BY SUSAN ROSE
It’s a sobering statistic: While reports vary, as many as 40 percent of small businesses do not reopen after a major disaster like a flood, tornado, or earthquake. In many cases, these shuttered businesses were unprepared for a disaster; they had no plan or backup systems.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “emergency preparedness”? Devastating, large-scale disasters generally top the list, but the fact is, emergencies can happen at any time, and they can be as small as a power outage that lasts hours or days, or as unexpected as an unstable person who wanders into your business with a weapon.
Emergencies are scary and not very pleasant to think about, but since we operate in a 24/7 environment where customers and employees rely on technology and manpower alike to keep commerce moving, it’s essential that a business has a logical plan to immediately address the situation, secure any critical business functions to stay operational if possible, and, most importantly, ensure that staff are safe and out of harm’s way. As simplistic as the old cliché can be: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Nothing is more crucial in an emergency situation than having a written, logical template as a guide and a well-trained staff when emotions are especially high and things are changing by the minute.
Identify Your Risks
The scope of an emergency can vary greatly, so having a plan that adapts to and expands with the situation can be a lifesaver. Federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA), as well as disaster recovery organizations like the American Red Cross, have many resources available to not only strategize for one of these situations, but to effectively help company owners reevaluate their potential for a threat to those services we take for granted. For example, in events of extreme weather, loss of power could easily expose employees to high heat or deadly cold, affect sensitive electronics, or cause secondary effects like flooding. But don’t assume because your business is based in an area that doesn’t flood or experience regular earthquakes that you’re immune to those types of risk. The most common threats, however, should absolutely be considered and a plan devised.
Also, don’t overlook the smaller scenarios that may impact your ability to operate. It may be sunny skies with comfortably tepid temperatures, but an accident down the road could wipe out your phone or data lines. Not having a backup plan to have calls rerouted or answered by an outside service on a moment’s notice could mean lost revenue, panicked staff, and stranded customers. As businesses rely more and more on technology—especially online—cyber threats and hackers are also a reality that will impact companies of all sizes with the potential for compromised client data, spoofing of your website, or even crippling your entire computer network.
Any plan should consider the safety of staff and company visitors as the paramount task. Do you have supplies like bottled water, canned food, and first aid kits in the event that staff cannot leave the premises? If you do have to evacuate, what steps do you have in place to do so in a safe way, and is there someone responsible for ensuring that all employees have exited and are accounted for? A senior manager will most often be in charge of the situation, but what happens if he is out of the office or otherwise injured? Do you have other personnel who have been trained and can lead in the event of a crisis? The American Red Cross suggests designating at least one person per shift (for those companies with a 24-hour staff) as the emergency liaison to act as a team leader and move people out of the building and handle any shutdown procedures, like heavy garage equipment or servers. Also consider any employees who have physical limitations and may need extra assistance during egress.
While the well-being of employees who are immediately impacted should be considered first, don’t forget that chauffeurs are frequently in and out of the office and could possibly enter a dangerous situation without knowing, not to mention your clients awaiting pickups. Depending upon the severity of the situation, your staff may need to communicate with an anxious corporate travel manager to assure them that their traveler is safe. In these cases, social media and text messaging could be helpful. If you share a building, it’s important to also work with the other neighboring businesses on a cogent plan.
Emergencies can happen at any time, and they can be as small as a power outage that lasts hours or days, or as unexpected as an unstable person who wanders into your business with a weapon."
Securing Your Equipment
Many large-scale events like a flood or fire can destroy equipment not elevated or removed during the evacuation of staff. In this case, it’s ideal to have backup information stowed in a secure, off-site location, including insurance policies, employee contacts, bank account numbers, and other delicate and irreplaceable information. Also consider that if your location is damaged and unable to be secured, sensitive documents and computers could be left in the open for potential vandals. FEMA recommends having a portable lockbox of valuable documents that can be easily removed from the building during an evacuation that includes what you need immediately, such as employee information and insurance policies. Some grand-scale events will require additional planning. As we saw most recently in West Virginia and Texas, serious flooding devastated businesses and homes in nearly an instant; but in cases where a weather event is predicted, businesses can arrange for fleet vehicles to be taken home by staff members, or for larger vehicles to be moved to an off-site parking lot out of the projected impact zone. Pondering these maneuvers and establishing a course of action well before the incident will be a lot easier than in a time of crisis.
Operational or Shutdown?
In some cases, a business interruption can be a blip, especially if a solid emergency plan is in place and is immediately enacted. Most times, customers won’t even see or notice the challenges behind the scenes. Businesses that are cloud-based may be especially adept at getting up and running in a temporary location, possibly in a matter of minutes, provided that the bandwidth to handle the operations is available and staff and fleet aren’t severely limited.
In other cases, a temporary shutdown may be necessary to deal with the most immediate issues. Given the nature of the industry, you will likely need a core team to help with the transition, which may include securing customer transportation with affiliates, notifying customers about the impact that the incident will have on their travel (if any), or calling on additional chauffeurs to help with the backlog. You’ll also need to update websites and phone message systems with information about the shutdown.
You’ll also want to assign personnel to assist you with collecting damage reports and taking photos that can be submitted promptly to your insurance company—which could help with cash flow issues that may arise after the emergency. Your agent may also be your best resource when it comes to planning and acting as a stable third party after the incident occurs.
Practice Makes Perfect
Having a plan is just one piece: You must also practice it with key personnel. FEMA recommends hosting periodic companywide simulations to keep employees on their toes and to build their confidence for when a real incident does occur. Don’t assume that reviewing a policy with them is enough: Nothing beats going through the motions and understanding why certain procedures are followed. Hold it on different days and during all shifts for best results. After the fact, it’s critical that the drill is reviewed with those involved and procedures are modified as needed. People and their abilities also change over time, so drills can highlight if another staff member needs to step into a leadership role during the emergency.
A plan does not need to be complicated or extravagant to be effective, and there are plenty of educational avenues—most at no cost to you. FEMA (fema.gov), Department of Homeland Security (ready.gov/business), and SBA (sba.gov) all maintain thorough and up-to-the-minute resources to help you plan, secure your business, and keep your team and customers safe. SBA also offers free monthly webinars on various topics at preparemybusiness.org. Additional sources include the American Red Cross (redcross.org), your local and state government, and, of course, your insurance company and broker.
We all know that we need to prepare for the worst, and the hardest part is just making the time for it to be a priority. With so much on the line, building an emergency plan and regularly drilling employees will ensure that cooler heads prevail in the event that it’s no longer a test. [CD0716]