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Volume 32, Issue 1

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The Whittier Narrows earthquake on October 1, 1987, provided our first opportunity to experience a moderate earthquake, in a large metropolitan area, during working hours. Many businesses were not open yet, but Pacific Bell, the company I worked for at the time, had many employees already at work. As chair of their Emergency Operating Committee for Los Angeles, I had the unique opportunity to coordinate the restoration of the telephone network that day.

In the months immediately following the disaster, I focused my attention on reviewing the completeness of our corporate plans, identifying any policy issues we needed to address, and testing the efficiency of or Emergency Operating Centers.

It wasn’t until six months later that I finally had time to reflect on all that we had experienced. That was when I discovered that we had never before identified a major piece of the disaster planning puzzle: work group preparedness.

Traditionally, we had always prepared our employees by forming emergency response teams, ordering and stocking emergency supplies, providing employee education programs, conducting periodic drills, and training key employees on first aid, CPR, and triage. However, on the day of the earthquake, people reacted differently than we expected. When talking to other companies, I have learned that they all experienced these employee reactions:

  • Employees spontaneously evacuated buildings without waiting for direction from their emergency response team leaders.
  • Employees would not re-enter buildings until official building inspectors could be dispatched, even if there was no structural damage.
  • Building managers requested tenants to evacuate, but tenants were reluctant to do so.
  • The media broadcast messages requesting firms in the downtown area to send their employees home.
  • People stood in long lines to use the public telephones.
  • If employees could not reach their families, they requested to go home.
  • Employees who remained at work wanted news information about the affected area throughout the day.

We can expect that all of these reactions will be magnified when a larger disaster strikes. The significance of these reactions is that any one of them, if not planned for ahead of time, will prevent businesses from beginning their recovery efforts.

On a broader perspective, there were five major factors which prevented business resumption that day:

  • Employee concerns limited their effectiveness.
  • Building inspectors were swamped with requests.
  • Communications links were overloaded for hours.
  • Community emergency services were taxed.
  • 911 was flooded with calls.

Clearly, employees did not know what to do or how they were to do it. Without the normal communications links, they were on their own. As I thought about their responses that day, I realized that there was a clear pattern of information needs which they all had. In fact, what we had missed was a way to capture how each work group fits into the total effort to restore a business after a disaster.

Every work group needs to know in advance specific information about their particular location.

They need to identify where the utilities are, and who will shut them off. They need to designate who will check the building for damage, who will provide first aid, and how and to whom they will report injuries or deaths. They need to know if they have any hazards in their environment, or hazardous materials which need to be checked. They also need to identify the resources they will need, where they are, and how they will get them.

They need to take an inventory in advance of the alternate communications they could use, and identify how they will use them. They need to have a plan on how they will contact their families to find out how they are. They need to know who in the work group has special physical or medical needs, and who has skills which might be useful during the disaster.

Work groups should also identify what critical functions they will need to perform after the disaster to begin to restore the business.

To make these plans effective, each group must have a way to keep the information current, so it will be correct whenever the disaster strikes.

Judy K. Bell is Executive Director of Disaster Survival Planning (tm).

This article adapted from Vol. 2 No. 4, p. 26.