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Volume 27, Issue 4

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October 25, 2007

The Disaster Threat and Corporate Safety

Written by  Vincent Montane
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The philosophy in business today must be that if you cannot take care of yourself during and after disasters, you cannot take care of your customers. As Regional Manager for the State Office of Emergency Services during California's Loma Prieta earthquake, I can assure you that it does not take a 7.1 earthquake to force businesses to recognize that at any time on any day, the economic well-being and social fabric of a community can be literally shaken to its foundation by a great earthquake or other major disaster. Whether your particular vulnerability is to earthquakes or other types of disasters, it is crucial for the survival of business to focus on the steps to take for training employees, protecting property and facilities, and maintaining, as well as revising your recovery plans.

Any organization has the moral and legal obligation to protect the safety of its employees and get business back on its feet after a disaster. Post-disaster business continuity will be nearly impossible unless planning becomes paramount in every corporate/business emergency operations procedure. My own experience indicates that emergency planning should get the same attention and commitment of funding as any other item on your list of overall business objectives.

BUILDINGS, THE WORK PLACE, AND PERSONNEL

It is crucial for an organization to develop plans that review areas of vulnerability when improvisation is impossible even for the most experienced businessperson. Several areas that need consideration are preparedness planning, mitigation activities, and recovery planning. One step of preparedness planning it the assessment of your hazard vulnerability. What hazards can cause the most damage to your facility and your operations? What sort of damages? Can you do anything to reduce the impacts of those hazards? Mitigation activities include reducing both structural and non-structural hazards through reinforcing buildings, anchoring light fixtures in ceilings, bolting bookcases to wall studs, or protecting computer equipment. Recovery planning involves making provisions for first-aid, search and rescue, building evacuation, and emergency communications; coping with fires and hazardous materials; and general personnel training in all of the above.

Regular exercises and simulated emergency situations are invaluable in keeping personnel up-to-speed on their emergency response and recovery roles. Furthermore, past experiences in disasters suggest that it is prudent to encourage employees to develop their own emergency plans at home because people who are confident about the post-disaster well-being of their families will perform better at their work places. As you review recovery planning, you must determine which elements of your operations are the most important for continuity of business, how to protect or restore those elements and who can help you after a disaster if your own resources are overtaxed. It is also important to develop methods of communicating with your suppliers and customers.

Are there training programs that can be established for your business in-house to allow the secretary in the front office or the senior manager in the back room to become thoroughly familiar with what his or her role will be in the event of a disaster? Since the failure of our man-made structures are responsible for the casualties, losses, and misery that disasters bring, it is up to us to minimize the hazards as much as possible. A checklist for a business recovery should include the following:

1. Have you established contracts with engineers and suppliers to survey building damage and perform clean-up following an emergency?
2. Are there plans for business restoration, maintaining essential facilities and/or establishing temporary facilities, ensuring that key personnel report to work sites or alternate headquarters, restoring damage utility systems, or controlling access to company facilities?
3. Have you identified alternate sources of essential supplies and replacement parts if your normal vendors are unable to function after a disaster?
4. Have you developed post-disaster financing and investment strategies to protect corporate assets?
5. Does your banker know your disaster contingency plan to assure confidence in and quick response to your post-disaster needs?
6. Have you reviewed existing inter-company mutual aid agreements to establish what needs might follow an earthquake or other disaster?
7. Have you made sure that your local government emergency response agencies are aware of your perceived post-disaster needs in order to facilitate recovery?

It is essential that everyone in your operation and your building is familiar with your operations plan. Keep copies of the plan widely available and publish them in the company phone book, newsletters, or some other means to disseminate this information. It is also useful to keep copies in car trunks. After a major event, many copies will be in the buildings that may no longer be accessible for one reason or another, and having copies in car trunks allows people out in the field to have access to these important plans.

Exercise your emergency plan in order to increase employee understanding and cooperation. After a disaster is not a very good time for personnel to be learning something new. It is best if everyone is relying on information already committed to memory or some kind of habitual reflex because you have trained them well. And again, I must emphasize that we have to do something about the non-structural hazards. Retrofitting is very important and a number of programs are available to assist with that process. It goes without saying that we need to keep items handy for immediate business resumption. Cash is always extremely helpful in securing emergency goods and services as well as having the wherewithal before the disaster to provide transportation, lodging, and food to key personnel after the disaster.

Here are a few other key directives for program managers and business representatives:

1. Review the inventory of owned and leased buildings and categorize them by life-safety risk and length of time a building will probably be off-line after a disaster.
2. Develop building investigation guidelines for use before purchasing or leasing additional space.
3. Identify and install a radio system that will be functional immediately after a disaster. The system will be used for day-to-day business and will be capable along with amateur radio for handling emergency traffic during the recovery phase.
4. Offer information to employees and encourage them to take steps at home to reduce potential injury and loss.
5. Do not place desks directly adjacent to large-plate glass windows which may shatter.
6. Do not store heavy objects overhead.
7. Fasten cabinets and bookshelves to wall studs.
8. Put latches on cabinets to keep contents from flying out during a quake or other major disaster.
9. Secure florescent light fixtures.
10. Do not hang plants over occupied areas.
11. Secure heavy frame pictures and mirrors to the walls.
12. Store reactive or toxic chemicals separately on lower shelves.
13. Have a sufficient amount of portable emergency medicine and supplies in several areas of the building, including tools (especially wrenches), radios, batteries, a three-day supply of food and water (in unbreakable containers) and first-aid kits.

DISASTER PLANNING AND RECOVERY FOR DATA PROCESSING EQUIPMENT

When securing data processing equipment, many managers in business have historically concerned themselves with hazards such as physical intrusion into the facility, electronic theft, and related problems. Of greater concern is the natural disaster that has the potential of virtually shutting down a center's critical operations. It goes without saying that storms, floods, high winds, and terrorism can all play a part in closing down a facility. But we certainly cannot leave out the unpredictable enemy many of us have faced--the earthquake.

The first and most obvious concern is the security of the computer equipment. Disks and tape drives, PCs, printers, and modem cabinets will all certainly find the quickest way to the floor unless they are secured. Anchoring and bracing can be applied to counteract expected levels of building motion. When I was in Mexico City as part of the Governor of the State of California Earthquake Task Force, I found several office buildings where machines literally crashed right through the floors because they were unbraced.

And by the way, unbraced raised access floors do not need a large earthquake to cause you problems. I've personally witnessed major damage to machines because of these floors in relatively small magnitude quakes of 5.0 to 5.5.

Another disaster prone-part of your business that should be considered is suspended ceilings.

Many of these types of ceilings are jammed up against perimeter walls and often times you end up with lighting fixtures on your head, not to mention the piping and wiring which will be a potential hazard to both machine and operator. To mitigate the potential devastation of ceiling collapse, install a sway bracing system that can move with the lateral forces of a seismic or other event with a similar outcome. A structural grid system that will support the ceiling mechanical duct work and piping is another good precautionary measure. Sprinkler systems, which often break and cause water damage in an earthquake, need to be carefully placed as well.

How about all types of storage cabinets? Most heavy cabinets I have seen after a major catastrophe were never braced. Desks and typewriters and generally all items of furniture and equipment are prime candidates, so you have to secure these systems.

A business checklist for recovery actions as it relates to computer equipment should include:

1. The determination of whether or not the building can be occupied or when occupation of the building can occur. 2. Determine status of all your assigned personnel. Have shift rosters for interim periods.
3. Initiate contracts for data processing or activate alternate site operations.
4. Establish emergency maintenance for all equipment and support systems.

Very little time or energy is devoted to training personnel or exercising most plans. Just to have your plan is not going to be enough as a measure of preparedness.

It is essential that your personnel receive an adequate measure of training in their emergency response roles and that the plan itself be tested regularly.

As Sir Winston Churchill said at the height of the Second World War, 'An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity, a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.' I would say that it is important to seize the opportunity of drafting a sound recovery plan and exercising that plan on a regular basis before the calamity strikes.


Dr. Vincent Montane is the Regional Manager of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, Region II.

This article adapted from Vol. 3 No. 3, p. 10.

Read 2009 times Last modified on October 11, 2012