Friday, 30 May 2014

Small Business Disaster Preparedness

RCAF CC-150 delivering relief supplies during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Photo credit: US Navy
Disasters do not discriminate. When they hit, they do not identify what buildings or communities to hit. It whacks everybody or sometimes just locations without prejudiced. But we continue to see the lack of preparedness by small and medium size businesses being undertaken and investing their time to understand what's involved. Gone are the days when this was only for the big multinational companies to worry about. Company's with as few as 5 part-time employees need to be ready for risk any contingencies that disasters bring. Everything from ensuring their employees are safe to how to recover. Management after the event occurs needs to be understood - before it strikes. Being prepared to ride out a disaster can solve all these issues and improve their ability to recover quickly. This is not a hypothetical scenario. It is a proven fact. Nor does not require a lot of capital investment if approached with common sense. Education and practice critical to successful outcomes and recovery. The cavalry is not always available or coming over the hill to support your recovery needs in your businesses time frames. Improvising, Adapting and Overcoming at the last minute is not wise nor safe and leads to increased risk of a businesses ability to recover.  Businesses no longer have excuses or reasons why they cannot be prepared for a crisis or disaster. Small business owners feel the consequences and exposure to a disaster far more than large enterprise and multinationals, with a lot more to lose in not being prepared. Thankfully, there are solutions to help reduce exposure to the risk of catastrophic business failure.  There are effective ways to implement a disaster management plan with resources and education programs available in most countries with small incremental associated costs.

Accountability

It starts by building a preparedness plan. It does not have to be overly complex and nor does it need to follow the rigors or standards of a big corporation or government agency.  The plan needs to be written down, duplicated and understood by everyone associated with it. It has to have  a detailed and laid out operational components that identify direction, control, development (over time), along with maintenance and status of your firms operations. From there, it requires an overview of your facilities and infrastructure and what types of vulnerabilities they could be exposed too. Know your employees and their background. They are often part of your team that can help solve problems. This is accomplished by creating a preparedness plan based on emergency response requirements before and during a disaster in the development process that begins with discussions and questions that need to be asked internally. Doing so builds the outline for a plan and thus, steps to recovery. Flood disasters are very different than Tornado's or large fires. Plan for those that are most likely to hit your business, big and small. Plan for the worst and practice during advisories warnings that are considered to have a minor or low impact. Restaurant owners often have no idea of how simple disaster strategies can incorporated in preparing a training and disaster response plans. Such business owners can start by testing how evacuation procedures work by offering a special evening with patrons asked to participate with discount coupons on their meals to see what does and does not work. Small industrial workshops can have local fire department support during evacuation tests to help identify gaps by simply asking them to show up and observe often at no charge if planned in advance during their routine patrols.

Mitigation

Insurance does not solve all a businesses requirements in how you gets back into service after a disaster. It is one of hundreds of steps that will be required. It is a proven fact that if prepared and developed properly, a company's ability to get back on its feet is 50 to 80% more likely to make a successful recovery by having a thorough preparedness plan in place.  In fact, the more prepared a business is with a plan, the more likely it qualifies to receive a discount on insurance premiums. Read the fine print of your insurance policy and have a discussion with your carrier about mitigation and preparedness options and how it could save money that could be invested in any upgrades required. In some Provinces and States such discounts will not be available in all areas such as identified flood plains. But this should not deter you from implementing a resilience and mitigation plan if you want to get back into business quickly. Business owners can make significant changes to their management plan without impacting their daily operations. Disaster preparedness can become as easy as breathing if implemented with the right knowledge and tools.

River Murray flood Mannum, Australia 1956
Photo credit: State Library: Southern Australia
Risk

Risk and exposure to crisis and disaster events will vary, from isolated violence, industrial accidents to catastrophic storms. Each one has a level of risk that needs to be assessed and prepared for. If you have a large part-time staff, a thorough and detailed understanding is required of their abilities. This can be identified through analysis of your plan to determine needs and outcomes desired. If you have employees out in the field, risk surveys are required to take into account physical and management elements are low and high risk and ensuring each employee understands expectations and responsibilities. It will identify what employees are capable of and weaknesses that are in need of further evaluation. In past surveys of employees who work out in the field they often do not even know who to call in case of emergency if their head office is no longer able to be reached. Nor do they understand what they should do next and understand their vulnerabilities. We tend to literately freeze and become incapable of deciding what to do next. It should be no surprise the majority think they are on their own and each person decides for themselves what they are going to do next - if anything.

These results has been found in small and large organizations all over the world and yes, in places that have been repeatedly hit by natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes. The failure generally starts with the lack of knowledge in creating a plan and preparing for its use by practicing it so that gaps can be identified and corrected. No longer is there the excuse for not knowing or working with government agencies in preparing a disaster management plan as many local, regional and national emergency response agencies have made information freely available. Emergency preparedness plans can vary from as little as 10 pages up to 80 based on the complexity and size of the business. But none of the elements are exceeding difficult to write or practice and ensuring all employees are aware and capable of carrying out disaster assignments.

DDRS HA/DR Smart Phone App
Communications

Telling your employees to just go home is not enough. In some cases, that can prove fatal and nor does it necessarily absolve the company's responsibility of ensuring their safety stops as soon as they exit the firm's doors. Gone are the days where a small businesses simply kept on file the employee's basic information and a contact number in case of emergency if an event occurs. Today, employers preparedness planning needs to be elevated to a whole new level. With availability of social media, SMS and other communications options, the level dialogue and options available expands a company's options. You can use Twitter and lock the account to be private and accessible to employees only for private communications on updates and status reports - for free. The same goes for Facebook, by setting up a company group page with the same restrictions. These are just some of the ways company's can develop emergency action planning and procedures.

Photo Credit: FEMA
Planning

Some small business owners tend to be hands on and micromanage every detail of their company. During a disaster this can often compound problems and increase risks that do not have to occur. Wherever possible, delegation is a critical step to review. A business owner does need need to undertake every responsibility or be accountable all on their own, especially if they have managers of their operations that are trained in various duties required. By creating an emergency management team, the owner can resolve most issues as they unfold and enhance the safety of not only all employees but the ability to recover after an incident occurs. Far too often, a business owner who tries to do it all on their own will suffer more by doing so. In some cases, small businesses that only have 2 or 3 employees can reach out with other nearby businesses to create the framework and response plan that helps everyone far more effectively than if operating independently. This is particularly true of small town business centers that often have only 5 to 10 tenants that comprise in total, 20 to 40 employees on site during each shift. By banding together, resources could be shared and pooled for most emergency contingencies along with expertise and responsibilities. If a plan is put into place and practiced.

Photo Credit: FEMA
Preparedness

Preparedness planning only works if all risks are identified. In doing so, all situation variables and contingencies can be prepared for. Small business owners often assume, failing identify levels of risk using historical patterns and lessons learned of the past. By doing, a proper mitigation plan can be developed with known costs that shore up identified weaknesses. This step supports the next phase of requirements, response options. Too frequently, businesses tend to rely upon information from media sources that are - literately - 30 second long sound bytes. 10 inches of rain at X and potential flooding at Z. Not nearly enough information to know what response plan should be enabled. If past historical events are reviewed, then a sense of what could occur can be understood.

Attribution: Peter Baeklund
Situation awareness is vital to coordinating and implementing a disaster plan. Doing an analysis exposes what challenges were experienced helps identify evacuation routes and potential flash points of delay and infrastructure vulnerabilities should be taken into account. It won't cost the company other than its research time to understand what the risks (and outcomes) were and develop response plans accordingly. Does the company know what roads are identified as city recommended evacuation routes or where these routes are relative to where employees live? Most, if not all business owners do not have it documented anywhere and the potential impact it may have on operations. This is one of several areas of concern that small businesses need to recognize and rectify. Knowing where hospitals are may sound reasonably easy to remember. But what about shelters, food stores, alternative fuel supply locations. In the past, small business owners had a tendency to wing it on the fly on a case by case basis. Given how hard it is to build, maintain and restore a business, many are now recognizing the need for change in mindset and follow through.

Photo Credit: Australia Emergency Management
Advanced warning - makes a difference

In some cases, the crisis is known in advance with sufficient time to take action to save lives and property. How well this is understood varies around the world. Attitudes will vary based on culture, demographics, social policy and the surrounding communities infrastructure. By reviewing your community's composition, businesses can take into account possible delays, infrastructure weaknesses and change how what one plan works in city XYZ will have to be modified to work in their own. Ultimately, how an emergency response plan is carried out will only be as effective relative to the investments and its management is carried out. Those that have maintained important paper documents in duplicate, back up critical company data on systems at different locations, and understand risk management will increase their odds of recovery. Preparing and planning often collide when the moment of truth arrives, to act or not. No longer is it just a matter of putting plywood over windows, but planning and activating services such as transportation, spare fuel, water, medications and knowing the company's employees vulnerabilities and supporting their needs. During hurricane and typhoon seasons the level of advance warning is increasing not just by hours, but days with high levels of accuracy as to the storms intensity and path. The same is becoming true of annual spring thaws that are the cause of severe flooding in many parts of the world. Satellites with specialized sensors track ground saturation levels enabling advanced warning, sometimes days in advance. Some events are not as easy to give 24+ hour warning as in the case of the recent Balkan Floods that hit Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia in eastern Europe. Even the winter floods that started in December of last year and hit southern England surprised meteorologist as to the length and power of the storms that hammered the country for three straight months. Warnings varied week to week on predicted flood levels. The  flash flood which hit Toronto in the summer of 2013 hit so fast that there was barely 8 hours notice. Calgary Alberta's floods warnings were issued 3 days in advance of their impact on the city, yet many businesses were caught unprepared, caught flat footed and wound up losing everything as a result. The city is still making repairs. Many small businesses permanently closed. In such scenarios, the costs of inaction were significant. It can and does happen in your company's backyard.

Last line of defense, not your first. Photo Credit: FEMA
Recovery

Creating a sound preparedness plan that is practiced and understood, recovery will be easier to manage and get the company back on its feet. It becomes a less stressful environment, allowing for sound judgement and decision making to proceed with recovery efforts. Not only will many hours not be wasted but weeks in delays can be avoided. This cannot be assured all the time. As we have pointed out in other editorials, some events bring utter devastation making recovery a very long term process regardless of how well prepared the company planned and carried out proper steps. Nonetheless, the time will be shorter than others that did nothing at all. Some argue that the economics do not make it practical to prepare for such events. In many parts of the world that probably holds more than a grain of truth, but it does not mean it should be ignored. Small businesses that understand the risks and results and want to be in business afterwards will review choices that should be made. Setting aside funds for a rainy day works just prudently for a business as it does for individuals and families.

Downtown of Lacombe, Alberta Red River Flood 2013
Photo Credit: City Gov't of Lacombe
Cost of not preparing

The costs do not have to be astronomical and nor do businesses have be burdened all by themselves as mentioned earlier. Purchasing used equipment such as generators, shelters, storage tanks, and secondary storage facilities can be reduced through effective planning and shared cost with other small businesses. As is often the case, many  employees may have established networks of resources that can be used to support the company's needs - so long as they are aware of their availability and open the dialogue to examine their potential use in advance of an incoming disaster event. In doing so, action steps can be taken immediately before and afterwards in their usage, reducing the level of chaos and unknown management challenges.

Share the cost of contracting tractor - trailer units to store your inventory with other business owners. By planning ahead there can be significant dividends for those that cannot afford inventory insurance. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Small businesses can survive a disaster. It takes time and energy to implement an effective strategy and plan. It does not take millions of dollars and can be carried out by most business owners and managers if the right tools and education programs are acquired. Technology, knowledge and training can deliver remarkable results allowing an organization to fully recover.

Available online resources:

3 comments:

  1. Imagine my surprise to be reading this article and discover a picture of me! Sandy

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is a small world in Disaster Relief and Response!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice information!!! After reading your blog, I must say that I haven't been too much into prepping, before, but lately, all these things happening around us got me thinking. This is actually the first blog I picked-up on the topic. And I must say that from the first line, I got hooked. Keep on sharing!!

    ReplyDelete