Overreacting: Don’t Learn the Wrong Lessons During a Disaster

Richard Long

A natural disaster can jumpstart your business continuity plans, but it can also do it more harm than good. Is your disaster response hurting you?

Disasters like the one in Puerto Rico sometimes cause people to learn the wrong lessons.

Major natural disasters such as the recent floods in Texas, the fires in northern California, and the hurricane in Puerto Rico grab everybody’s attention.

Sometimes this has a positive impact on organizations’ business continuity plans, as when it prompts companies who have not been investing in BC to get serious about implementing or strengthening their methods for keeping their organizations running in the event of a disaster.

However, sometimes the impact is neutral or even harmful.

 

Disaster Response: Overreact

As we work with clients and discuss organizations affected by Hurrican Maria, we’ve observed overreaction in their disaster response.

It sounds strange to say in light of how serious the storm and its impacts were and are, but one of the most common things we’ve noticed is people overreacting to what happened on the island. This is especially true considering the fact that many organizations on the mainland have been unable to make contact with their staff in Puerto Rico. This is naturally concerning, since it means they cannot quickly contact their people to make sure they are OK, get reports on the state of their facilities, or pass along directions from headquarters.

The overreaction sets in when stateside business continuity managers—and the executive leadership above them—decide that a certain negative situation must never be allowed to happen again. They begin making changes to their business continuity arrangements to try to ensure it does not. This is not inherently problematic. However, the steps they take often have the following things in common:

  • They’re expensive
  • They make the managers and senior leadership feel better
  • They’re heavy on technology
  • And they would not actually help prevent a recurrence of the problem if the same disaster were to happen again

In other words, they amount to an emotion-driven exercise in throwing money at the problem, without actually addressing the problem.

Here’s an example: We learned of one company whose idea after being cut off from their Puerto Rico staff was to issue that office several satellite phones with the goal of preventing such a breakdown in communications from happening in the future. However in a situation like the current one, when the power lines are down and the power is out for the whole island, such phones would be of limited usefulness. They would not, for example, allow the staff at the local headquarters to contact their employees throughout the island, because those employees have no landline or cell phone service. Access to the satellite phones will be an issue when people are unable to travel to the site where those phones are located.

 

Bringing Logic to an Emotional Response

The point is, it is important to remain rational with your disaster response. Don’t let the strong emotions that are present in the immediate aftermath of a crisis cause you to abandon your critical-thinking skills. If you take dramatic steps whose primary motivation is making the senior leadership feel better, the organization will waste resources and possibly miss out on taking less dramatic steps that might actually make a positive difference in the future.

With respect to the Puerto Rico situation, one less dramatic—and less expensive, and less technological—solution to the problem of enabling employees to reestablish contact with each other and with headquarters in the event of a future island-wide power outage would involve setting up contact trees for the employees and grouping them into networks based on where they live. Anyone in the group who has access to a means of communication can provide updates to and from the group. It requires more organizational effort and preparation – and does not replace technology solutions – but may be just as effective in many situations.

We are not saying that you shouldn’t look for ways to improve your business continuity plan after a natural disaster affects you, or you see others affected. We are suggesting that you maintain your perspective and not allow the emotions of the moment to drive you into doing things that may not actually produce the desired outcome or result.

 

The Impact-First Approach

There’s one last point we’d like to make relating to review and action after an event or even in the planning for an event. When considering business continuity planning it is important to think about the impact, not the disaster.

From the point of view of business continuity management, Puerto Rico is not the story of a hurricane, it’s the story of an entire infrastructure outage – power, roads, communications, etc.. We heard some people saying, “Well, we’re not likely to get another storm like that for a long time, so let’s not overdo it in how we respond to it.”

But the issue isn’t the storm. The issue is the combination of outages, and a storm is not the only cause of such outages.

Needless to say, the issues we discussed above apply not just to Puerto Rico but to organizations and operations located anywhere. No place is immune to disasters or the strong emotions that often follow them and have the power of clouding our rationality during our disaster response – just when we need it most.

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