prepare for natural disasters

7 ways businesses should prepare for natural disasters

It’s not your imagination; weather-related and other natural disasters are happening more frequently, up to four times more often than fifty years ago. While hurricanes, floods, forest fires, tornadoes and earthquakes can devastate entire regions, they don’t have to be total disasters for your business – if you prepare.

You’ll need to develop a natural disaster plan specific to your office and business, which should include:

1. Interdepartmental emergency teams
2. Facilities plans
3. Employee emergency plans
4. Employee training
5. Adequate fresh emergency supplies
6. Continuity of business plan
7. Annual plans review and updating

From facility managers to HR, everyone has a role on your emergency team

There is a temptation to delegate disaster planning to just one function, such as facilities management or HR. The most effective plans, however, emerge when key leaders from each functional area have input on planning, and share responsibility for execution if an emergency does arise. Their efforts should focus on three phases: preparedness, response and recovery.

Facilities planning ahead of disasters can minimize damage, increase protection

While a facilities manager may typically assess an office in terms of business function and efficiency, a good first step for the interdepartmental emergency team is to audit your physical space with an eye toward survivability, for humans and the structures where they work.

For instance, if you’re in a glass-enrobed tower, are there sufficient safe spaces to shelter in place during a hurricane or tornado? Do you need to create additional safe spaces, or upgrade building materials? Or if you have labs or hazardous materials on-site, do you have adequate containment facilities and protocols to prevent contamination of the space?

Employee emergency plans take care of your most valuable assets

As critical as the preservation of your workspace is, your top priority in disaster planning is how to protect and care for your employees. The obvious needs include evacuation plans, for getting people out ahead of or after a disaster, and sheltering in place protocols should evacuation be inadvisable or even impossible.

Less obvious are the needs to consider special employee accommodations, such as for employees with disabilities. In addition, medical planning, from first aid supplies to CPR and other training, must be factored in, whether to attend to injuries caused by the disaster or medical reactions to it, such as heart attacks.

Employee emergency training and communication pays big dividends

The best plans are powerless to help in an emergency if your employees aren’t educated and motivated to carry them out, whether as leaders or followers.

Assign leaders specific roles, to avoid duplicated effort, wasted time, or overlooked measures, and consider disaster scenario training, to allow them to experience the challenges of executing their responsibilities.

Even if the entire employee population isn’t included in live disaster drills, they should still be educated via meetings, newsletters, emails, intranet videos and all normal communications channels. And make sure they know exactly what the communication plan will be during an emergency, including the chain of options to be pursued if the internet, cell towers or other typical channels of communications are disabled by the disaster.

Continuity of business plans protect your critical operations (and customers)

In a business context, recovery from a disaster involves much more than just restoration of your working space. It requires maintenance of critical records, both digital and physical records or archives.

Do you have remote backup for all data (a typical best practice, even outside of emergency planning)? Have you prioritized business processes, to ensure that the most critical operations are protected first in an emergency and will be in place to support recovery and business survival until recovery can be completed? Do you have service and communications contingencies in place for clients, again on a prioritized basis. With finite resources stretched to the maximum, your most valuable customer relationships must be addressed first after a disaster. And have you clearly established succession of management authority, both during the emergency, when it is unlikely that all leaders will be onsite and present, or in the event of loss of life.

Plentiful, fresh emergency supplies can make all the difference

First-aid kits are the first thing most people think of in terms of disaster emergency supplies. But your office disaster plans should also take into consideration all the basic needs for survival: clean water, food, clean air, warmth, and even communications.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, suggests an office emergency supplies include “a battery-powered commercial radio and an NOAA weather radio with an alert function. Include extra batteries, a flashlight, water, food, First Aid kit, whistle to signal for help, dust or filter masks, moist towelettes for sanitation, a wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, plastic sheeting and duct tape to “seal the room,” and garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation.” Easy access to cleaning supplies reserved for emergencies is also advisable, should employees need to shelter in place for an extended time (as in a flood) and have to keep the office space as habitable as possible.

Beyond the office’s emergency supplies, individual employees should be encouraged to have an emergency kit at work, including medicines and personal hygiene articles. In addition – considering that employees may be impacted at home by a disaster – companies should consider helping their staff create personal disaster preparedness plans, to ensure they can get their lives back up and running (and get themselves back to work).

Annual plan reviews will keep you ready for the unexpected

Finally – there is no “finally” when it comes to disaster preparedness. Catastrophe can strike at any time, so once a plan is in place, it imperative to revisit its protocols and replenish its supplies on at least an annual basis.

Yes, natural disasters are on the rise – and your business’ emergency preparations should be, too.

FEMA: Emergency preparedness
FEMA: Emergency preparedness resources for business
The Economist: Weather-related disasters are increasing