What Comes Naturally: Dealing with Disasters Made by Mother Nature

Richard Long

As a rule, we recommend that business continuity professionals focus on impacts rather than causes when dealing with disasters; however, there is some benefit to thinking about the different causes of outage or crisis events to ensure all the proper planning, remediation and preparation are in place.

In today’s post, we’ll look at dealing with disasters and how you can be ready for and cope with the problems that come naturally, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and earthquakes.

No one can prevent natural disasters, or at least no one who lacks the powers of a superhero from a Marvel movie.

However, ensuring that the issues and risks associated with such disasters are part of your planning and remediation efforts will allow your company to protect life and safety, minimize damage to property, and efficiently recover the business.

Responding to natural disasters can be divided into two areas: managing the emergency and recovering the business. We’ll talk about both below.

WORKING WITH THE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT TEAM

Depending on your organization, emergency management (EM) and business continuity (BC) may be handled by different departments.

As a BC professional, you are not likely to have direct responsibility over the emergency management side. (An exception might be if your organization is very small and everyone wears many hats.)

In terms of emergency management, your role as a BC person at a minimum should be one of contacting the teams that do have authority for EM and making sure they’ve written the necessary plans and put the needed provisions in place.

You might help out by putting the EM people in touch with outside experts such as first responders or local governmental emergency management departments and resources who can help them in achieving optimal readiness.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

The picture shifts when it comes to the business continuity side.

As a BC professional, you probably will have direct responsibility for your company’s plans and preparations.

Ideally, you will already have comprehensive BC plans in place for bringing the business back up in the event of a disruption. (If you don’t have such plans, what are you waiting for? Time to get to work!)

If you think you have recovery plans prepared, check and make sure. The stakes are too high to assume.

Make sure the plans are complete and that they address the four types of impact for which every business is at risk: to people, to buildings, to technology, and to critical third parties and vendors.

The sooner you have business recovery plans written and ready to go, the better for your company.

STORM STAGES AND MILESTONES

As mentioned above, in creating recovery plans, it’s a best practice to focus on impacts (e.g., loss of a facility) rather than causes (e.g., a tornado). However, there is one aspect of your recovery planning that should address specific causes. This is natural disasters where you typically have prior notice, such as hurricanes or winter storms. Along with business continuity plans, specific plans for actions to take prior to the events should be in place. A good example are hurricane plans. They are not reactionary, but proactive plans.

If you live in an area where such events occur, your planning should lay out the stages and milestones such events typically go through. Examples for a hurricane would include when the storm makes landfall or its number category.

Your plans should then lay out the steps your company should take at each milestone (boarding up the windows, shutting down the facility, etc.). Such advance planning saves you from having to make critical decisions in the heat of the moment, when emotion and lack of time can lead to costly mistakes.

FOR THE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PLAN

When it comes to emergency management planning, most companies do a good job in terms of meeting people’s immediate safety needs, such as ensuring everyone can evacuate quickly in the event of a fire.

However, EM planners sometimes overlook four areas that have special pertinence when it comes to being ready to dealing with natural disasters. They are:

  • Emergency medical preparations. A good EM plan will entail the setting up of a medical response team made up of individuals trained in first aid, CPR, and the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs).
  • Shelter designations. The EM plan should designate shelters in the facility where people can seek safety during various types of emergencies. For example, the plan might state that when tornadoes threaten, everyone should assemble in the basement. In the event of earthquake, the designated shelter might be beneath desks or in internal doorways. Ideally, drills will be conducted in which people gain practice in going to the correct shelter for a given emergency.
  • Sojourn preparations. Natural disasters can result in situations where people must shelter in place for a prolonged period, such as overnight. A comprehensive EM plan ensures that snacks, water, and possibly places to sleep and shower are available to help people get through such a situation with minimal distress and discomfort.
  • Provisions for employees with special needs. The EM plan should include sections ensuring that people with special medical or mobility needs are identified and provided for.

FOR THE BUSINESS CONTINUITY PLAN

As discussed above, you should already have recovery plans to protect the business from impacts to your people, facilities, and technology.

Dealing with disasters brings its own unique challenges. When it comes specifically to natural disasters, there are four areas where special attention is merited. They are:

  • Facility readiness. Think about how robust your building is in terms of its ability to withstand earthquakes, high winds, or other natural stresses. Does it meet the current standards for your area? Older buildings might not, unless they have been specifically hardened. Has your building been retrofitted to meet contemporary standards? Will there be an impact to utilities? This is something you should know and take into account.
  • Alternate work location. Having an alternate work location as part of your recovery plan is great. But be mindful that natural disasters sometimes make such alternate locations unreachable or unusable. Your plan should include provisions for what you’ll do if this happens to you. In such a case, you might need to have a backup backup plan that involves people working from home.
  • Workforce issues. When dealing with disaster, sometimes a company’s facility comes through a natural disaster in good shape, but its recovery is hampered by human resource limitations. This can happen if employees’ homes, families, and neighborhoods are impacted by the disaster, keeping them away from their jobs. Your BC plan should envision what you will do if your company experiences this situation. What will you do if key personnel are unavailable? This is especially important in industries such as healthcare where being down is not an option.
  • Vendor and third-party issues. Critical vendors may have specific risks associated with a natural disaster event. Consider transportation vendors who are reliant on roadways or airport access. Vendors may also have workforce issues if they pull from the same population and area as your organization. While you cannot control their planning, you can understand their level of preparation and put in place your own actions and planning if they are unavailable.

MASTERING NATURAL DISASTER

Natural disasters can bring unique challenges when it comes to emergency management and business continuity. As part of being ready and dealing with natural disasters, EM plans should address emergency medical preparations, shelter designation, and sojourn preparations and also look out for employees with special needs. For BC plans, the things to look at are facility readiness, problems that might arise with the designated alternate work location, and how the company will handle the absence of key personnel.

FURTHER READING

For more information on dealing with natural disasters and other hot topics in business continuity and IT/disaster recovery, please see these recent posts from MHA Consulting and BCMMETRICS:

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