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Sep 02, 2011

The Next Disaster May Be Yours

By: Paul Ebeltoft

Natural disasters are on everyone’s minds, and why not? The eastern third of the country trembled when an earthquake struck on August 23. Just a few days ago, Hurricane Irene spread havoc from North Carolina to New England. All spring and summer, stories of massive flood dislocation and property destruction have poured out of Fargo, Minot and Bismarck.

Yet, many business owners think that a disaster is something that happens to other people. Symantec, a corporation dedicated to information security, storage and management, published shocking findings in its 2011 small and medium business (5 to 1,000 employees) disaster preparedness survey. The conclusion: small and medium businesses do not understand the importance of disaster preparedness. Half of the respondents do not have a plan in place. Forty-one percent said that it never occurred to them to put together a plan, and 40 percent stated that disaster preparedness is not a priority for them.

The purpose of this article is to introduce, not exhaust, the topic of emergency preparedness for businesses. This article will only address the human resource portion of a disaster plan. It will not, for example, discuss preservation of data, insurance, hard asset selection and inspections or the like. This article will not suggest how your business should respond to catastrophes that have already occurred. This article will only talk about planning for human resource safety during a disaster that has not happened yet.

Preparedness Rule # 1.
Protect those things that are vital to running your business.

Your businesses’ most critical asset is its employees. Without them, you cannot operate. If that is not reason enough to plan for their safety consider this: If your employees are hurt due to your company’s failure to plan for a foreseeable event, your company may be at risk legally. For these two reasons, human resources professionals must lobby hard for and need to contribute to the development of a disaster preparedness plan. Here are some suggestions for doing so:


First, evaluate the range of possible events that may threaten your employees. What kind of disaster preparedness plan you help management put in place will depend upon a thorough examination of employee-threatening events and an assessment of the likelihood of occurrence. For purposes of beginning your management discussion and evaluation, it may help to divide possible disasters into two types:

1. Disasters that happen without warning. Fires, structural failures due to earthquakes, for example, or persons threatening or perpetrating harm are all examples of these; and

2. Weather–related events for which there is some, even very short, advance warning. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, snow storms, or flash floods are examples.

Continue your planning for these two different types of occurrences by discussing how your company’s employees can best be made safe considering your employees’ locations, your building type and all circumstances that you think may arise.

For events threatening imminent harm your company may wish to:

• Empower all employees to make an emergency announcement upon encountering a fire or other imminent life threatening situation.
• Decide how the announcement is to be made, understanding that it may be different for a building intruder, a fire, explosion or collapse.
• Train all employees in the method of announcing an emergency and the words to use.
• Make sure that processes are in place for passing the emergency alert to all building areas including bathrooms, conference rooms, store rooms, etc., where your communications systems may be inadequate.
• Be sure to have emergency numbers prominently posted at all locations from which a general alert can be initiated.
• Empower the employee making the emergency alert to also call the appropriate emergency number.
• Have a plan in place for exiting the building, or sheltering in place.
• Use a “check off system” assigning responsibility for assuring evacuation of all building areas.
• An intruder alert may require sheltering in place. Be sure your employees know what that means, when to use this method and how to accomplish it.

For all weather-related events your company may wish to:

• Identify the source of weather information that may cause a need for sheltering, closure or evacuation. There are many means available of getting storm information. Some of it is reliable, some is not. Generally speaking weather alert radios are useful, although many computer and some Smartphone resources are also reliable.
• Designate one person, with a back-up for absences, to continuously monitor weather broadcasts and to report them to the decision-maker (see below). No amount of information is helpful if everyone feels free to report it. That simply sets the stage of confusion, heightened concern, and reduced attention to your safety plan.
• Make sure that the person designated to monitor the weather has the appropriate equipment, at home and at the office, and is responsible for making sure that it works.

Next, after setting up the framework just described for all weather events, for planning and procedure purposes, further subdivide weather-related threats in two. Some dangerous weather events may develop quickly while your employees are at work (a tornado is a common example). These weather disasters may require a shelter on each of your company’s worksites to assure employee safety. Other weather events may develop slowly, enabling your employees to go home should management decide to temporarily close your business (snow storms are an example). Each of these types of weather events needs to follow a different course of planning.

For weather disasters occurring during business hours where it may not be safe to leave, your company may wish to:

• Designate one person who is in charge, also picking a back-up to cover absences. This person will receive the weather-related information discussed above and decide what to do with it. Your company may have different buildings or locations requiring a chain of decision-makers, each with authority over a specific group of employees.
• Communicate this designation to new employees and to everyone at least once a year.
• Make sure all employees know that the designated person will call the shots to determine if there is a weather emergency and what to do during a weather emergency. Be sure to tell your employees that their safety risk is magnified if decisions are made by ad hoc employee groups.
• Determine where your employees are to shelter in the event it is necessary to shelter in place.
• Provide communications capability in your shelter location. Today, this means:
o Checking in advance to determine whether there is cell-signal in your shelter.
o Providing a back-up source of power to charge cell phones and to run an emergency radio.
o Having a working back-up power source and emergency radio in the shelter.
• Make a list of each employee’s emergency contact information. Have it available in the shelter location.

For more slowly developing disasters for which total or partial business closure is a solution, your business may wish to:

• Decide who is critical to attend to business needs if the business is to stay at least partially open during a time of danger.
• Decide who is in charge of triggering procedures to close your place of business, in whole or in part.
• Create a phone tree for use outside of business hours. Who does the decision-maker call? Who is next in line? Who is responsible for seeing that everyone is notified?
• Make a list of each employee’s emergency contact information. Have it available in a secure location at the decision-maker’s home, and in the home of the persons with phone-tree responsibilities.
• Set a firm notification deadline if the decision to close your business is made outside of normal business hours. If decisions are to be made no later than 7 AM, for example, empower the decision-maker to decide based upon then-available information. A call to return-to-work can always be made later if conditions do not develop as anticipated.
• Enforce your business closing/critical staff decisions. A weather event is not the time to have someone try to be heroic in efforts to reach the office.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as far as disaster planning is concerned. But it is the part in which human resource professionals have a natural and important role. Remember, planning for a disaster is better done today than tomorrow. Remember too, as with all business planning, it is not accomplished by searching for a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather by careful assessment of risk and planning to meet that risk in your own business environment.

Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the August, 2011 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.