Coping with chaos

February 1, 2004
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We read about catastrophes almost every week. Earthquakes, fires, chemical spills, explosions, intentional acts of sabotage, hurricanes, tornadoes, civil disturbances and power outages happen all too frequently.

Emergency events like these can have wide-ranging consequences, potentially affecting not only your employees, but also your suppliers, customers and community.

While communications are essential to any business operation, they are especially important during emergencies. We rely on communication systems to evacuate employees, report emergencies, warn personnel of the danger and coordinate response actions. We also need systems to keep families and off-duty employees informed about what’s happening at the facility, and to stay in contact with customers and suppliers.

The fact that many emergencies can knock out our communication systems complicates matters. The failure of these systems can be a disaster in itself, cutting off vital business activities.

Step-by-step

A step-by-step approach to set up a communication system can keep information flowing to critical areas when an emergency occurs. During emergency planning:

1) List all possible contingencies that could affect your company — from a temporary or short-term disruption to a total communications failure. What types of disasters are most likely to happen in your state and at your facility? What would happen if basic services such as water, gas, electricity or telephones were cut off?

2) Consider the everyday functions performed by your facility and list the communications, both voice and data, used to support them. What would be the impact on business operations if your communication system failed? Could orders be entered and processed? Would the shipping line be affected?

How would a communications shutdown impact your emergency operations? How would you contact response agencies? Off-duty employees? Customers?

3) Determine backup communications that could be used in the event a primary system fails. Options include: messengers, cellular or wireless telephones, portable microwave, two-way radios, point-to-point private lines, satellite, high-frequency radio, and hand signals.

4) Prioritize all facility communications. Once you’ve considered the potential failures that could hinder your business functions, decide which facility communications should be restored first in an emergency and establish procedures for restoring those systems.

Talk to your communications vendors about their emergency response capabilities. They can help you understand their contingency plans and procedures for restoring services in the event of a failure.

5) Have primary and backup communication systems in place at your facility for the following:

  • emergency responders;
  • the incident commander;
  • the emergency operations center;
  • employees;
  • outside response organizations;
  • neighboring businesses;
  • employees’ families;
  • customers; and
  • media.

Keeping communication systems up and running during emergencies is critical. While no company can plan for every possible contingency, taking steps to identify critical functions of communications and provide backup systems can minimize chaos when an emergency occurs.

SIDEBAR: Getting the message home

Communication with employees’ families is one aspect of emergency planning that is often overlooked. If an emergency occurs at your facility, how will you communicate with families of your employees to keep them informed?

Before an emergency — Designate a company spokesperson and an alternate to convey information during an emergency. Train the spokesperson in crisis communication and define their responsibilities. Make sure they understand that families will want information that may be entirely different from what you are providing other groups, such as the media or emergency responders.

It’s important to prepare employees’ families in advance of an emergency by providing them background on your company’s operations and emergency response plans. Let them know how you will keep them informed if an emergency occurs. This can be done in a number of creative ways:

  • Have the information available at a booth at the company picnic.
  • Include the information with paychecks or other benefit information that is sent to employees’ homes.
  • Post the information on employee intranets or on the company Web site for families to access.

Provide a point of contact for families to call in an emergency. Also consider keeping family contact information at a location off-site in case an emergency occurs that prohibits access to the files located at your facility.

During an emergency — During a facility emergency, follow the basic principles of risk communication to keep families informed. Remember that your company will benefit from communicating information about an emergency early in the process.

Provide clear, accurate information about what is happening to address their particular interests. Be honest, frank and open about what is going on. If you do not know an answer, say so and provide the information as soon as possible. Use simple, non-technical language, and keep families informed about emergency response actions that are underway.

Be careful not to minimize or exaggerate the situation. Show compassion and convey your sense of concern for all involved. To keep the trust of employees’ families, do not oversimplify the threat or the time it will take to remedy the situation.

Preparing families prior to an emergency and maintaining open communications during an incident can establish a partnership and trust. When an incident occurs at your facility, they will understand your operations and know what to expect.

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