The first hours after a disaster will be daunting. Chief priorities will include extracting critical items from the destroyed building, stabilizing the facility, and protecting the assets that remain. After these steps, salvage and restoration operations begin.
Continuity planners who have been through a disaster know it is unlikely a company will have normal access to a building immediately afterward. The fire department may control the building for its investigation or the city may deem a structure unsafe for occupancy. For a variety of reasons, owners of a building may be told, “You have half an hour with an escort to get what’s important and then you won’t be in this building again for a week.” For this reason, know ahead of time what is critical. Mark filing cabinets or computer disks that hold truly critical information with the same color stickers. This allows a person to clearly articulate to whomever is designated for entry to the building where to find the critical items that must be removed.
Stabilizing a facility may start with engineers. In a fire, structural engineers will look for thermal stress or lack of integrity in weight-bearing beams, for example. They will create a protocol for what needs to happen to the structure itself. Ceilings may have to come down, walls may need to be shored, or loose beams may need to be removed. Experienced structural engineers walk into an affected facility, assess the damage, prescribe the remedy and walk out. When screening potential disaster management firms, inquire as to the pre-existing relationships they have with engineers or architects. Your company may have such folks readily accessible, but if it does not, a reconstruction firm should be able to quickly provide such independent experts.
This initial walk-through of the facility prescribes the steps to be followed when performing emergency repairs, or “temping” a facility. Windows are missing, the roof is in an adjacent field, snow is quickly piling up where the computer room once stood. To quickly weatherize the building, contractors use plywood, Tyvek sheeting, corrugated steel, or any combination thereof to temporarily repair (hence, the nickname) the affected area. When employees arrive after a loss, the building likely will resemble a large utility shed in some ways. It is ugly work. Mobilizing the generators, overhead lights, bulldozers, construction materials, and labor involved in protecting a building are not cheap.
This is especially true when done in the middle of the night. It is expensive work. Additionally, under normal conditions, the layout of most facilities is scrutinized so that material flows are perfected or office layouts are agreeable for everyone. Such grand designs will be suspended until the facility is restored to its pre-existing condition. Temping a facility is inconvenient. Ugly, expensive, and inconvenient combine to make for complex work.
The worst mistake an incident management team can make is choosing the wrong company to perform such work. Why? The wrong firm makes the first 12-24 hours of a disaster considerably more complex. One of many stories on this issue sticks out clearly. A property management company engaged a random contractor while one of their buildings still burned. With the fire department looking on, this contractor drove a piece of construction equipment over a below-grade bearing wall, causing the machinery and its operator to fall through a concrete slab into the parking garage of the structure. Now, in determining the critical path for stabilizing the facility, item No. 1 becomes “remove back-ho from collapsed parking structure.” That item required stopping other work to remove the equipment, as well as added cost during reconstruction to repair the damaged parking structure.
In addition to work being done on the structure itself, very important and timely work related to the contents of the facility will be on-going throughout the early stages of disaster response. This work is known as contents restoration. A lot of contents will simply be thrown out.
Others will be cleaned with buckets of soapy water. However, contents restoration can also be technically advanced and inextricably linked to the cost and length of the business interruption. This is especially true in manufacturing environments. Many such facilities have very large pieces of equipment that have long lead times or ship from overseas in subassemblies. Saying to a company, “Have your insurance company replace it” is not practical. Such machinery must be carefully cleaned by experienced, savvy restoration technicians.
Contents cleaning and restoration entails quite a bit of science. Dry cleaning sponges, ozone chambers, or ultra-sonic cleaning tubs represent a smattering of the tools that are always being developed in this field. Beyond having spiffy names, these technologies help immeasurably in a disaster. Instead of replacing expensive, custom-built machinery, it can be cleaned in a matter of days or weeks. Instead of re-ordering inventory that has been covered in soot, ultrasonic tubs use sound waves to vibrate particulate off the surface of many types of materials. When not applied correctly, however, these technologies can also have very negative effects.
Potential restoration companies should bear credentials. A restoration company should offer technicians certified by the Institute on Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration (IICRC and its work can be viewed at www.iicrc.org). Such companies should also be able to prove their involvement with the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration (www.ascr.org). These two organizations are the standard bearers for companies involved in restoration.
Solid BCP work should include knowing ahead of time what company will be partner in recovering important contents, stabilizing a facility, and defining the path of reconstruction. In this short amount of space, two parts of this equation have been briefly introduced: stabilizing the facility and preserving what contents are salvageable. Even in organizations with robust BC plans, little thought is given as to who will be called at 2 a.m. in the morning to show up with light trees and corrugated sheet metal. While the question may lack the glamour of IT related issues, it is a critical consideration. Choosing the wrong disaster management company can make your experience more complex than it need be. Beyond that, your executive management team – and certainly your insurance company – want to feel as if the situation is under control and running smoothly.
Pre-qualify a recovery and restoration firm by meeting with them ahead of time. Ask about the equipment they keep on hand. Ask about the certification and training of their personnel. Ask about their ability to respond in a large regional catastrophe. Ask about their past experience in commercial environments. Ask about their ability to recover and restore your contents. Such questions should lend a level of comfort with the partner you eventually choose for disaster response. That familiarity will be critical when a disaster strikes. Continuing to ignore this requirement of pre-disaster planning may doom you to hearing a lot of “I dunno” and “That’s nice” when disaster strikes. Better that you leave such responses for those of us cursed with awkward blind dates.
Anthony J. Drew is a jack-of-all-trades at BELFOR USA. Splitting time between project management in the field and assisting continuity planners across a range of industries, his current office is in BELFOR’s Cleveland location. E-mail: email@example.com.