Every effective disaster-recovery program begins with a simple step, explains John Laye, an adjunct instructor at FEMA's Emergency Management Institute and author of Avoiding Disaster: How to Keep Your Business Going When Catastrophe Strikes. "You need to recognize that your employees are your most vital asset," Laye says. "The next step is to prepare employees by saying 'We want to protect your paycheck and our business, and [we] need you to be involved.'"
He urges companies to hold seminars for employees on how to prepare themselves and their families for potential disasters, and to set up emergency response teams of four or five employees--at least one team for every floor of the building the company occupies--trained in CPR, first aid, basic firefighting and evacuation procedures. Much of this information and training is available for free from the American Red Cross and local fire departments, Laye adds.
And while the fire department is training your personnel in CPR, ask them to visit your office and assess potential hazards and evacuation routes. Then invite the police to come by and evaluate your company's physical security. This has two added benefits: If you ever have a real emergency, firefighters and police will be familiar with the layout of your building; they'll also know the team leaders to contact when they need briefing.
Laye recommends running practice drills twice a year--more often if your business has a high turnover rate--to improve your emergency response teams' ability to go it alone if you are caught in a natural disaster. "In an earthquake or tornado, this practice really pays off because the fire department isn't coming," says Laye. "They're going to day-care centers, nursing homes and hospitals, not individual businesses."
Once you've figured out how to keep your people safe, you'll need to make sure your business survives as well. That means implementing a plan that addresses your key business functions, who's responsible for them, and what equipment or services you'll need to keep running.
"Gather your managers in some quiet place and say 'OK, you come to work one morning and, for whatever reason, the building is wrapped in yellow caution tape and you can't get in,'" says Laye. "Ask them 'Who are your key people, and what do they need to keep the business running?'" Laye adds that key employees aren't always the top executives; at insurance companies, for example, some of the most important people work in the mailroom.
The next step? Ask your managers to predict what could go wrong and how the company should respond in each case, says Bruce Blythe, CEO of Crisis Management International in Atlanta and author of Blindsided: A Manager's Guide to Catastrophic Incidents in the Workplace.
"Most crises don't come out of the blue," explains Blythe. "They're predictable. You can sit down and write out 80 percent of the things that are likely to happen based on your business. If you run a retail operation with cash registers, you've got to think about armed robberies. If you're an oil company, you need to worry about spills or helicopters going down. With chemical companies, it's explosions."
After the initial meetings, establish a crisis-management team, selecting members with expertise in all areas of the company. Unlike the emergency response teams, which serve to ensure employee safety, the crisis team deals with the aftermath of the event--how to keep the business going and back to normal as quickly as possible.
Larger organizations should create many recovery teams built around job functions--one for management, another for administration, and so on for each department, says Roger Peters, managing director of consulting firm RSM McGladrey Inc.'s business continuity planning services, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Each team should document the company's operating procedures and every person have a backup trained to take over in case he or she is incapacitated, Peters adds. Coordination across departments is essential and must be in place prior to a disaster to be successful.
"Small businesses typically run lean," says Peters. "There's not a lot of backup or duplication. They need to look at things like cross-training, having their people learn other skills or identify procedures so they can step into someone else's shoes."