From the February 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

When Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on September 11, the 37 employees at Children's World Learning Center, the Pentagon's day-care facility, knew exactly what to do. They calmly led the kids out of their building, situated near the Pentagon, to a safe location. It turns out that these day-care employees were just following the evacuation drill they practice once a month. Even though confusion was all around them, they remained "pretty calm, as far as what to do," says Shirley Allen, the day-care center's director. "It helped a lot in a real emergency."

As Allen knows, a little planning can save lives. But Gartner Inc. estimates only 25 to 35 percent of small companies have a disaster management plan, compared to 85 percent of large businesses. Even worse, Gartner estimates that two out of five companies that are hit by disaster go out of business within five years. The following tips may save lives, as well as your business.

Get Out!
"No matter how good you are at [your] business, you can't assume you'll deal in the best way with an unusual situation," says Mayer Nudell, an adjunct professor of emergency planning at Webster University's Bolling Air Force Base campus in Washington, DC, and a security and terrorism consultant to businesses and the government. "Think about things ahead of time."

That means developing a plan with multiple evacuation scenarios and running monthly drills. "Confidence is the biggest advantage," Allen says. "If we didn't have the monthly drill, it would have been chaos."

Start by assessing the risks of your workplace, listing the potential disasters that can affect you based on your location and the materials you deal with every day, and have an outsider take a practical look at your plan. Your local fire department or a safety consultant can offer advice.

One important point to ponder is how you'll evacuate the disabled. Include employees in wheelchairs or on crutches, the deaf, the blind, older workers-even pregnant employees-in your plans. A number of disabled employees were trapped in the World Trade Center, and all employers must now face the challenge of creating crisis plans that help disabled employees leave buildings, not just enter them. "Making a plan without [the disabled person's] input could be fatal," says Greg Fehribach, a board member of the Easter Seals Society, which advocates for the disabled, and an Indianapolis attorney who uses a wheelchair himself. Easter Seals is working on a national education initiative for evacuating the disabled and has released guidelines that can be found at www.easter-seals.org.

Have Some Backup
Edward Moran is director of product innovation for the Technology and Communications Group of Deloitte & Touche in New York City. He was standing outside Deloitte's offices at 2 World Financial Center when the second plane hit. Thanks to an evacuation plan that designated alternate escape routes, all but one of his co-workers got out safely. Deloitte's World Trade Center location was destroyed, but the company has been able to switch to alternate offices to keep the company up and running.

Moran, who has created disaster recovery plans, warns that a small company may not be so lucky, especially if all its eggs are in one basket. "You put your company at tremendous risk when you put all your assets in one place," he says. These assets include files, customized computer applications, inventory and your employees. Store backup copies of all documents at least a few blocks away from your building, and consider telecommuting for your employees. Some research predicts an increase in telecommuting following the September 11 attacks, and Moran sees it as a good option. "Maybe you want to give people the ability to work from home to distribute your human capital," Moran says. "Many people don't need to be in a certain place to do what they need to do." You may derive additional benefits: Studies show that telecommuting creates more loyalty in employees who appreciate the flexibility.

Planning Ahead
Here are more tips to help you handle the unexpected:

  • Put it in writing. Add your emergency plan to your employee handbook. The more training and communication you provide, the more it will protect you from potential liability, says Michael Droke, an employment attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Seattle.
  • Create a communication plan. If disaster strikes, can you account for every employee right away? Consider updating your contact list to a password-protected Web site a few times a day, or always carrying an up-to-date list that contains employee phone numbers and e-mail addresses for both work and home as well as pager numbers. Designate an off-site location where everyone will meet and be accounted for.
  • Improve your workplace security. Background checks, escorts, sign-in sheets and security cameras are all good measures. Planning not only makes perfect, but it can also save lives-and your company in the process. Says Nudell, "By thinking about what can go wrong, you sometimes come across ways to maximize how things will go right."
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Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area. Contact her at chris@sitting-duck.com or www.sitting-duck.com.

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