Disaster Preparation: Plan Now or Pay Later

The natural disasters in recent months have had a tremendous impact on businesses throughout the country. While a natural disaster, or any type of unexpected business interruption, is something that we hope will not come to pass, the reality is that it can interrupt and even shut down your business if you are not prepared.

A business shutdown, even for a short period of time, can have serious implications. About 40 percent of all businesses that are forced to close by a disaster never reopen, and of those that do, according to the United States Department of Labor, 25 percent shut down permanently within two years.

An acceptable level of employee communication is a key element in ensuring that your business continues to run smoothly after a disaster. Here are some tips that may facilitate this process:

Create a Disaster Preparedness Team

This team of employees will be responsible for ensuring that key plans are created and communicated throughout the organization. This will include developing a written document that is accessible by all employees. The team will also be responsible for plan updates and key components (like emergency contact lists) throughout the year. Be sure to keep at least one top executive on the team to ensure that management buy-in regarding processes and procedures is achieved. Depending on the size of your company, you may also want to include an employee from each department and a facilities manager.

Prepare an Emergency Contact List for all Employees

This list should include home phone numbers, cell phone numbers and two other emergency phone numbers for each employee. Personal email addresses should also be included. Including as many contact points as possible will help increase the chances that the employee is reachable. Both cell and land telephone lines are likely candidates to be out of commission after a disaster, so you may want to assign satellite telephones to a couple of key employees to help ensure that telephone access is available at anytime during the outage.

Define the Chain of Command

If the CEO or a Department Head is not reachable or available, who will be next in line to keep the decision-making process moving? Despite your best efforts to create a contact list, accidents or just simple havoc may make contacting any one individual difficult. Clearly defining the chain of command or authority will help keep your business in motion.

Arrange for an Alternative Work Space Location

Make arrangements in advance to relocate to a secondary business location outside of your primary office location. You can use a remote business office, hotel, conference center or even someone else’s business office. Consider partnering in advance with another business as a back-up disaster location. For example, Tom’s Plumbing in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, could relocate to the offices of Jim’s Design Company in Jacksonville, FL, and vice versa.

Depending on the special business needs and size of your company, you may consider selecting a limited number of employees to travel to the secondary business location in advance of the potential disaster to help ensure that business operations are not interrupted. If you have no warning in advance of the disaster, these employees would automatically know to report to the new location ASAP once a disaster has occurred.

When making these arrangements, be sure to identify dedicated phone lines and computers that would be used during the emergency. These items will be essential in keeping your employees productive. What other items will be critical to running your business? Do you have unique needs for special equipment, supplies or services? Discuss disaster preparedness with key vendors in advance so that you understand their processes and procedures during a disaster as well.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Facilitate employee communications after a disaster by scheduling a daily teleconference for essential employees. This will allow management to touch base each day that the office is closed. Identify a toll-free number with a conference call center and select a standard time each day for the call. You should also setup a toll-free Employee Hotline that employees can call to receive important recorded updates from company management regarding office closings and special processes and procedures to be followed as a result of the disaster. You may want to create a wallet-sized list of these key numbers, along with other key disaster preparedness information, so that employees have it at all times.

While there are many other components to creating a comprehensive Disaster Preparedness Plan (IT back-up, evacuation procedures, etc.), these tips on employee communication should be useful to businesses of all sizes. For more information on this topic visit www.sba.gov.

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- Helen P. Medical Industry

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