If a young mother loses sight of her baby for just a few seconds, she goes berserk. Not knowing where her most precious treasure is, is unacceptable.

For managers losing sight of their employees during emergencies, that does not always seem the case…

In the PrepTIME crisis management system, we use an anagram for setting priorities: PEAR.RL[1]. Yes indeed, it starts with a P, as in People. As human life is considered irreplaceable, and no manager wants to bring bad news to the mother of his employees, the first position of the anagram is rightfully awarded to the P.

Caring for your people during an emergency comprises of a multitude of activities, but it all starts with the question: Who’s directly at risk? To answer that question, we need to know who’s at site at the moment of an emergency. That’s the reason why guests or contractors need to register at the reception desk upon entering a building or an industrial site.

Nowadays, many organizations make use of an electronic access control system. Upon registration, you receive an ID card that you need to swipe at a control terminal as soon as you enter or leave the site. Sometimes, the modern digital system has not fully been implemented at all sites of an organization, and there persists a paper based alternative.

In our line of work, we frequently encounter situations where that process is less than watertight. Let’s look at some examples we’ve encountered through the years:

  • A contractor dispatches 4 employees to a site. All of them get their ID cards at the security office before passing through the gate. They get back into their van and drive through the gate together, but only the driver checks in. Now 4 are on site, only one is accounted for.
  • Or, the same contractors properly check in upon entry, and leave the site again at the end of their working day. Only the driver checks out, the rest remaining in their passenger seats. The gate opens, and all 4 go home. 3 however remain checked in during the night. If the system doesn’t automatically reset at midnight, or nobody manually checks the system, the 3 ‘ghost’ contractors will remain checked in, and the next working day the headcount starts at +3.
  • The gate to a site, which is unmanned at night, is supposed to open automatically when presenting the card, but the motor operating the gate is known to be faulty and the gate is locked with a conventional chain lock at night. When the first vehicle arrives in the morning, the passenger gets out to open the lock and manually open the gate. The driver drives his vehicle in, checking himself in at the terminal at the gate. The passenger walks behind the car, closing the gate behind him and forgets to register at the pedestrian terminal several meters away. Two enter, one checks in.
  • When the alarm sounds in case of emergency, everybody goes to the muster station and checks himself out at the muster station terminal. One or two cards fail. The owners don’t notice their swipe was unsuccessful. They are safe at the muster station, yet unaccounted for.
  • There’s no communication device on the muster station other than the card system, so security has no idea what is wrong with the persons remaining on the digital list. The persons who successfully checked out are no longer visible in the system, but what is the status of the people remaining on the list? Are they still on site? Have their cards failed? Especially the people remaining on the list should be the priority. Remember, it’s relatively unimportant to know who’s checked out, but you want to know who’s not – and more importantly: where they actually are if not at the expected point, and what’s preventing them to show up. A method of communication with the anomalies (or their colleagues or eyewitnesses) is paramount.
  • Emergency exits in the fence surrounding the site are not always equipped with check out terminals. If someone flees from danger using the emergency exit, he’s is safe but unaccounted for.
  • An employee digitally checks out from a site, driving his car to an otherwise unmanned site across town. That site is less well equipped digitally, and he forgets to sign in on the paper access control list (if that even serves a purpose). He vanishes out of the system while still working at one of the company’s sites.
  • Two of the cards from a group of contractors don’t work when trying to enter. One uses a card from a colleague who’s just successfully checked in before him. Apparently, the system allows double check ins. The other just follows a car passing through the gate and is not registered at the site.
  • The electronic access system is operated from the security office at the main entrance. That system is not always accessible by the site manager working from another office or control room. In case of emergency, the muster results are not readily available to the site manager. The person operating the access control system now has to physically bring a print out of the muster results to the manager. At this moment, the manager only has information about the (virtual) results (‘Ist’[2]), but has no way of knowing what the results were expected to be (‘Soll’[3]). If there’s no comparing ‘Ist’ and ‘Soll’, there’s no way of telling if all souls are accounted for.

If there’s a mismatch between the digital reality and the live headcount, there’s no way of telling where it’s gone wrong. Of course, assuming that someone has actually taken the effort of counting heads at the muster station on top of the digital count. For example; If 55 people showed up, and 3 are still on the digital list, it looks like 3 are missing. But if there were 65 actually on site, the problem is worse than the digital reality suggests. However, we’ve seen even worse than that: 24 souls expected. 5 of those appeared to be ‘ghosts’ and were incorrectly still checked in. Actual headcount: 39, 10 of which on an alternative upwind assembly point without a checkout terminal. In this situation, only 19 out of 39 were correctly registered and 20 were on site and had entered on one of the above methods.

Now, the fire brigade reports at the gate, and the fire chief asks: ,,Are there still people on site? If yes; I’m willing to expose my men to a higher risk in an attempt to rescue, if not: I’ll let the fixed systems deal with the problem.’’

What’s your answer to that question? ’P’, as in people and your highest priority, has just gone out the window and we haven’t even started the emergency response yet.

Design your access control system with emergencies and exceptions in mind. It’s the only moment you really need the system. Unfortunately, we tend to design those systems only for situations when everything works. And during emergencies, that’s not the case.

Even when wearing oil and smudge stained coveralls, they are still some mothers baby. She deserves that you know where her treasure is.


[1] People, Environment, Asset, Reputation and in a later stage: Revenue and Legal/Liability

[2] “Ist”, German for “as is”, describing the current situation.

[3] “Soll”, German for “Should be” describing the desired situation. If there is a difference between “Ist” and “Soll”, we have work to do.

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