Directions: Best Practices And Lessons Learned

By Bill Begal
Published in the August 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

After a record breaking year for named storms—starting with Arlene and ending with Epsilon—2005 gave weather forecasters, reporters, facility professionals, and many ordinary citizens far too much disaster preparedness training. As one of the few individuals both in New Orleans (two days after the levees broke) and Southern Florida (the day after Wilma came ashore), there are many personal experiences I would like to share.

As a restoration specialist, my business is dependent on the unexpected. But after Mother Nature dealt severe blows last year, even I was challenged to determine an accurate level of preparation. Unfortunately, not much has changed since last year, and I am already feeling the impact.

Same Mistakes, Different Year

Just before Memorial Day weekend (the “official” start of summer), the DC metro area was hammered with more than 13″ of rain. Originally built on swampland, the Nation’s Capital became a hazardous mess. Streets had more than 2′ of standing water for many blocks, and several historically significant and functionally important federal buildings were closed for lengthy periods of time.

Thousands of pounds of computer systems needed to be taken offline, protected, and stored, and the same quantity of systems furniture had to be treated. Wet papers and critical documents were moved offsite and stabilized (within 48 to 72 hours, or else they would be useless). Muddy microfiche had to be dried and preserved.

Once these items were addressed, we worked two 12 hour shifts for almost three weeks, ripping up carpet and VCT, cutting drywall, and removing insulation—all this just to pass clearance testing and get things back online as soon as possible. (Other buildings remained closed up to eight weeks later, mainly due to water that infiltrated basements and ruined mechanical systems housed there.)

Don’t Let This Happen To You!

With this experience fresh in my memory, let me revisit the strategies that could have helped minimize this damage—and may protect facilities like yours from similar nightmares in the future.

  1. Have a plan, know it, and practice it. All members of an emergency team must have a copy of the plan—at home and in the office. This way, regardless of a team member’s location, procedures and plans can be followed.If someone from the emergency team in the aforementioned scenario followed this recommendation, we would have had answers to some very important questions before we even stepped foot into the building. For instance, since we were dealing Level 3 contamination rain or storm water, all precautions needed to be taken. (Was there any asbestos or lead in the building? We had no idea.) Standard water removal or drying practices were not applicable in this scenario.
  2. Have decision making personnel available. During an emergency, critical decisions need to be made in a timely manner. This is not the time to get answers to questions that should have already been addressed in a planning meeting.
  3. Plan your transportation options. If you need to travel to another site in order to reach a facility that has been hit by a disaster, my advice is to be flexible. When I was called upon to deal with Wilma in Miami, I managed to get a flight to Orlando. (My original flight to Ft. Lauderdale had been cancelled.) Fortunately, I had preferred status with one of the rental car companies, which made it possible for me to get a vehicle. This is especially helpful if an entire city floods and tons of vehicles are ruined.
  4. Make sure you can get the power you need for restoration efforts. Some facilities have their own power plants and tanks, but without a generator—either a small, portable one or a larger one that ties into a working fueling station—it’s impossible to achieve anything in terms of restoration.
  5. Invest in backup communications options. If power goes out and all portable devices (cell phones, PDAs, etc.) are your primary source of communications, remember this simple fact: it’s impossible to use these devices if you don’t have power. One simple way to restore communications is to buy an inexpensive, standard phone—the kind that doesn’t need a battery or an electric charge in order to operate.

You should also ask your IT department if your phone system is wired with a drop dead line. It can be located in a server room or in some hidden corner of an executive’s office. It may be wired with a red or blue face, so be on the lookout for something that fits this description.

The Final Lesson

It was one year ago this month that my first article appeared in TFM [“Surviving A Rough Hurricane Season” by Bill Begal, August 2005, page 44]. Since that time, I discovered that even I had room for improvement in terms of disaster preparedness.

I now schedule morning flights so I’m not stuck on a runway—my departure delayed by afternoon thunderstorms so common in the summer. I also book refundable and changeable flights. It’s often worthwhile to spend a bit more upfront knowing there is less waste, especially if conditions change quickly.

I have also invested in a satellite phone. Last year I rented one and never used it, but I’ve seen too many toppled phone poles and will no longer take a chance.

Has anyone else learned anything from these experiences? Is anyone paying attention and taking action? Or are people thinking it can’t or won’t happen to me?

I hope that you will not leave things to chance. Be proactive, prepare for the worst, and hope that none of your planning is ever needed. In the event that your facility is struck, be relieved to find what you need at your fingertips. In a post-Katrina world, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to argue with that strategy.

Begal is president of Begal Enterprises, Inc. Fire & Water Restoration Specialists, based in Rockville, MD. To contact him about this article, call (301) 984-8566 or visit the Web at