The Human Factor and Disaster

March 19, 2024 | By: Joseph Murphy

Why do we expend resources on emergency preparedness each year? The single most important answer to this question is to mitigate and reduce risk for our buildings. This should be the goal of every manager, every day. Risk equals liability, and liability equals potential cost exposure for building owners and managers. Some risk is foreseeable, and therefore preventable. Some risks are harder to see, harder to forecast, and harder to prevent. Emergency Preparedness should not only address disasters involving fire, flood and weather-related emergencies; it should also address “The Human Factor.” 

The human element that can influence risk and lead to disaster covers a broad spectrum including bomb threats, workplace violence, kidnapping, exposure to disease and biological threats, corporate espionage, arson, active shooter events and more. The unpredictable nature of the human factor in risk avoidance results in a well-prepared manager taking an “all hazards” approach to risk mitigation. Let’s look at several of these areas and then review some common ways to address risk avoidance at work, and at home. 

Bomb Threats 

Bomb threats are not uncommon events, and given that the vast majority of bomb threats made often result in false alarms, many discount them as being a major problem or concern. But are you prepared to make an informed decision about whether the threat is real or not? Are your tenants educated on how best to collect useful data should they receive a bomb threat via telephone? Do you and your team know the best way to conduct a search of building common areas? What about tenant spaces? And who makes the final determination if a partial or full evacuation will take place? Many managers believe (incorrectly) that local law enforcement will handle such matters, but unless a suspicious package is discovered following a search of the premises, their role is limited. They may place the full burden of a search and the decision to evacuate on you and your tenants–where it actually belongs in the absence of a suspicious package or device. Are you prepared for that?  

Including bomb threat training in your annual floor warden training program is a great way to get the word out to your tenants. Including tips in your building newsletter or simply sending an informative email with tips from the FBI about how to identify suspicious packages, or how to collect data when you receive a bomb threat call are also useful. Having local law enforcement participate in a lunch-and-learn seminar with your tenants wherein they bring examples of pipe bombs, suitcase bombs and other explosive or incendiary devices is always exciting and informative, and it is sure to draw great participation from your tenant population.  

In considering your risk for bomb threats, you need to consider your tenant mix. Do you have tenants that attract the attention of activist groups? What about animal rights groups? Do you have medical tenants that treat emotionally disturbed patients? Do you have government tenants, consulate offices, courthouses or other high-profile tenants that deal with the general public? Each of these factors can contribute to the potential for risk and cause you to consider with greater concern the received bomb threats. If you have high profile tenants like these, have you reviewed with them their plans for handling bomb threats?  

Workplace Violence 

The threat of workplace violence is everywhere, and although the number of workplace homicides have been on the decline over the past 30 years, the number of reported workplace homicides since 2014 have increased by 11% (ISHN Feb 8, 2023) . Commercial office buildings and medical office buildings are filled with people, and people have lives and relationships outside of work. It is often those relationships that spill over into the workplace that result in workplace violence events. These usually involve a domestic partner of some type, which means each event is emotionally charged between people that have some history together.  

Are you prepared to support a tenant that reports that one of their associates has obtained a restraining order against their partner? Is your security staff prepared to challenge, professionally and effectively, a terminated employee of a tenant who is attempting to gain access to the property and is exhibiting emotional outbursts? Could they, or you, respond and help achieve tension reduction in an altercation versus making matters worse? Is anyone prepared on your property to help, or would you rely exclusively on a law enforcement response?  

For more on this important topic, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration at   


Really? Could you ever imagine an event of kidnapping at your property? Do you have a Daycare Center on site? If so, are you familiar with its protocols for ensuring each child is safeguarded against unauthorized removal from the property? If your answer is “No,” do you think now would be the best time to learn that information or after a child has been reported as missing? Does your staff, including the engineering and security team have a defined role to play if your Daycare Center tenant reports that a child is missing, or that one was just removed from their center by an unauthorized person? Can your team react quickly to secure the property from egress or at least post observers at perimeter locations in the hopes of identifying a direction of travel, vehicle description or other useful information to help the police? 

Disease and Biological Threats 

Twenty years ago, the H5N1 virus made the news, and everyone watched in anticipation to see if it would become a global pandemic. It did not, and the American public learned some very useful hand sanitation techniques and other useful practices to avoid the transmission of disease. In 2009, the H1N1 flu made headlines as the “swine flu” spreading quickly across the country and the world. The CDC estimates there we 60.8M cases, 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the United States.  In 2020, there were three waves of cholera and the SARS-CoV-2 virus (“COVID-19”), As of March 2023, when Johns Hopkins University ceased providing regular updates on COVID-19 data, the US had experienced 103.8M cases, and 1.12M deaths associated with this virus.  Dangerous viruses will continue to circulate in the wild and some will evenutally become transmissible amongst humans with varying degrees of mortality. The COVID-19 pandemic taught all of us how to better prepare for, and respond to, dangerous viruses in the home and at work. Do you still have material you could disseminate quickly to your tenants on this topic if you only had a week to do so if we experienced another pandemic? Are you prepared to implement mitigation strategies and enhanced cleaning protocols immediately to safeguard your building and tenants?  

And what about biological threats introduced into your building through the HVAC system, such as chemical, biological or radiological (dirty bomb) threats? These may be low-level risks, but are you aware of what chemical facility or storage sites are within five miles of your property? What about rail yards with chemical tankers? A spill or containment breach can cause a hazardous plume that can threaten any building or population within miles. Are your tenants educated in “shelter-in-place” techniques? 

Does your disaster recovery plan address pandemic or chemical/biological threats as potential risk factors, or does your plan only address fire, weather emergencies, workplace violence and other typical topics?  

Corporate Espionage 

Most would believe it fiction; however, corporate espionage and theft of trade secrets is alive and well in America. Just ask any FBI agent. In fact, Nation-sponsored efforts to collect data on American corporations are not only alive and well, but flourishing. Gaining a competitive advantage on a new product release, getting valuable insight into a major expansion project, identifying key research findings are all invaluable tools in the global race to be the best and most profitable. The use of disguised spies may have waned over the years–though they still exist–however, the use of social engineering, computer breeches, phishing, spear-phishing, and hacking attacks and other, more evolved techniques continue to be a pervasive threat to American ingenuity and success in today’s global market.  

How “tight” is your building? Can someone tail gate and get into the building or into a tenant space? Are tenants taught what to do or say, if someone attempts to tail gate? Does your cleaning staff only open the suite they are cleaning and leave all other doors locked? Are you sure? How secure are the keys used by the cleaning or security staff? What about trash removal or compactor operation? Theft of corporate secrets is big business; are you doing everything you can to help your tenants stay in business? 


Rarely is arson a foreseeable risk for a building, but if you have high profile tenants, like those mentioned in the bomb threats section above, arson could be a real threat if an activist group targeted your tenant or property. Basic fire emergency protocols would come into play to respond to a case of arson, but having strong law enforcement ties and solid lines of communication with higher risk tenants is imperative to address concerns in this area. The times to work out those lines of communication are not after the fire trucks start to roll. 

Active Shooter Events 

This is perhaps the scariest topic for many in today’s commercial office environment. The high profile nature of this crime makes it front page news whenever it does occur, and it brings questions from concerned tenants and others. How prepared are you and your tenants to respond to an active shooter or armed intruder event? Do you have a “Code Silver” or other code word that can be announced via the fire system public address feature to warn tenants that an armed individual is on property? Have you personally reviewed the Department of Homeland Security recommended strategies for responding to an active shooter event, ( or watched aby of the Run.Hide.Fight videos produced, such as this brief, six-minute-long video produced by the City of Houston to learn more about what to do when an active shooter is nearby? ( YouTube has multiple productions of Run.Hide.Fight videos produced by a variety of public law enforcement and educational law enforcement departments available for review.  

Having pre-identified escape routes, reinforced safe rooms or areas within the building that would offer enhanced shelter to delay an active shooter until a law enforcement response could mitigate the threat are crucial components in any tenant emergency plan. What level of responsibility do you want to assume for the safety of your tenants? In reality, your best course of action is to make available to your tenants resources that they can use to educate themselves and their employees so that when an emergency does occur, they can implement and execute their own emergency response plans, and you can implement yours.  There are professional resources available to come to your property to develop a Plan, perform live action drills and educate your staff and tenants, if desired. 

Other Factors 

The human factor presents touchpoints with our businesses, workplaces, residences and families. The list of topics and risks for us, our children, our workplace and our employer are nearly endless. Club drugs, fentanyl, school violence/shootings, local crime statistics and registered sex offenders; computer intrusions, viruses, trojans and scams, online safety for our children (and ourselves); suspicious packages sent in the mail; gang activity; mail and financial fraud; and many other risks are out there every day.  

How do you prepare for ALL of this? Information is your best defense. Utilizing readily available resources maintained by the USPS ( percent20package percent20poster), FEMA  (, and the FBI  (  is a great start.  

To be prepared–both at work and at home–for a wide range of disasters, you should review the guidance offered by the DHS and “Be Informed, Make a Plan, Build a Kit and Get Involved” (  


The financial risk that our property owners face from events like those listed above, or even from things as simple as a slip and fall can be significant. Have we done everything we can to help reduce risk in this area? A careful review of not only lease language, but also your own policies as they relate to maintaining safe-walking surfaces, clearing snow or ice or removing hazards is well advised. If you have policies and procedures at your property that you did not write, your legal counsel has not reviewed or that have not been updated in years, now would be a great time to review those documents.  

Look for vague or soft language” that creates broad responsibilities and potential liabilities. Language that presents absolutes, such as, “…will remove all snow and ice…,” or “…will ensure the safety and security of all persons…,” creates a legal burden that may not be reasonably achievable in all cases. If that is so, modifying that language is well advised. Engaging the services of your insurance carrier to assist in this review is suggested. Having your leasing group review language that has been used for years in your lease agreements is another good idea. Working with reputable vendors and suppliers who are experienced in risk mitigation and risk avoidance measures is also well advised. Where practical, selecting providers who offer enhanced liability protection for extreme situations, like acts of terrorism, who are SAFETY Act Certified ( can be critically important to protect higher risk facilities and their owners from massive litigation potentials.  

In summary, it is impossible to be prepared for every individual risk you or your facility may face. You can however adopt and practice an all-hazards approach, which allows for preparation and response to a variety of events with a focus on human safety, business recovery and business continuity. Annual or semi-annual safety training that includes not only presentations, but also tabletop exercises and drills are imperative if you and your team are to be properly prepared to handle real-life emergency events. And don’t forget to practice at home with your family too. 


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