Effective management of disasters for any business takes the execution of a well developed plan to deploy resources of response and recovery.
Each employee of the business should be on intimate terms with the plan so that when they are called to action there is no hesitation, no questions, and very little room for failure of essential functions to return to a near-normal state. Physical and mental preparedness are key components in training and exercises – creating a strong operational backbone – even in the face of diverse situations. While most business continuity plans place emphasis on how the company will survive during a disaster, there is an additional dimension that would be a wise administrative move to consider – the survivability of its personnel as well.
The commitment to an employee’s professional life is largely determined by the safety and comfort of his or her personal life. According to an article in The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, emergency responders are largely influenced by their willingness to work in the face of perceived safety threats against them personally, towards a co-worker, or towards family. An EMSResponder.com article identified that responders sometimes have to make a decision between family and career in the face of disaster. The conclusion from both articles is that emergency service agencies should not assume that responders will be willing to report to work if doing so will cause personal harm or harm to family. It is important to identify that the articles relate to responders’ actions specifically to disasters and not everyday emergencies. So if those who are trained and expected to react in any type of emergency don’t because they feel their lives may be in danger, the questions begs to be answered – will employees be fully committed to a disaster recovery plan?
The total impact of a disaster and its associated risks on a business is as a lot like predicting the weather – we know it’s coming, but how it affects us will only be known until it’s already here. In other words, the degree of risk in and of itself is reliant on the perception of preparedness. Business continuity planning addresses this dimension of professional risk, but does it address the dimension of personal risk? This question can be answered using the same hazards analysis rubric commonly used to identify potential hazards during disaster planning.
What hazards may happen?
Another way to structure the question would be, “What hazards threaten employee’s personal life?” So instead of putting in terms like “hurricane,” or “earthquake,” phrases like “responding to the company emergency response plan would mean my children would be left at home alone until I return,” or “responding to the company emergency response plan would mean I wouldn’t be able to care for an elderly family member” would be put in their place. Other concerns might be the anxiety of not knowing where their family members are and if they are safe, or what would happen to their home if the power were all of a sudden be shut off. Pet care, meal preparation, and bill paying can also be added to the list. These are all important concerns that are unique to the individual employee.
Collecting this type of information is going to take more than a few work sessions from the disaster management team. Administrators, or emergency planning committee members, should take the time to interview or otherwise encourage communication about an employee’s potential personal needs during a disaster. Perhaps an open discussion forum during an employee meeting or distribution of a questionnaire might provide an adequate list. Respectively probing into these needs not only strengthens the bond between management and employee, but also builds trust among them that the company is taking care of things. Once a comprehensive list of “hazards” has been developed, the planning team can then brainstorm strategies to address what issues can be solved and what issues cannot.
What resources exist now to address these identified hazards?
For example, in the case of childcare during a disaster, does the company have the physical space, the certified care providers, and the necessary food, clothing, and sleeping arrangements to accommodate a drop-off for the employees’ children? Or can the company allocate funding for emergency childcare during a disaster with a company that already provides the service and can react in a timely fashion? Or perhaps the company can allocate resources to act as a point of contact so that employees can receive timely and accurate updates on their family members. Care for elderly family members can also be handled with the same regard. Perhaps home visits can also be arranged by rotating employees on shift, a buddy system, and even an appointed liaison are additional options businesses can use to ease employee’s fears. Out of the box thinking will enhance the development of solving complex issues.
How can the company mitigate these hazards?
Some solutions to the employee’s personal issues can be handled by the business, and some may not. But that doesn’t mean the issues are any less important nor will it mean any less affect on the employee. An alternative to placing the burden on the business to come up with solutions is to provide alternative recommendations that employees can take advantage of on their own. One compromise that is in existence now as a common hiring practice is for the employee to provide contact information in the event of an emergency. The compromise is simple – the business will make every attempt to make the contact if the employee makes every attempt to keep the information current. The same attempts can be made, for example, for elderly family members that can be contacted in the event an employee is called to action from a emergency response plan. Sometimes this is the simplest step a business can take to ensure complete focus of the employee. In other words the employee will make their own arrangements for care of the family, but that reassuring contact will make all the difference in the world.
At this juncture of the planning process it is important to take into consideration the company’s essential functions because it may completely change the approach to individual employee’s needs. For example, if an essential function of a business is customer support over the telephone or computer, and that essential function is addressed in the emergency response plan by having employees work at home, then daycare/elderly care is essentially taken care of. Conversely, if the preservation of essential functions dictates an alternative location, then employee personal concerns may actually be created.
By now, following the steps have yielded a tangible and viable preparedness plan and it is time to implement training and exercises. This will entail educating employees on policies and procedures as well as developing exercise plans to test them. The emergency planning team should be prepared to use a variety of exercise resources from drills to full scale exercises to ensure that each phase or each policy and procedure can be fully implemented and functional in harmony with the original emergency response plan. An after-action-review will determine any deficits in the planning process so the emergency planning committee can make the necessary changes.
Develop a finalized policy and procedure
The last step is to develop a finalized policy and procedure either as a stand-alone document or annexed into an existing emergency response plan. This plan should also be reviewed on a timely basis with intervals dependant on its components and always available for employee review and input.
Even the most meticulous and well planned business continuity and emergency response plans will only be as effective as the employees that are involved in it. Unfortunately, not every hazard can be planned for, but any plan will fail if no one reports for duty or is constantly distracted by worry and fear about things in their lives. Businesses that address the personal dimensions of their employees, however, will enjoy improved communication, trust, and commitment to its survivability after a disaster.
Daniel Schellenger has been involved in public safety for more than 15 years including volunteer firefighter, public safety dispatcher, and EMT paramedic. Schellenger is currently the community liaison/PIO and exercise coordinator for Life Care Ambulance in Sterling, Colo. Schellenger can be reached at email@example.com.