Why Disaster Preparedness Matters
There’s an old saying often credited to Benjamin Franklin:
“By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.”
When talking about disasters and their potential effects on your business, this sentiment absolutely applies. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report of disaster activity over a 60-year period found that within each decade, one in three counties across the U.S. went through a severe disaster while one in ten experienced what BLS referred to as a “super-severe disaster.”
Whether it’s a storm, flood, hurricane, or various other types of unfortunate events, disasters have the potential to happen anywhere. This can have reverberating impacts on businesses of any size. Failing to prepare for disasters common to your area has the potential to be devastating to not just your mission, but also your bottom line.
Luckily, there are resources available to aid you in your disaster planning journey.
Every September, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency observes National Preparedness Month. Despite it being an annual event, disaster preparedness really should be a 24/7365 undertaking for any business.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the best practices and resources shared by FEMA for National Preparedness Month, how they apply to businesses of all sizes, and how you and your organization can use these principles to inform your approach to disaster planning.
What is National Disaster Preparedness Month?
FEMA is the government body that coordinates disaster response from the federal level. They’re tasked with collaborating with state and local governments as well as private sector representatives to distribute aid and help allocate resources.
Each September, FEMA promotes an initiative known as National Preparedness Month. Throughout the month, they share tools and guidance on family and community disaster planning. While the main audience for the campaign are families and communities, the majority of the best practices and resources shared can also assist businesses in their disaster planning.
While FEMA observes the event every September, but preparedness is a yearlong pursuit. This year in particular, with the nation responding to the COVID-19 pandemic during hurricane season, preparedness is more important than ever.
The 2020 National Preparedness Month theme is simple: “Disasters don’t wait. Make your plan today.” From a business standpoint, that means taking action right away to put an emergency response plan in place you can implement when catastrophe strikes.
The major themes of National Preparedness Month
FEMA has identified four major weekly themes for the month of September, each one highlighting a different component of disaster preparedness:
Week one: Make a plan
What is your organization’s disaster response plan? Do you have a well-defined chain of command in place in case one of your team members is either incapacitated or without power? Who does what? What’s the timeline for your response?
Keep in mind that disaster response plans are needed even if your business is 100% virtual. You still need a plan in place to ensure continuity of operations when your company is impacted by a disaster. If you have an office, storefront, or other physical presence for your business, a disaster response plan is even more crucial. This plan should include information on how and where your employees can evacuate and/or shelter in place.
You’ll want your plan to account for multiple hazards. You may need to build sub-plans within it to account for different types of disasters. For instance, a cyberattack and a hurricane require very different response activities, even if some overlap.
Your disaster response plan should be developed with your company’s employees in mind. You’ll also want to vet it with company leadership. This is how you achieve buy-in at all levels of the organization. When everyone throughout your organization buys in, they’re more likely to follow the plan and execute it effectively during times of crisis.
Week two: Build a kit
Having an emergency response kit is critical for businesses with a physical presence. If your team is remote, you’ll still want to encourage them to build emergency response kits in their own homes in case a disaster strikes their area. Ready.gov has more guidance on what specific disaster supplies you’ll want to include in your kit.
A word of caution: don’t wait for a disaster to strike to start building your kit. Be proactive and put it together during a steady state (or if you haven’t done it by the time you get warning of an impending disaster, put it together as soon as possible after you receive word). You may find yourself battling other emergency shoppers for much-needed supplies. Better to build your kit ahead of time.
Week three: Prepare for disasters
This theme relates to understanding the types of disasters common to your area and other information that will help you limit their impact such as insurance coverage. You’ll also want to look at how to strengthen the buildings you work in – whether that’s an office, store, or even prompting your employees to examine their own homes’ internal structure if they work remotely.
Week four: Teach youth about preparedness
This item may not seem to apply to a business per se, but preparing at home is just as important as preparing your company or workplace. Encourage your team members to talk about emergency preparedness with their families. Ultimately, this will help keep your employees and their families safer. Along with being the right thing to do, it also helps ensure your workforce remains in a position to do their jobs safely and securely.
Broaden your definition of what constitutes a disaster
The word “disaster” may immediately bring to mind images of storms and sandbags. While events such as hurricanes, winter weather, or flooding all certainly qualify, there are other kinds of disasters to consider as well.
Man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks or active shooter incidents can have just as much (if not more) damage to your business or the city where your business is located. Consider these events when establishing a disaster response plan. Unlike some naturally occurring events like winter storms or hurricanes that come with a little warning, these can occur within minutes or seconds. They require quick reactions. But the more proactive you are in planning for these contingencies before they happen, the more effective your response will be when they do occur.
Also, while it has a different nature than other disasters, cybersecurity threats and attacks can also be debilitating to your business. These require a different kind of preparedness. You’ll want to coach your entire organization on proper cyber hygiene. This means knowing not to click on phishing links embedded in emails and regularly updating your antivirus software to maintain proper levels of cybersecurity.
So how do you define cyber preparedness? It means having an educated staff who understands the basic elements of identifying potential threats. You don’t have to be an IT expert to spot a suspicious-looking email. One of the reasons cyber attacks can be so effective is that many use social engineering to convince the recipient to perform the desired action. Malicious actors know how to persuade you to click the wrong link to expose your system’s vulnerabilities.
That’s why everyone within your business should receive the training necessary to identify these threats. Cybersecurity isn’t just your IT staff’s responsibility, it’s the responsibility of every single person within your company. A cyber attack may not have the physical power of a hurricane. But it can lead to data breaches that do untold damage to your organization. It can also erode consumer trust and potentially lead to costly fines, penalties, or legal fees.
Broadening your perspective on what constitutes a disaster, and factoring this into your planning, can help you increase your organization’s overall resilience. It helps keep you flexible in the types of disasters you can respond to. You may have to think outside the box in terms of what you’d normally associate with an emergency, but doing so just puts you in a stronger stance to respond from.
Prepare according to your area
When assembling your disaster response plan, the most important thing to remember is to make it location-specific. It should be fairly obvious that a California-based business would focus more on responding to earthquakes than a snowstorm. Likewise, an organization based in Florida would want to lean heavily on hurricane-centric response planning. That means targeting online resources that focus on the disasters most relevant to you and your business.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t adopt an “all-hazards approach” when outlining your plan. Disasters can be unpredictable, particularly when they’re man-made or cyber-related. You should have a plan you can apply to any type of incident. But within your larger plan, you’ll also want to have customized sections based on the disasters most likely to affect you.
Resources and tools you can use
Ready.gov is a FEMA-hosted site with a ton of great resources on disaster planning, preparedness, and response. FEMA also established Ready Business, a preparedness site geared specifically toward helping businesses increase their disaster resilience. It includes tool kits for dealing with different kinds of disasters as well as social media response.
Along with the great resources available via Ready.gov, the federal government also offers multiple other online touchpoints where businesses can receive information on how to plan ahead for and respond to multiple kinds of disasters:
FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center
The FEMA National Business Emergency Operations Center (NBEOC) serves as a virtual information-sharing portal during disasters. They set up a virtual dashboard that helps coordinate disaster response by sharing state and local information. This information can include weather reports, road/port closures, supply chain disruptions, emergency declarations, and more.
Depending on the response level of a particular disaster, they often host daily conference calls with regional experts to provide updates on impacts to critical infrastructure within the affected area. Any multi-state private sector organization can receive access to this dashboard by reaching out to FEMA to request access.
U.S. Small Business Administration Emergency Preparedness
For small businesses, SBA has a collection of free resources that can assist you in building your emergency plan. It includes safety tips, checklists, and information on SBA’s Disaster Assistance program. There’s also information on handling specific types of disasters.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Emergency Preparedness and Response
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an emergency preparedness and response page that includes data and preparedness information that assists from a public health perspective. With the ongoing COVID-19 response, it’s vital to keep CDC guidance on your business’s radar to stay informed about all potential health threats and impacts.
U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT)
The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team prepares frequent reports on emerging cyber threats and malicious actors worldwide. They also provide updates on network and software patching updates to help keep your systems and machines as cyber-healthy as possible.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Active Shooter Booklet
While it seems impossible to prepare for a situation as unpredictable as an active shooter, there are measures you can take before one happens to mitigate it. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has compiled an Active Shooter Booklet that provides information on how to respond to an active shooter in a public or professional setting. It provides a typical active shooter profile as well as best practices for dealing with one.
The key to improving disaster preparedness as a business
Keeping your business prepared for a disaster comes down to two words: be proactive. Think of your company’s disaster planning as a living thing. It requires attention and care all year round. Review your plan at least quarterly, with more reviews scheduled depending on your potential exposure to disaster. Get feedback from your company leadership, employees, and key stakeholders so that your plan reflects reality.
Remember that with a little forethought, you can bolster your business against the threats of a disaster. National Preparedness Month may come in September, but you’ve got 12 months of the year to develop, examine, and improve your disaster preparedness posture. If you haven’t considered it yet, start now. If you have, there’s always room to grow.