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Monday, 29 October 2007 00:30

Disaster Lessons Businesses Learned from the Loma Prieta Quake

Written by  Pete Ashen
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A successful disaster plan is not merely a three-ring binder with lists of phone numbers and resources. Rather, it is a result of the combined planning efforts of many departments and people. Persons involved in the planning need to look at what should be done in the areas of staff training, determining “vital records,” and evaluating structural and non-structural seismic hazard reduction. Planners need to verify what systems can be in place to collect disaster information and display it for the decision- makers. Authority should be clearly delegated, allowing those involved to make decisions and take action on the available information, and functional communications need to be established for the dissemination of decisions.

Corporations with stocked disaster supplies found that even though this was not “The Big One,” their employees used the lightsticks, flashlights, portable radios, prybars, and emergency rations and were pleased that their offices were ready. Knowledgable floor wardens prevented panic and appropriately responded to reports of persons trapped in elevators, smoke in the stairwell, jammed doors, power failures, and gas and water leaks. Key executives knew where to report to obtain information on the status of the company’s situation. Emergency Operations Centers provided corporations with the ability to collect information and take appropriate action to assure continuity of business.

In this 15 second, 7.1 quake, we were relatively lucky; for example, in 1964, Alaska suffered a four minute 8.3 quake. But it did alert previously apathetic corporations of the need to get a realistic disaster plan for their organization. Now that corporate executives see that they may indeed be without water, electricity, sewage systems, transportation, communications, and even access to their offices for a time, perhaps they realize the importance to plan for alternatives to assure themselves the ability to function under disaster situations.
Organizations that took action to mitigate non-structural hazards by bracing shelves and file cabinets, putting Velcro under computer, communications, and laboratory equipment, and bracing florescent fixtures and water heaters found that they had minimized business disruption following the quake.

Seismic upgrading of elevators seemed to be very valuable, as there were no deaths or injuries reported as a result of elevator failure. However, there were many reports of minor problems with auxiliary power generators. Some were depending on natural gas as a fuel source, and in many cases electricity and gas were both out. Some had failed to properly anchor generator and batteries and found their systems didn’t automatically come on line. Some didn’t know how much or how little was on auxiliary power in their facility. It was embarrassing when security gates, telephone systems, disaster radios, and radio battery chargers were found not to be on the auxiliary power system! Future disaster plans will certainly inventory what the auxiliary power system provides.

Some communications systems worked well. The telephone industry loaned emergency service agencies thousands of cellular telephones with one month of free air time. Serendiptity! You had new portable telephones with unlisted phone numbers so your key players could control who had their phone number. Unlisted or at least restricted phone access phones in emergency operations centers proved very valuable. Many disaster coordinators reported on the advantages of fax machines. Those lines weren’t as busy as the main switchboard, so there were fewer reports of overloading, and printed copy minimized misunderstandings. List your fax reources in your communications section of your disaster plans. Also list the numbers of pay phones in your buildings--this is an extra communications resource.

We take water and sanitation for granted, but in the Marina District of San Francisco they were knocked out and both families and businesses had to rely on bottled water and port-a-potties. What have you provided in your disaster plan for water and sanitation?

In San Francisco we found that certain truisms (duck and cover, get under a strong table or desk, get away from windows, brace yourself in a doorway, and do not use the elevators) were correct. The sidewalk in front of buildings is very dangerous. Stay inside buildings or get into open space. Five died when bricks fell off of a building on 6th Street.

While in this earthquake all hospitals were not damaged or overloaded, the on-site first aid action of trained floor wardens was very valuable. Are your key personnel trained in first aid? Some in every facility and on every shift?

Pre-disaster training minimizes emotional aftershock. Companies that had provided earthquake preparedness training for both their employees at work and their families at home found their staff could continue to function in their disaster operations because they knew their families were secure.

The term “vital records” held a new meaning for corporate executives who could not get into their offices. It no longer meant just computer tapes and disks, it also meant their phone lists and rolodoxes on their desks. Blueprints easily duplicated now are very hard to come by or get copied the day after an earthquake. After-hours contacts for your key vendors and special customers should be considered vital records and provided for in your disaster plan.

Perhaps now is the time to take an inventory/survey of your employees. Who is interested in helping in time of disaster? Who are amateur radio operators? First Aiders or experienced military medics? Who is trained in building or carpentry that would be valuable in search and rescue tool, public information and public relations functions and corporate decision-making were all in place.

In these examples, we learn the valuable lesson that although we can in no way prevent a disaster from occurring, we can at least recover from one by providing adequate planning. These experiences teach us the necessity of taking disaster recovery planning past the three-ring binder stage and into the form of a workable tool that propels corporations into tomorrow’s business day.


Pete Ashen is Administrator of Emergency Services with the Golden Gate Chapter of American Red Cross.

This article adapted from Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 28.

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