There has been a great deal written about telecommunications disaster recovery planning lately. The interest level is high regarding what to do if the Central Office fails, if the long distance carrier goes down or if a fire occurs and you have to vacate the building and telecommunicate from an alternate location. All of these recent situations are important, What do they have in common? None of them was related to a natural disaster.
Those human-made disasters were caused by oversights, mismanagement, power failures, equipment malfunctions and just plain old non-preparedness. Does the fact that they were “unnatural “ make them any less important or less dangerous? Of course not. But they are different, and the telecommunications aspects for natural disaster recovery planning is different as well.
Natural disasters, by their very character, are beyond the control of humans. The best we can hope to do is react in a meaningful time frame, in an orderly manner and to mitigate and repair the damage. Communications, whether written, spoken or telecommunicated become extremely important to the mission when the disaster has natural causes.
People react with great stress during a natural disaster. The first reaction is usually: “This can’t be happening!” or “It’s probably just a false alarm.” If a emergency room physician was talking to an accident victim, this response would be termed “denial.” Other responses to a natural disaster could be anxiety, anger, fear, confusion or panic.
There is a greater need for structure, clear lines of authority, easily readable procedures and definitive alternate courses of action during a natural disaster due to the psychological impact on people.
Further, a natural disaster may put family members in danger and out of communication with employees for an extended period of time. This lack of control overlays the situation and may impair the judgement of key people responsible for mitigation and recovery.
One emergency response plan has as part of its Response Team’s duties: “In the event of an emergency you should respond (in the following order) to protect personnel, data, records and equipment.”
What this means is there should be no activity relating to your family, your personal or real property or anything else except the emergency. This is not an unusual directive for emergency personnel, the military or paramedics. However, it is unusual for the average employee whose only experience in a natural disaster has been on paper.
Is the situation hopeless? Not at all. The preparation of all forms of communications, (including telecommunications), for a natural disaster must have different and more complete planning and preparation than a Central Office.
The problem relating to the care of children has been compounded by the increase in the number of one-parent families, the number of families which have both parents working and the current travel requirements of parents. Natural disasters hinder the day-to-day management of child care and family relationships straining existing care systems beyond the breaking point.
How can we effectively deal with the stress placed on employees by the direct effects of a natural disaster and their responsibilities as responsible family members?
The first agenda item is to deal with discussing it now, before a natural disaster occurs. Part of employee orientation should deal with:
1) Explaining to your employees and their families what to expect in advance.
2) Publishing policies and procedures regarding expectations of employees during a natural disaster.
3) Publishing a booklet for family members, explaining what your employee will be able to do and not do during the natural disaster. Expectations of length of time an employee may be out of communications with them should be explained.
4) Orienting your employees as to what they can do to insure the health and safety of their family members.
5) Testing and auditing the family natural disaster plan.
How can telecommunications help? There are many ways including:
1. Have an alternate phone number established in advance, either out of state, out of town or at a remote local location. All family members would be instructed to call that number, check in and leave a message regarding their status, where they can be reached and any other instructions or information. A relative or a family friend would be a good location. A support group consisting of employees’ families could be used as well.
2. Keep a list of all caretakers, school, police, hospital, work locations, cellular phones, beeper, voice mail, family, friends and other pertinent telephone numbers at home, at work and at the remote location. Radio stations carrying information should be on the list.
3. Establish a family telephone cascade system so everyone gets notified with a minimum of telephone calls. The Central Office (C.O.) will be overloaded if it is still working. Call waiting, call forwarding, answering machines, three way calling and other C.O. features use system capacity. Any available capacity should be made available for emergency response.
4. Arrange with local radio stations for broadcasting emergency instructions to family members and employees who may be on the road.
5. Plan how your organization’s health and safety people will communicate via radio telephone or other means relative to absolutely essential telephone calls.
6. Insure family members know how to activate beepers that are carried. Arrange codes for digital beepers which would indicate which member is reporting in and their status. For example a seven digit phone number, which would indicate location, could be followed by a digit indicating a family member I.D. and another digit indicating status of the person.
7. Establish times for each member to check in and give his/her status. Orient each member to the importance or keeping the status reports short to alleviate unnecessary strain on the system.
These suggestions are not all-inclusive. However, by implementing them you may be able to lessen the stress placed on your employees. This will allow them to do their jobs effectively while assuring them of family member status and that their families know what they should do to communicate during a natural disaster.
Benjamin W. Tartaglia, MBA, CSP, is President of BWT Associates, Independent Consultants, a consulting firm specializing in disaster recovery as it relates to telecommunications. He is also Executive Director of the International Disaster Recovery Association (IDRA), a professional group which focuses on the use of telecommunications for planning, mitigating, recovering and restoring operations in disaster recovery.
This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.