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Outlining a Disaster Plan

William A. Begal, Begal Enterprises

Disaster can immobilize a business almost instantly. I know this from experience leading Begal Enterprises, Inc., a firm assisting businesses and individuals evaluate, prepare, and recover from disasters. When thinking about disasters, our minds often shift to weather-related incidents including recent hurricanes. But disasters can result tornados, floods, fires, earthquakes, mudslides, epidemics, and terrorism, and other things.

Despite the fact that disasters occur, many business owners still put off the process of planning and preparing. While we don’t think about disaster planning when things are running smoothly, the fact is that one out of our every four businesses won’t reopen after a cataclysmic disaster happens.

Indeed, without a plan, saving those things that are most important to a business is near impossible once disaster strikes. Even in the worst of disasters, natural or otherwise, a proactive, well-practiced plan can often save an organization from operational ruin. It can surely help to ensure that those assets most important for continuing business operations are maintained.

Prepare and Practice

Heeding the old Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared,” can serve your business well. While what an organization’s final disaster plan looks like will depend somewhat on the type and size of the business, there are some important actions that nearly all businesses can take to be prepared should disaster strike:

  • Ensure a restoration professional is a part of the overall disaster planning process. Establish this relationship now so that the commitment is in place before a disaster happens. Having professionals tour your facility before a disaster occurs gives them a familiarity with your organization’s layout and capacity and will allow them to better help you after disaster strikes.
  • Be sure that computer files are backed up regularly and kept on tapes or disks or with a back-up service away from your facility. If you keep computer back-up tapes or disks on your property, be sure they are housed in a Media Cooler which then is placed within a UL Class 350-rated fire-proof cabinet or safe. Use of a Media Cooler will help ensure disks or tapes are protected from the hazards of heat and moisture, both of which are present in a fire situation.
  • Designate who in the organization will be available to make critical decisions quickly after the disaster occurs.
  • Have a digital camera available with a back-up battery and storage disk to take pictures of any damage shortly after it happens.
  • Consider a back-up generator (the size needed is dependent upon the size and nature of the organization). This will help ensure critical operations continue after the disaster hits. More elaborative backup generators should be located on podiums or mounted off the floor to ensure that they are not susceptible to water damage.
  • Often times, disasters will create trash, and lots of it. Know who to contact for a receptacle for collecting waste after the disaster.
  • Assemble an emergency preparedness kit including appropriate safety gear, including respirators, water-proof boots, hard hats, Tyvek suits, and safety glasses. Be sure personnel who would be involved in an emergency response are “fit-tested” for their respirators well before they are needed.
  • Maintain a good relationship with your insurance carrier and meet with your representative regularly. Know what your policy will cover and, more importantly, know what it will not cover, and consider the value of adding coverage for things missing from the existing policy.

Developing a plan for managing through a disaster is just half the battle. All key staff should have a copy of the disaster plan. Equally important is conducting regular reviews of the plan and regular practice drills to ensure that all employees know what to do in the event of a disaster.

Dealing with the Aftermath

Once the disaster is over and all individuals in and around the building are safe, evaluate damages as quickly as possible. If damage is found to the facility, the insurance carrier should be contacted immediately. While it may take some time for your insurance company to make it to your facility, the process of recovery must begin right away in order to mitigate further damage.

With a digital camera and clip board in hand, the following are some important steps that need to happen quickly by individuals authorized to make decisions for the organization:

  • Document everything. Write down and photograph everything encountered as well as information related to the disaster, such as date and times.
  • Check systems that distribute gas, steam, and/or flammable liquids for leaks or other damage and report or repair as needed. Cordon off any downed power lines or exposed electrical wires and report them immediately so that utility representatives can address the problems.
  • Walk the outside perimeter of the facility looking for structural damage or any compromises to the building envelope. Also examine the roof thoroughly. Cover any damaged doors, windows and skylights. Small cracks or missing roof shingles should be repaired quickly to prevent water damage to the interior of the building. Evaluate mechanicals and ensure fan and HVAC covers are still in place.
  • Move through the interior of the facility checking walls and plaster at the tops and bottoms; damage from wind or water will be more evident in those locations. Check thoroughly behind wall paper and above ceiling tiles. If water is found, address the issue immediately to thwart any potential mold problems, which are much more difficult to treat.
  • Commence with clean-up procedures so that personnel and others can move through the building safely. Ensure anyone working on clean up is wearing appropriate, personal protective equipment and clothing. Since standing water will often be highly polluted after a disaster, those involved in the clean up should ensure their skin does not come into direct contact with that water. To avoid damage to motors and other machinery, be certain that any sand, mud, and muck is removed as they will prohibit the ability for machinery to function properly.
  • Ensure all involved in the process wash their hands properly and regularly to minimize chances of spreading germs or disease.

After a disaster occurs, taking immediate steps to address urgent situations will not only ensure safety for staff and others, but it will also ensure that further, more costly damage does not occur to the building structure.

While the points listed above can assist you in preparing for and responding to a disaster, it is important to remember that involving a restoration specialist before a disaster happens is crucial to taking precautionary measures to save your organization’s important and difficult-to-replace assets. Contact a professional who offers services to help businesses stay up-to-date and aware of what to do in the event of a disaster and then assists with assessing damages and beginning recovery once the disaster is over.

Disasters happen, but planning, practicing, and taking the appropriate precautionary measures can exponentially increase your company’s ability to get back to “business as usual.”

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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