By Jack Rubinger
For families and homeowners, surviving a disaster like a flood can change lives forever. For businesses and other types of organizations, disasters are no less devastating, but with some intensive planning and communications with customers, supply chains, vendors, and other significant groups an organization can get back on its feet.
Every organization is different, but a disaster preparedness team usually is comprised of CEO and other C-suite executives, facilities management, risk management, public relations, human resources, security, corporate counsel, and any others who have responsibility for the operation of the business.
“True employee engagement is more than lip service,” explains business productivity expert Robby Slaughter of the Indianapolis-based consulting firm AccelaWork. “A disaster plan that is collaboratively developed by your team will help them feel more engaged in your business, and will lead to increased productivity overall.”
There is another big advantage to a disaster preparedness plan. The ongoing conversation about how to take care of the people and the business in the event of an emergency demonstrates to employees and customers that the organization cares about their well-being.
I have personal experience with disaster preparedness.
I never imagined I’d be filling sandbags at work, but when the Willamette River in northwestern Oregon crested at 28.6′ (some 10.6′ above flood stage) after heavy rains and a melting snow pack, everyone at Oregon City’s Chrome Data got out and pitched in to keep the city from being overwhelmed no matter where they worked.
Before we left the building, our CEO asked everyone to come upstairs to the sales area and participate in a disaster planning session. As we sat together brainstorming while it was raining cats and dogs outside, we did our best to address every aspect of how the floods could damage our business, our customers, our vendors, and our employees. This became our disaster preparedness plan. While kind of scary, it brought us all together.
Then, our boss sent us all home early to be safe. While parts of the city were hit particularly hard, the rains subsided, our building was okay, and the next day it was business as usual.
Since every facility is different, there’s not a one-size-fits-all plan, but to get started there are important questions to ask:
Communications: Who is the designated spokesperson? Which customers can talk about how the business continued to serve them throughout the crisis?
Emergency egress: Are exits and evacuation routes clear at all times? Are routes marked with clear wayfinding signage that is visible without light or power?
In the aftermath of 9/11, New York City and other municipalities made phosphorescent markings mandatory in emergency stairwells and exit doors of commercial high-rise buildings 75′ or taller.
Are there regular evacuation drills, and are you prepared to evacuate people with disabilities? Are any employees designated to check bathrooms and make sure all other rooms are empty? For mid-size and larger facilities, is a roll call procedure in place to make sure all employees are accounted for?
Supplies: What will be done if employees (or customers) can’t go home? Are there robust first aid and emergency supplies on hand? Are food, water, and blankets available? What about radios, tools, and other disaster supplies, such as crowbars and shovels?
Facility: Are fire extinguishers maintained and accessible? Is the HVAC system secure and capable of filtering potential contaminants? Is it easy to shut off? Is the gas shutoff readily accessible? Do you have a backup generator and enough safely stored fuel for it to be useful? Are pipes and valves prominently marked? Are all hazardous materials properly stored and labeled with NFPA hazard diamond and/or HazCom 2012 labels?
Business continuity plan: When a disaster takes out an entire city or region, many employers go out of business. Planning for contingencies can help keep a business afloat. Here are some bases to cover:
Insurance: How well are you covered? It’s wise to get more coverage than you think you need. Many buildings near coastal areas do not carry flood insurance because they are not adjacent to a river. Storms and tsunamis have proven that approach to be ineffective.
Employees: Which employees will be most necessary for putting the “bare bones” of the business back together, and do you have a plan for getting them back to work even if communication is disrupted? Are they set up for telecommuting?
Supply chain: Do you have alternate suppliers and are you set up to do business with them at a moment’s notice?
Business model: Can the business adapt rapidly to offer something of value in the aftermath of a catastrophe? How quickly can this new business model be adopted? Do you have access to credit and/or cash? Is there a backup point-of-sale system that can operate without the power grid?
Inventory: How is inventory secured and stored? If flooded, burned, or shaken today, how much of your inventory would be destroyed?
“Our building used to be a bank. One of our storage rooms is an old concrete vault. We keep our supplies there and feel it would be accessible in most disaster scenarios,” says Art Bush, safety director of R&H Construction in Portland, OR.
Facility: Can you operate out of a different facility in case of emergency? Are there generators or a way to operate on limited electricity? Do you have any backup machinery necessary to do enough work to stay in business?
IT disaster recovery plan: A critical aspect of the business continuity plan is the IT disaster recovery plan. Electronic equipment can be affected by power loss, power surges, and exposure to the elements. A basic IT disaster recovery plan takes into account the following:
Data recovery and restoration: Is your data backed up on a daily basis and duplicated in a data center somewhere far away from local conditions?
Hardware and software: Do you have a full inventory and access to enough equipment to run the business?
Connectivity: How will your connectivity channels be affected by disasters?
Unfortunately, many organizations have bare bones disaster plans. Emergency supplies may just include some food, water, tools and first aid supplies.
You can’t just create a plan, and leave it on a shelf. Everyone needs a continuous reminder that the plan exists. That’s why visual communications for disaster preparedness will come into play before, during, and an organization has fully recovered from the disaster.
Rubinger works for Graphic Products, a Beaverton, OR-based provider of workplace labeling and signage products.