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 Resources: Emergency Planning and...
October 22, 2012
Emergency Planning: Seven Tips to Save Your Business

Today businesses, as well as society in general, must fully confront the reality that disasters-natural, accidental, and terrorist-can inflict terrible losses in human lives and disruption to social and economic stability. While a business may not be able to anticipate a disaster, it is possible to prepare for some types of events in ways that reduce damage and speed recovery. As part of a broad federal effort, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Ready Business helps educate small- and medium-sized businesses about emergency planning, and provide information about the tools that will help businesses survive and continue operating during and after emergencies.

DHS urges business owners to develop a continuity plan to help ensure their ability to stay in business. DHS's website, Ready.gov, informs individuals and businesses about how they can protect their employees and interests should an emergency occur. The following tips on preparing a business to sustain itself during and after an emergency are derived primarily from that site.

Tip 1: Develop a Business Continuity Plan

Disasters are, for the most part, unpredictable, but there are steps that you can take that will improve your chances to survive and get back in business faster. Some of these measures require purchases while others can be completed in-house with the staff and materials at hand.

The essential first step is to designate the individual(s) who will put together the plan for the company. The plan should:

  • Identify operations that are critical to the survival of the business.
  • Produce a business process flow chart.
  • Identify a succession of management, with names and contact numbers.
  • Ensure that systems are in place for emergency payroll, expedited financial decision-making, and accounting.
  • Identify suppliers, shippers, and other resources used on a regular basis.

The plan should include instructions on what the business will do if the current building is inaccessible. Is there an alternative location that may be available? Can you develop relationships with other companies to use their facilities in case of an emergency? Keep a list of contacts that are critical for your ongoing business. Look into alternative suppliers and contractors for back up.

Your planning team needs to outline crisis management procedures and train all individuals who will execute these procedures. The team should coordinate their plan with other businesses in the same building or industrial complex. The team should also discuss the plan with first responders and utility providers. Your company should review this business continuity plan yearly. As your business changes, so will your needs in an emergency.

It is recommended that you keep copies of all of your company information and contact lists at an off-site location. In addition, keep a backup of your company's computer records off-site.

Tip 2: Check Need for Insurance Coverage

As part of your emergency planning strategy, you should meet with your insurance provider to review your coverage. Make sure you know what is covered and what isn't. Some policies cover damages, but do not include business interruption coverage. Consider which additional insurance you might purchase. Discuss which natural disasters are common to your area. Are you in a coastal area frequently hit by hurricanes? Are you in Tornado Alley? Are you in or near a floodplain susceptible to periodic high waters?

Communities that have adopted floodplain management regulations for areas prone to flooding may be participants in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). If your building is in the floodplain in a participating community, you are eligible to buy flood insurance through NFIP, which is sold by many local insurance agents.

You can check on the likelihood of your property being flooded by visiting www.floodsmart.gov and clicking on What's Your Flood Risk? Insert the address of your building in the designated field, and you will receive a brief evaluation of your risk. On this website you can also locate an insurance agent who handles NFIP insurance in your area.

Tip 3: Assess Equipment

Your emergency planning team should conduct a room-by-room walk-through to determine whether heavy equipment is properly secured. Some equipment, cabinets, and bookcases can be anchored to walls. Heavy or breakable objects should not be stored on upper shelves. Also, where possible, elevate equipment off the floor to avoid electrical hazards in the event the area is flooded. Company inventory should also be elevated. If practical, workstations should be moved away from large windows.

Assess your heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. Make sure that it is working properly and is well maintained. Consider using the highest filtration efficiency for your system. High efficiency particulate arrester (HEPA) filter fans can be effective in capturing tiny particles and keeping them from entering the building. Someone should be assigned the task of shutting down the HVAC system and should practice the procedure.

If your building has been flooded, it is important to have your HVAC system checked by a professional before turning it back on. Mold can grow inside very quickly, and if the system is then turned on, it will distribute the mold throughout the building.

If your building does not already have fire extinguishers and smoke alarms, purchase and install them. Additional safety equipment to consider includes automatic sprinkler systems, fire hoses, and fire-resistant doors.

Tip 4: Ensure Hazardous Materials Safety

Proper storage of hazardous materials is essential both for your day-to-day business activities and for emergency planning. In the event of a disaster or emergency, leaks or spills of hazardous products can be dangerous and costly and can multiply your recovery problems.

Your facility walk-through should cover storage areas, checking for safe storage of hazardous materials. Large drums or bags of chemicals should be kept on pallets, off the floor. Make sure that containers are still sound and that they are not in danger of being knocked off shelves. A lip on a shelf can prevent this. Buildings containing stored liquid chemicals should have a solid floor and a containment area to take care of accidental spills.

Ensure that underground storage tanks (USTs) at your facility have been installed correctly and are operated and maintained properly to avoid leaks. Be familiar with state and federal regulations for USTs, which dictate safe methods of maintaining underground storage. Underground tanks are required to have spill buckets or catchment basins to contain any spilled materials. They also should have automatic shutoff devices, overfill alarms, or ball float valves to prevent overfilling. USTs should be monitored monthly for spills or leaks. Check gauges and piping as well. These are the standard requirements, not solely for emergency planning, but they become critical when there is a disaster.

Tip 5: Prepare for Utility Disruptions

There are steps you can take to minimize disruption of your business, even in the case of power outages. Consult with your service providers about possible alternative power sources. Consider buying a backup generator to keep your business in operation during an extended power outage. Generators produce deadly carbon monoxide and should never be operated indoors or next to open windows.

Learn how to turn off your utilities. If you turn off the gas, you need to call your local gas company to turn it back on. Do not turn it back on yourself.

If food storage or refrigeration is essential in your business, locate a vendor who can provide ice and dry ice in case you lose power. This may give you a margin of time to arrange for and set up alternate sources of power.

And you should have cell phones or walkie-talkies that do not use electricity to ensure that you can communicate with employees, vendors, and clients during any power outage.

Tip 6: Set Up an Employee Communication Plan

During any emergency, communication with your employees is important. A communications plan must be set up before any event occurs. Emergency preparedness information should be published in a company newsletter, employee e-mails, or intranet. Some employers establish an out-of-town phone number where employees can leave a message to report their status after a disaster. Department managers can set up telephone trees to call their staff to keep them informed about the status of the business following an emergency.

It is also recommended that employees be trained in evacuation procedures for exiting your building at the time of a disaster such as a fire. Key personnel should also be trained in first aid and CPR.

Tip 7: Shore Up Emergency Supplies

Sometimes a disaster hits while everyone is at work. You need to prepare for the contingency that you and your employees may not be able to return home right away. The recommended basic supply kit contains water and food for each person for at least 3 days, a can opener, a battery-powered radio and a flashlight with extra batteries, a first aid kit, a whistle, moist towelettes, a wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, and garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation. DHS also suggests that you keep plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal rooms, if necessary.

NOAA weather radios can alert you when an emergency watch or warning is issued. A standard battery-powered radio can be used to tune into news reports. Both are recommended for your safety.

At www.ready.gov (click on Business) there is information on preparedness for terrorist-caused disasters, as well as natural events. The Be Informed section has lifesaving information on what to do when an emergency occurs. The site has some documents that will help your company prepare an emergency plan. These can be found under Download Materials and include:

  • Sample Emergency Plan
  • What Does It Cost?
  • Emergency Supplies Checklist
  • Insurance Discussion Form
  • Computer Inventory Form