Plan, Prepare, Provide: Emergency Operations During a Crisis

About 10 years ago, we published an article on weathering the worst during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Today, the same content is as applicable as ever. Any number of crises can strike without warning and make doing “business as usual” nearly impossible. Flu pandemics, devastating weather events, earthquakes, infrastructure breakdowns. This article explains what’s needed in an emergency operations plan, including providing emergency resources and accountability for employees during a crisis.

Plan for a rapid recovery

The first place to start is to establish a cross-functional team and imagine all the possible worst-case scenarios for your company. Examining what might happen during an emergency allows you to best plan for how to respond and recover from it. When scenario-planning, consider your key personnel, equipment, and information. Ask questions, including:
  • Who is critical to getting your business going again?
  • What is the succession plan if these leaders are unavailable?
  • What types of equipment will be needed to move forward?
  • Where will key information be stored and how can it be accessed?
  • Who are trusted vendors, outsource partners, and service providers who may be able to pitch in and help in a disaster?
Once you’ve established the groundwork for recovery, create a contingency business plan that describes step-by-step how to move forward after an emergency. Be sure critical personnel know the plan and what is expected of them during a crisis. Most important, provide regular updates about emergency plans and procedures.

Develop a state of readiness

The necessary personnel, materials, and environments may vary for different scenarios. Take inventory of what is already available at the organization, then acquire what else is needed. While each scenario may be unique, the contingency plan can be prepared for similar responses including
  • Identify individuals with specific knowledge, talents, or skills, such as employees with emergency medical technician, CPR, first-aid or firefighting training, or hold a ham operator’s license.
  • Ask those with organizational skills and ability to focus during chaos, to be part of an emergency first responder team.
  • Integrate training for managers in areas of empathy, stress management, and dealing with anxiety in the workplace. Encourage them to share this with their teams.
  • Develop a buddy system, or means of accountability, to help employees check in and stay connected to one another.
  • Include alternative work arrangements in the contingency plan, such as working from home, staggering shifts, job sharing, cross-training, and returning to work at partial capacity.
  • Buy and store emergency supplies in a central location and plan an escape route.
  • Post signs and conduct drills to ensure your staff knows where the supplies are and how to safely leave the workplace.
No matter the situation, rehearsal is critical to protect everyone’s health as it minimizes time delays and damage to operations, should the real thing occur. Find a frequency that works for your business and schedule practice into the regular work cadence.

Be able to account for staff

Create and continually update a list of emergency contact numbers, including out-of-state contacts, so you know how to reach employees during a disaster. Determine who will be the point-of-contact for your staff, stakeholders, and the media. Establish a call order for contacting employees and decide whose job it is to do so. Consider asking key personnel to use different cell phone carriers in case cellular service is lost during an emergency. You’ll also need a way for employees to find out about the status of your business following a crisis, such as where (or how) to report for work and where the crisis command center is located. Options include establishing a toll-free telephone number, setting up an emergency e-mail or text system, or creating a web page for updates. Once you’ve decided how employees should keep in touch, be sure to communicate this often so they’ll know where to turn for information in a crisis.

Provide emergency resources

If employees have nowhere to stay or can’t get to work, you won’t be able to resume business. Decide now what types of transportation and housing services you would offer if needed. Next, establish and maintain a relationship with these service providers so you’ll already be considered a client should you ever need to call on them. After the initial crisis, your place of business may remain inaccessible due to damage or safety regulations. Consider what types of alternative arrangements you might offer to get employees back to work even before your offices are up and running again.

Continue pay and benefits

Determine how you’d continue to provide pay and benefits in an emergency. Direct-deposit and pay cards are both good ways to distribute payroll during a business interruption. If neither is an option or if regular channels for payroll distribution become unavailable, you can use a money wire service. Consider rewarding employees with gift cards to local restaurants or by donating to a charity of their choice. Another element to consider is how long you’d continue paying employees if your organization couldn’t reopen for some time following a crisis. Establish guidelines for the length and amount of pay available in this event, as well as whether this pay would be tied to continued employment once the company was back in business. Don’t forget about the possible effect an emergency could have on benefits and how you administer them. Both mental and physical health will be affected by a crisis, especially if payment is delayed or disrupted. During disasters, many companies choose to cover all services as in-network, waive co-payments and continue disability benefits without physician statements until things return to normal. Make sure to include mental and behavioral health benefits as well as provide counseling services, such as through an employee assistance program, to help employees adjust to the new circumstances. Supporting employees with resources to directly manage stress and anxiety will allow for them to be more productive and engaged with their work.

Be prepared, rest easy

Once you have a solid emergency business plan in place, continually modify, evaluate, and communicate it. The hope is that a catastrophe will never hit where you work. If it does, though, preparation will help ensure you bounce back successfully.