FM Frequency: A Disaster Checklist

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the October 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

I suspect that many organizations (large and small) didn’t have a formal emergency response/business continuity/disaster recovery plan on September 10, 2001. The notion “that can’t happen to us” vanished on a cool autumn morning along with thousands of lives and entire companies.

Of the many emergency response/business continuity/disaster recovery plans (henceforth referred to simply as “biz-con” plans) created in the last few months of 2001, how many of them have been regularly updated? Hopefully, our nation’s latest disaster (Hurricane Katrina) will inspire public and private organizations of all sizes to scrutinize their biz-con plans and make a habit of periodic updates.

Leaving permanent physical and emotional wounds along the Gulf Coast and well inland, Katrina proved once again that biz-con planners have a Herculean task of considering that which can be anticipated—then using their imaginations to plan for the unexpected.

What’s probably most disturbing about the New Orleans devastation is that this is one of those events everyone knew would happen. What do I mean? One doesn’t have to be a climatologist, geologist, rocket scientist, or armchair politician to recognize that a densely populated coastal city (surrounded by water and several feet below sea level) is an epic disaster waiting to happen. Anyone who lives within a hundred miles of the southeast coastline knows it’s not a matter of if their area will get walloped, it’s only a question of timing and severity.

And unlike the sudden destruction of an earthquake, tornado, or terrorist attack, hurricanes like Katrina usually offer several days notice of their general intentions. As difficult as it might be to imagine, this one could have been worse. We know that if Katrina had not moved slightly east in the last moments, New Orleans would have suffered an even larger tidal surge at the northeast edge of the storm.

Since most facilities managers have critical, if not leadership, roles for their company’s business continuity planning, it’s important to be good students of history and learn from the successes and failures of others. An informal brainstorming session with key department heads might be a good way to kick off a more formal review of a current biz-con plan. We need to ask and answer tough questions. For example: “What has changed since we last talked about this? What else could go wrong? What have we learned from others’ recent experiences? How can new technologies improve our planning? Are the right people involved in this planning?”

Have answers to any of the following questions changed?

  1. Exactly what constitutes an emergency for your business/facility?
  2. What types of events/incidents should your plans address?
  3. Do your plans distinguish between localized disasters (fire, utility failure, strike, workplace violence, roof leak, etc.) separately from area wide disasters (chemical spill, hurricane, terror attack, etc.)
  4. Has key personnel changed or would new facility locations alter plans?
  5. How, when, and who declares a crisis in the organization?
  6. Does the org chart and decision process change during an emergency?
  7. Are suppliers prepared to handle emergency needs and/or extend current credit limits?
  8. How would critical staff communicate in a major catastrophe with cell towers and regular phone service out of order?
  9. Should multiple critical staff members be permitted to travel together?
  10. How long would it take to obtain backup IT hardware?
  11. Are divisions or business units properly prioritized?
  12. What is the longest time each business unit could be out of commission?
  13. How long would it take to find and staff additional facilities?
  14. Are insurance coverage limits current and appropriate?
  15. Has the insurance company reviewed the biz-con plan?
  16. How would clients and staff be notified and updated regarding business status?
  17. How often are emergency contact lists updated (staff, suppliers, clients, utilities, insurance, code officials, etc.)?

This column isn’t intended to be a comprehensive guide to emergency planning. Each organization has unique needs, and there are no one size fits all biz-con plans. My experience here comes from spending most of my life in the Southeast and serving on a business continuity task force for an island-based company.

In addition to specialty business consultants who offer professional guidance, FEMA has an impressive online library with reference materials, publications, maps, and multimedia presentations, including a 67-page document called, Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry.

The four sections of the FEMA library are:

  1. FEMA Information: Information about FEMA operations.
  2. Preparation & Prevention: Materials to help you prepare and prevent damage as a result of a disaster or emergency.
  3. Disasters & Emergencies: Records of disasters and emergencies that have occurred in the United States.
  4. Response & Recovery: What should you do when a disaster or emergency occurs in your local area?

By addressing questions such as these, facility managers should have their buildings prepared for the worst that could possibly happen.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.