Once the directive went out from RCMP and the Ottawa Police Service, Export Development Canada (EDC) initiated a lockdown.
There was at least one gunman loose, who had attacked a soldier at the National War Memorial near Parliament Hill.
EDC’s headquarters, which house about 800 employees, is a secure building so protocols can quickly be enacted, according to spokesperson Philip Taylor. All the entrances were sealed off, though people inside were allowed to move about freely — with the caution they may have to move away from windows if the situation escalated. Several hours later, the lockdown was lifted.
Overall, the procedure went well, said Taylor, adding the company had gone through tabletop exercises just recently and identified some areas in need of improvement — “It was very timely.”
“It’s fair to say that if you are a medium to large employer, this is on your mind, anytime there’s an event like this,” he said. “It creates questions that need an answer.”
There are a variety of situations where it’s really safer to have employees remain in a building, rather than evacuate, according to Ann Wyganowski, vice-president at HZX Business Continuity Planning and director of the Disaster Recovery Information Exchange in Toronto. These can include a bomb threat, gun violence, gas leak, severe weather or even a quarantine for Ebola.
“You can’t force somebody to shelter in a place but you can certainly make recommendations for their personal safety,” she said.
However, most employers are not prepared.
“I’m seeing a real weakness in that many employers are preparing for, say, a fire evacuation and not really training employees in much more than that,” said Wyganowski.
“A lot of employers don’t teach employees what to do in those type of situations, they don’t pre-identify where is a safe room to go, with no window, a door that locks, perhaps somewhere where you can remain out of sight and not make yourself a target.”
Schools are well-versed when it comes to shutdowns or lockdowns — but employers aren’t, according to Paul Guindon, CEO of security services provider Commissionaires Ottawa.
“We have had ample time to better prepare ourselves, across the board,” he said. “But in many cases, unfortunately, it’s not until an event such as last week that people do then react and better prepare themselves. But, boy oh boy, we have had all kinds of indications, going way back, back in the 80s, if not longer,” he said. “It’s less now a matter of ‘if’ but rather a matter of ‘when.’”
Until the events in Ottawa, people had become complacent about the risks, said Wyganowski.
“We’re not as risk-aware that way, as people are in the United States, because we haven’t experienced those kinds of attacks in the past.”
It is a very real risk to any organization, “whether it’s a lone wolf terrorist or disgruntled employee or somebody that’s just has gone over the edge,” she said, citing as an example the arrest of the Toronto 18 group of terrorists in 2006.
“Everybody’s kind of (thinking) ‘That was done and dusted’ — they don’t really expect that there’s more of them that are going to pop out of the woodwork.”
The industry of business continuity and emergency planning has seen a real downturn in the last little while as people are not updating their plans or are cutting budgets, said Wyganowski.
“People did a lot of pandemic planning, for example, just before the H1N1 (outbreak) and now everybody’s ‘OK, well, we had a pandemic, that’s that.’ And I’m seeing many organizations are not keeping their pandemic plans up to date — even with the kinds of risks out there with Ebola.”
Tips to prepare
EDC has three main exercises it goes through to be prepared, said Taylor: a business continuity plan when systems shut down; a communications crisis plan when the company is subject to an intense line of questioning; and an emergency response plan, which kicked in during the Parliament Hill shootings.
Obviously, the safety of employees is the main focus, he said, and the first step is to assess where everyone is so there’s a call-through that goes out to leaders.
“It’s the leader’s job. Regardless of the size of your team, you find out where all your employees are and make sure you can account for them, and then that rolls up into the higher levels, so then we have a corporate view of where everyone is,” said Taylor.
Communications are sent out to employees through an internal website, which was updated several times during the Ottawa shootings, and there are digital panels throughout the office that are also updated. The challenge is conveying official information quickly while balancing a lot of hearsay, he said.
Employers should conduct a proper internal and external risk assessment ahead of time, said Wyganowski.
“The density of the population and the number of public venues really increase your risk, but people don’t pay a lot of attention to whether or not the consulate from the country where the terrorists are coming from is in the floor above them, for example.
“They don’t pay attention to who their neighbours are; they don’t pay attention to the types of events that take place, like parades or street closures — the kind of thing that would lend themselves to that kind of incident,” she said.
Basic training sheets can also be given out and department managers, at monthly staff meetings, can talk through one emergency procedure each time to increase employee awareness, said Wyganowski.
Training is also important to ensure employees are ready when an emergency actually happens, she said.
“You need to do drills. If you don’t do those kinds of exercises regularly, then it’s hard.”
It’s like a fire drill — if you never practise a lockdown, on a regular basis, people won’t know what to do, said Guindon.
The basic principle is to minimize or mitigate the risk, he said.
“There (are) processes, policies and equipment that you can have in place ahead of time that would mitigate those risks.”
And it can be fairly inexpensive, said Guindon.
“Obviously, you may need some specific equipment, some alarm systems, some public address system — it really depends on the building,” he said.
“And, in many cases, it’s not a huge cost when you’re talking about protecting a large amount of people in an urban centre.”
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