Published on May 2, 2016.

Single Source

With the creation of the new NFPA 1616, emergency officials now have a comprehensive guide for managing a program for mass evacuation and sheltering


WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the impact was felt across hundreds of miles of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Some communities located at the water’s edge were simply wiped off the map. In New Orleans, the overmatched levees gave way one by one, flooding vast sections of the city and displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. Over the next few days, as the impact of the storm became apparent, officials estimated that some 1.5 million people were moving inland in search of shelter.

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Las Vegas, June 13-16, 2016

Lessons Learned from Starting a New Standard
Tuesday, June 14, 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM

Dean Larson, Larson Performance Consulting; Brian O’Connor, NFPA

The call went out for cities and towns to muster their resources and provide shelter for residents forced to evacuate. Providing safe shelter for such large numbers of suddenly homeless people presented a formidable challenge for communities and emergency managers, but officials throughout the region rose to the occasion.

One of those was Phil Hardberger, who was then the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, located 550 miles west of New Orleans. According to the San Antonio Express–News, shortly after Katrina slammed into the coast, then-Gov. Rick Perry had called Hardberger to see if San Antonio could handle the sheltering needs for 10,000 evacuees. Hardberger replied—“boldly” and “ignorantly,” as he would later put it—that San Antonio could handle it, even if it meant creating and implementing a complex, multiagency plan on the fly. Hardberger appeared on CNN and urged evacuees to come to his city. The San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) was told to prepare for 20,000 evacuees.

The first wave of arrivals, which would total nearly 13,000 people, began arriving in San Antonio on September 3. Four primary evacuation centers were opened and managed by both the City of San Antonio and Bexar County: a warehouse and an office building at the former Kelly Air Force Base, an empty clothing distribution center, and an empty department store at a suburban shopping mall. Just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the threat of another major hurricane, Rita, prompted yet more mass evacuations, an estimated 2–3 million people, along the Texas coast. Some of these evacuees arrived in San Antonio, further complicating the task of providing mass sheltering. Eventually, according to the Express–News, San Antonio would provide shelter for an estimated 37,000 evacuees over the next two and a half months, people who were housed in a shelter network that grew to include 10 facilities as well as area hotels. The Express–News, citing a 2006 city report, said the city had spent $21.8 million on the relief effort, and support organizations had spent $6.4 million.

Children and adults carrying bags as they evacuate to shelter

The new NFPA 1616 covers procedures for mass evacuation and sheltering, and also covers the process of reentry once an evacuation emergency is complete. Photograph: Getty Images

Now put yourself in Hardberger’s shoes—sheltering that many people for an indeterminate length of time is a truly daunting task, one you’ve never before undertaken. Where do you even begin? Planning for mass evacuation, sheltering, and reentry requires careful consideration of the interfaces among each of these emergency functions. Complicating the planning is the need to identify the appropriate protocols, policies, and standards issued by both government and nongovernmental facilities. For starters, where do you go to find all of this information in one place?

Hardberger, San Antonio, and Bexar County didn’t have the benefit of a one-stop source of this information, but that’s about to change with the completion of a new NFPA standard. The 2017 Edition of NFPA 1616, Mass Evacuation, Sheltering, and Reentry Programs, describes an integrated program for planning, executing, and evaluating mass evacuation, mass sheltering, and mass reentry. The basis for NFPA 1616 is an integrated program for disaster/emergency management and business continuity/continuity of operations program as described by NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs. The standard is designed to be used by public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and can be used in both domestic and international applications. As chair of the technical committees for NFPA 1600 and NFPA 1616, I believe the new standard will allow emergency managers and other key decision makers to initiate and manage such programs much more quickly and efficiently, and will help ensure a safe, humane, and supportive experience for evacuees throughout the evacuation, sheltering, and reentry process.

The making of a standard

In 2012, NFPA’s Standards Council received a recommendation from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to develop a standard on mass evacuation, defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as “evacuation of large numbers of people in incidents requiring a coordinated federal response.” In its rationale for the standard, the IAFC wrote that “the National Governor’s Association and International Association of Fire Chiefs have identified the lack of a national framework to allow rapid mobilization of national, state, regional, and local emergency preparedness agencies during events where large numbers of the populace must be relocated,” adding that “these agencies and governmental structures are hampered by not having a standard approach when evacuees are crossing jurisdictional boundaries.”

Later in the same year, I wrote a letter to the Standards Council recommending a standard on mass sheltering based on the 2005 San Antonio experience of sheltering tens of thousands of evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for more than 10 weeks. It appeared to me that the unique challenges faced by the city of San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas, for sheltering this number of evacuees could be addressed by NFPA and its experience in many other standards development projects. It seemed to me that the organization’s expertise in electrical safety and fire protection engineering, to name two examples, could be very valuable in modifying general-purpose warehouse facilities into suitable temporary housing for thousands of people.

In 2012, NFPA issued the notice of intent to start the standards development process for mass evacuation and a separate standards development for mass sheltering. The notice brought objections to a mass sheltering standard from some key organizations in the emergency response community, who felt that such a standard had already been established by organizations such as the Red Cross, FEMA, and the Association of Venue Management. NFPA’s staff liaison for the proposed standard, Orlando Hernandez, responded that NFPA had no intention of establishing a standard for mass sheltering, but rather to develop what’s known as a program standard—a document that would collect references to the existing standards in a single document. As a result of Hernandez’s efforts, the dissenting organizations joined the technical committee to work on the program standard together.

In September 2013, the technical committee held its first draft meeting, which was handled by NFPA staff liaisons Tom McGowan and Ryan Depew. The initial scope of the technical committee focused on mass evacuation; the topic of mass sheltering would be covered by a separate scope. But there was sufficient overlap between the two to complicate the matter, and it was also unclear whether the standards development process would include both concepts or if a separate technical committee would be formed to address mass sheltering. During that first meeting, however, it soon became apparent how the committee should proceed, which was to consider both topics within the scope of the same standard. The committee chose to write a letter to the Standards Council to request a revised scope which included both mass evacuation and mass sheltering, which we defined the same way FEMA defined “mass care”: the “capability to provide immediate shelter, feeding centers, basic first aid, bulk distribution of needed items, and related services to persons affected by a large-scale incident.”

The goal at that first meeting was to generate a working outline for the new standard (or standards). Three committee members also serve on the technical committee for NFPA 1600, and one of them suggested that NFPA 1616 would be based on NFPA 1600 because both were intended as program standards, including the format of what’s known as the plan–do–check–act model. The entire committee agreed. The result of our first meeting was not just a working outline, but a full working draft of the new program standard. Since NFPA 1600 would be used as a model, the committee agreed that Chapter 1 in the new NFPA 1616 would include the requirements for integrated emergency management and business continuity, as explained in NFPA 1600, as the basis for the integrated program defined in NFPA 1616.

In early 2014, the committee met to complete the draft standard for submission to the Standards Council later that year. Orlando Hernandez, an NFPA staff liaison, arranged the meeting for San Antonio to allow direct interaction between committee members and the SAFD, which was tasked with managing the mass sheltering for the city. Lieutenant Jim Reidy of the SAFD participated in the meeting as an official representative of the department. Reidy, a key player in the evolution of the city’s sheltering operation, shared policies and standard operating procedures used for planning and implementing sheltering. Some of the documentation provided was developed by the San Antonio Health Department. Reidy helped us understand how the process happened in 2005: how representatives from city departments and agencies, as well as from nonprofit organizations, were formed into a sheltering team, and how the mayor directed the Office of Emergency Management to work with city departments to devise a sheltering plan. The SAFD was directed to assume the responsibility as the lead agency for designating, equipping, opening, and operating shelters. The strong message the committee received was that the process for opening and operating the city’s public shelters in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was truly an evolutionary, seat-of-the-pants operation that validated the need for NFPA 1616.

At the San Antonio meeting, the committee agreed that we should add the concept of reentry—sometimes referred to “repopulation”—defined in NFPA 1616 as “the return of people to a previously evacuated area” to complete the evacuation/sheltering/reentry cycle that we believed NFPA 1616 should cover. We reasoned that as local government and local responders, we assist with evacuating people from an area and sheltering them, and it made sense that we would also take on the responsibility of returning them to their homes or at least to the communities they came from. From the experience in San Antonio in 2005, a portion of the evacuees chose to remain in the city of sheltering rather than return to their original homes as part of a reentry phase, but this variable is beyond the scope of the standard.

Covering the bases

The second draft meeting, run by NFPA staff liaisons Ryan Depew and Brian O’Connor, was held in Charleston, South Carolina, to complete the 2017 edition of NFPA 1616. We are proud of the just-completed standard for several reasons, including some of the important related issues we were able to address in this first edition of the standard. Those included questions of how to deal with pets and other animals in these kinds of events, and how to account for the needs of people with disabilities or who have other types of functional issues.

Animals became a very large issue in the aftermath of Katrina—namely, that pets, service animals, and comfort animals be considered essential parts of families, and that they be evacuated and sheltered along with their human companions. Following Katrina, the media was full of heartbreaking stories of people told by evacuation officials that they had to leave pets behind—service animals were allowed in shelters—or, conversely, of people who chose not to evacuate because they refused to abandon their animals. As part of the creation of NFPA 1616, technical committee member Jeremy Kaufman, a consultant who specializes in handling and managing animals in emergencies, headed a task group to address questions related to animals. The group’s membership included the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Red Cross, and other animal-interest groups, and it developed an excellent annex with recommendations on addressing the myriad issues that arise when animals meet the mass evacuation, sheltering, and reentry process.

Lady carries dog to safety after a disaster

The new NFPA 1616 addresses the issue of pets and other animals in evacuation and sheltering scenarios, a topic that spurred controversy and much discussion following Hurricane Katrina. Photograph: Getty Images

Another task group, chaired by committee member Lynn Kenney, addressed the needs of people with disabilities and other functional concerns. These range from people for whom English is a second language; the physical and cognitive needs of the elderly, and of unaccompanied children; transgendered people; people with physical disabilities; and issues related to prescription drugs. These concerns and more are addressed in an annex to NFPA 1616. Additional annexes were created as planning and evaluation tools for mass evacuation, mass sheltering, and mass reentry procedures; emergency communication, including public alerts and warnings; social media support; just-in-time training support; and evacuation, sheltering, and reentry data interoperability. A feature copied from NFPA 1600 is the self-assessment checklist, with the copy of Chapters 4 through 9 included. The checklist is another tool for building and evaluating programs for evacuation, sheltering, and reentry.

NFPA 1616 is scheduled for release in January. For more information on the standard, visit the NFPA 1616 document information webpage.

Dean R. Larson, Ph.D., runs Larson Performance Consulting and chairs the NFPA 1600 and NFPA 1616 technical committees. Top Illustration: Sarah Jones