Organizations with a strong disaster response plan are well suited to combat the destruction of a natural disaster and recover faster.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Preparing for Natural Disasters

Not all natural disasters occur during full staff hours. Many take place when staff or logistical support is limited. Keep this in mind while creating the plan.

From tornadoes to hurricanes, natural disasters are powerful forces that tear through cities and leave a trail of devastation across communities. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 16 natural disasters caused $306 billion worth of damage in the United States during 2017 alone.

Though businesses are unable to predict when a natural disaster will strike, they can protect their assets and employees with the proper planning, training, and communication tactics. Preparing for the worst helps build resilience and enables businesses to recover faster.

Disaster Response Plan Development
Organizations need to develop an effective disaster response plan to minimize damage before, during, and after an event. Every business is different and will need to examine its facilities and consider its employees when creating a structure that fits its own unique circumstances. There are no cookie-cutter templates to the perfect disaster response plan; however, there are common elements that all plans should include.

A disaster response plan guides organizations through disruptive events and helps resume operations post-incident. It is critical to conduct a thorough risk assessment of all potential dangers before a business can develop a robust plan addressing how to mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover from specific hazards and risks.

Planning also should address options of evacuation or shelter in place while detailing the special needs of either situation. For example, evacuation plans need to specify emergency exits, safety systems, meeting areas, and communication plans. If the decision is to instead shelter in place, additional needs may include equipping the facility, ensuring a backup power supply is available, storing enough food and water to last three to 10 days, stocking medical supplies, and preparing a communication plan with emergency contacts.

Not all natural disasters occur during full staff hours. Many disasters take place when staff or logistical support is limited. This should be kept in mind while creating the plan to ensure it is easily accessible and understood by all levels of staff.

A disaster plan is a living document that is easy to follow, frequently reviewed, and regularly updated. Creating a flexible plan allows for any employee to follow it and keeps staff safe, ultimately improving the resilience of everyone within the organization.

Train and Drill: Staff Responsibilities
Larger businesses may assign a team of employees to develop the disaster response plan. Creating a disaster response team comprised of multiple departments helps ensure the entire business is invested during an event. Ahead of an emergency, all personnel need to know what their roles are and where their presence is required. A disaster response plan must detail the roles of each employee and specify who is in charge of making decisions. Update employee orientation programs to include emergency training, as this will help keep all employees on the same page and prepare them to remain calm during an emergency.

General training for all employees should address:

  • Protective action against threats and hazards
  • How to notify the public and communicate with family members
  • Means for locating family members
  • Emergency response procedures
  • Evacuation and shelter procedures
  • Location and use of emergency equipment
  • Emergency shutdown procedures

Conduct a mock disaster drill to test the disaster plan. Because it has the greatest likelihood to occur, most facilities plan and practice for a fire. However, not all businesses implement a disaster drill. Planning and practicing for natural disasters other than fire helps to raise awareness and prepares employees for a variety of outcomes. Running through the plan with a mock disaster drill also provides insight into any needed plan updates and improvements. As a result, the resiliency of the whole organization will be improved.

Crisis Communication
Communication during a crisis is critical to informing the public as well as loved ones about the ongoing situation. The public is used to having breaking news at their fingertips with smartphones, computers, and TVs constantly updating current events. During the first 24 hours after a natural disaster, response teams are often so focused on maintaining the situation that they fail to effectively communicate with the public, which can be received negatively and lead to potential reputation damage and safety concerns.

Initial communication needs to revolve around accounting for everyone regarding status, location, and notifying family. Secondary communication will focus on the impact of the disaster on the organization and the community. Social media greatly accelerate the speed of communication by instantly identifying urgent needs, providing accurate (although sometimes inaccurate) updates, and reconnecting family members.

Social media platforms provide a broad audience with instantaneous updates, which makes monitoring social media during a disaster vital in order to keep audiences accurately informed. Effective social media management helps communicate safety information to both internal and external audiences. It also allows organizations to monitor public opinion and prevent the spread of rumors, misinformation, and false narratives.

Aftermath Recovery
After a natural disaster, a business will need to continue operating even though its physical location may be compromised. In order to maintain critical operations, the disaster plan should detail an organization's functions, services, and who is being served to determine the kind of temporary space the business will need to occupy during the recovery process. Specify what equipment will be needed to carry out services and have a plan to access such equipment. Make arrangements to set up an alternative work space or provide employees with remote access so they are able to work from home.

In addition to keeping the business resilient, employees also may need help recovering. The effects of natural disasters often impact both work and home life, taking a devastating toll on one's physical and mental health. Employers should provide the option of an employee assistance program, or EAP, to help staff adjust back into their daily routines after a life-changing event. Hiring a third-party EAP service that provides access to counseling, management consultation, and local disaster resources will ensure support for employees before, during, and after a disaster. Engaging an outside third party for this type of assistance provides clarity and adds a calming buffer, which is helpful for security directors who are more personally and directly involved in the situation.

Natural disasters are an unavoidable force that businesses must prepare themselves against, and the best defense is a good offense. Organizations with a strong disaster response plan are well suited to combat the destruction of a natural disaster and recover faster. Regularly updating preparedness plans and training employees will build resilience throughout your workforce.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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