Who to involve?

Any on-site emergency response should be developed using competent personnel and available local knowledge with input of workers at all levels. The involvement of those at the very top of the organisation is particularly important, according to Amitabh Bhattacharya.

“involving people at all levels of the organisation in the emergency procedure planning and response process would ensure ‘ownership’”

“The Emergency Response Team needs to feel empowered,” he said. “It may be that a crisis leads to someone having to make a decision to shut down the plant, for example. Shutdowns can be extremely expensive, but any delay in that kind of decision-making can also cost lives or put the plant out of operation for a significantly longer period of time. This is why involving those at the top is so crucial; not only to support decision-making, but to give appropriate authority to the team.”

Shermin added that involving people at all levels of the organisation in the planning and response process would ensure ‘ownership’ and consideration of technical issues that may not be apparent to all.

Engaging with external parties is also critical to ensure any emergency plans and procedures are fully rounded and robust. Regulators, local authorities, utilities providers and emergency services are all likely to be involved in the event of an emergency incident and can offer valuable insight when developing plans and procedures. The needs of residential neighbourhoods and adjacent or nearby businesses should also be taken into account.

External response

The level of anticipated external response needs to be assessed when establishing emergency procedures, as this can vary considerably according to your location. While sites close to major cities could expect a relatively rapid response from emergency services, this will not be the case in remote areas. This highlights the need to develop plans specific to locations, rather than simply relying on a generic organisational emergency response.

In remote locations the level of expertise required may need to be increased. For example, advanced trauma care may have to be provided in the absence of external medical assistance. On-site emergency response teams capable of rescuing workers at height, or in confined spaces, using breathing apparatus and specialist recovery equipment may also be required. The specialist nature of the hazards on site, such as in a chemical plant, may even mean that the site needs to have specially trained response workers who are able to assist the emergency services on arrival at the site.

Alert systems

When toxic methyl isocyanate was released from the Union Carbide chemical plant at Bohpal in India in 1984, a failure to alert residents in the immediate vicinity had a dramatic impact on the overall death toll. People were not evacuated quickly enough and more than 2,000 were killed. Likewise in the Piper Alpha disaster referred to earlier; while workers were initially alerted through an automatic gas alarm, a subsequent explosion destroyed the main control room, making it impossible to use loudspeakers and order an evacuation.

Both incidents highlight the need for effective and well thought through alert systems, which not only draw the attention of those in the immediate vicinity, but also all relevant external agencies and interested parties. As well as initiating evacuation, alert systems are needed to initiate other actions, such as reporting emergencies to appropriate personnel during off-duty hours. Alerts should also be distinctive for different types of emergency, so that personnel are immediately aware of a fire as opposed to a chemical spill, for example, and can respond accordingly. As well as audible systems, visual alerts should be provided (flashing lights etc.) and even tactile devices, in case some people are not in a position to recognise a visual or audible alarm, such as in a remote and confined space.

Emergency equipment

“Emergency equipment is very important and should perform when it is required,” said Amitabh Bhattacharya. “This makes regular maintenance essential, as well as ensuring people are adequately trained in its use.

“This is an area which I have seen lacking at times, sometimes because of an unwillingness to devote the right level of resource to something which after all, may never happen. Of course, risk assessment must consider the likely probability of an event occurring, as well as its severity, but there must be a suitable dedicated budget established for the health and safety of personnel and this should always be spent wisely.”

Choice of fire-fighting equipment, personal protective equipment, medical devices such as defibrillators and warning devices must be based on the potential hazards in the workplace, as assessed. There may also be a need for special equipment for hazards unique to the workplace or location.

There are interesting developments in the area of emergency management. Smart buildings are providing faster and more affordable fire detection – alert and arrest systems for example, where thermostats and smoke sensors can control fire doors through Wi-Fi networks. Likewise, small microphones can detect explosive sound waves and trigger warnings to view CCTV footage out of normal hours.

Accounting for people

There should always be a process in place to account for the whereabouts of workers in the event of an emergency, through either an automatic or manual roll-call system. A manual roll call simply involves calling out names at muster points to ensure everyone is present, while an automatic system will use swipe cards or key fobs to establish their presence at work or even a particular location.

Some groups may be particularly vulnerable during an emergency situation and may need specific consideration as part of any plan. Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) may be developed for those with an impairment, such as wheelchair users, who may for example need to use disabled refuges or evacuation chairs.

Information management

Information management is critical during any emergency. From the minute an incident is declared until it is over information should be flowing throughout the team, so there must be processes in place to manage it.

According to Shermin Shali: “Making it clear who is responsible for different aspects of communication at various levels is key.” One simple example is that of customer or media liaison, where employees should be instructed to direct enquiries to an agreed internal source, such as the public relations team, rather than commenting themselves, to ensure consistency and to mitigate any possible reputational damage. Members of the public in the vicinity may need to be provided with information, such as in a release of hazardous chemicals. Decisions need to be made in accordance with regulations and duty of care, as well as the avoidance of rumour, panic and alarm. To this end, emergency control centres should be suitably equipped to allow these communications to be carried out smoothly.

Real-time information about the incident as it develops, including the procedures initiated and decisions made, should be recorded in a chronological log. This can be done as simply as using a whiteboard at the emergency control centre, for example. Hazard information essential for the emergency services, such as safety data sheets, should be available in a suitable format and in the correct local language. Whomsoever is responsible for details of casualties, including next-of-kin contacts, must be clearly established within the emergency plan.

When the emergency is over, reports will be needed to assist in any review, identifying root causes and lessons learnt.

Training is ‘absolutely key’

Amitabh believes training is ‘absolutely key’ to ensuring that emergency plans and relevant procedures are effective.

“One of the most exciting areas of development for me is the use of technology such as VR (virtual reality) to assist in theoretical training,” he said. “Our minds seem to understand things better when there is a practical and physical element to them. So placing people in a realistic situation in a virtual world to both teach them how to respond and to assess how they respond is extremely useful. It’s a technique that is more interactive and more engaging and is a great way to supplement tabletop exercises.”

The Emergency Response Team and incident commanders must all be competent to carry out their roles, and this goes beyond pure technical capability. For example, incident commanders will need the experience of leading and managing a team and the authority to do so under considerable pressure. Being able to stand back and analyse a situation without risking the safety of workers while waiting for the emergency services, for example. Good communication skills are also essential, as is the ability to recognise that the most effective leaders are never usually physically involved in incidents, but stand back and take command rather than fighting fires themselves.

On a practical level, formal training will be needed to ensure response team members can use PPE, carry out basic firefighting or deliver first aid, depending on their set responsibilities. Internal capabilities will need to be regularly reviewed, as key personnel can change at any time and a missing cog in the wheel could prove extremely costly in the event of a crisis.

An organisational responsibility

In summary, emergency procedures involve identifying any kind of major threat, ranging from natural disasters and disease outbreaks to civil disturbances and chemical spills, and then managing them. Involving everyone – all stakeholders, internal and external, direct and indirect – throughout the organisation in identifying these threats, then developing a suitable plan and set of processes and regularly putting them to the test before they are needed in a real-world scenario is the key.

When you think about it, everyone has a role to play in a major emergency. So don’t make the mistake of leaving anyone out. The aim is for everyone to survive; workers, members of the public, emergency services and at the end of the day, the organisation itself.