Disaster Preparedness: Creating an Emergency Response Plan

By Thomas A. Gray

Creating an Emergency Response PlanHurricane Irene caused widespread damage in New England in 2011. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy clobbered the New Jersey and Long Island coastlines, and caused major flooding and widespread disruption in New York City. Sandy resulted in the third largest amount of damage (more than $18 billion) behind Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More recently there was catastrophic flooding in Colorado and a major wildfire in Northern California.

Disasters, unfortunately, can happen anywhere, and before you can say, “It will never happen here,” your company’s well-being could be in harm’s way. To minimize the risk to employees, assets and operations, precasters must prepare for these large-scale disasters with an emergency response plan (ERP). The primary goal of an ERP is to help your organization:

  • Assess potential risk exposures
  • Develop a detailed, practical response plan that reduces uncertainty, clarifies decision-making and prepares your facility for whatever may happen
  • Satisfy the life-safety needs of your employees and visitors in emergency situations
  • Coordinate your response with public agencies and others in the community
  • Determine actions to take in an emergency if external agencies or services are not available, even if just for a few hours or days

Assessing ERPs

A series of questions have been derived from various sources to assist precasters in evaluating their level of disaster readiness, and in developing/enhancing their disaster response plans. You should always consult with legal counsel and/or your insurance agent about contractual liability and insurance coverage issues associated with disaster-related scenarios.

ERPs should emphasize specific risks associated with the geographic area and others that may impact your business from afar. Questions you should be able to answer include:

  • Has an emergency coordinator been designated? Is there a backup person assigned? Has a spokesperson in charge of communicating with public responders, government agencies and the media been chosen?
  • Have an emergency command post and backup location been established? Are both spots equipped with reliable communication equipment and emergency contact information?

COMMUNICATION – In a disaster, communication (not cash) is king.

  • Are procedures in place for emergency communications with off-duty employees, families, police and fire departments, suppliers, contractors, utilities, public authorities and others?
  • Are there backup communication options in case telephone service is unavailable? Examples may include cellular telephones, electronic mail, social media and faxes?
  • Are paper copies of emergency telephone numbers posted at strategic locations throughout the facility?
  • Are there battery-powered weather radio(s), and are hazardous weather alerts monitored and conveyed to managers, employees and visitors?

COORDINATION – It won’t work unless it all works together.

  • Are relocation agreements in place (as necessary) with others?
  • Are there written procedures for working with local emergency managers and receiving information from them, including evacuation orders?
  • Has the response plan been reviewed and approved by local emergency management agencies and incorporated into the overall community emergency management and disaster plan?
  • Are there arrangements made for using emergency shelters as backup evacuation sites for employees and visitors, if normal locations are unavailable?

EVACUATION DETERMINATION – Public authorities may order evacuation.

  • Are there written criteria for deciding whether to evacuate or shelter in place – namely, safely within the building?
  • Are both external and internal factors considered – your staff availability, security concerns, power outages, structural soundness of facilities and employee mobility?

TRANSPORTATION – This may be disrupted in area-wide disasters.

  • If necessary, have contracts been executed with local services and transportation vendors?
  • If a widespread geographic area creates a regional disruption, are there backup plans for outside transportation service providers?
  • Do evacuation plans and estimated travel times consider factors such as availability of fuel supplies and the effect of widespread evacuation on traffic density?

STAFFING – Your employees may not be available to you.

  • Does the plan address the possibility of employee unavailability and consider other solutions such as hiring temporary staff or borrowing employees from other facilities?
  • Is there a provision for employees’ families to shelter in the facility during severe emergencies and to evacuate, if necessary?

SUPPLIES – You can’t buy them when the disaster occurs.

  • Does the plan specify the source and location of emergency supplies? These should include food, potable water and first aid supplies/medicines in case normal supply channels are disrupted.
  • Are there paper copies of possible backup supply sources, including government and charitable agencies?

POWER – This is the widespread disaster most likely to happen.

  • If applicable, is there adequate backup generator capacity for power to key equipment, emergency lights, computers, security, HVAC and other vital utilities?
  • Is there sufficient fuel available for longer term generator use, and have backup fuel sources been identified?

RETURN TO WORK – It won’t be as easy as you think.

  • Are procedures in place for securing your building during the evacuation, inspecting it for damage, making needed repairs and arranging for the return of employees?
  • Is a designated individual authorized to make the decision to return from the evacuation site, based upon written criteria?

EDUCATION/TRAINING – Must do before the disaster.

  • Is every employee aware of the ERP and his or her role in the plan? Has it been made available to employees for their review?
  • Is emergency planning included in employee orientation and reviewed by them at least annually?
  • Are employees “tested” at least annually on their knowledge of the plan, including command center location, contact information and their specific roles in evacuations, searches and other emergency scenarios?

DISASTER DRILLS – These are essential to success during a disaster.

  • Are drills performed at least annually, followed by evaluation and modification (if needed) of existing procedures?
  • Has the facility participated at least once in a wider area evacuation drill together with local emergency management agencies and first responders?

When disaster strikes, an effective and well-communicated ERP is instrumental in saving lives and property and keeping your company in business. Your plans should be regularly reviewed and updated. Start with the questions included in this article and use them as a basis for self-assessment.

Thomas A. Gray, P.E., FSFPE, CIRT (Level 3), CBCP, Six Sigma Green Belt, RRE, NFPA Member for Life, is CNA’s consulting director, Property Risk Control.

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