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Disaster plans are only the starting point

Recent tragic events have shown us how quickly disasters can develop. Joe Underwood, a principal at risk and insurance advisory firm Albert Risk Management Consultants, discusses the importance of preparing for the unthinkable.

 This article originally appeared in Business Insurance magazine on May 9, 2013.

Tragic events of late remind us that we need to take the time to improve our preparedness for disasters. Anticipation of a disaster is only half the battle. While the goal is to envision every disaster scenario, this is an impossibility. We must review our plans and make adjustments when better knowledge and strategies become available.And we must also realize that written plans are merely a starting point for preparedness.

Following are some issues to take into consideration:

Stale plans

A common problem is that companies write disaster plans and do not revisit them. Even the best plans become stale over time. Contacts become out of date. People do not understand their roles, or worse, those with assigned duties are no longer with the company. It is a good idea to have employees who are assigned duties annually sign a statement that they understand and are willing to perform those duties.

Limited training

The biggest problem, however, is that organizations only consider specific disaster scenarios and focus their preparedness on documentation alone. Problems arise when things deviate from the script.

Preparedness requires flexibility and adaptability. The importance of training cannot be overemphasized. To foster preparedness, organizations must perform simulation exercises. These exercises train managers to deal with the unexpected. They help identify gaps and evaluate plan completeness. Team building is also critical. Working together as a team develops the skills and abilities of many people, any of whom could be called upon to act during an emergency event.

Simulation and training must involve representatives at all levels of the organization. If the exercises are to be taken seriously, executive personnel must show their support and frontline individuals must be encouraged to speak up, if they see potential flaws in the plan. Similarly, it is important to follow simulation activities with review and discussion to encourage the sharing of ideas.

Coordination with first responders

Regardless of the training received by your staff, there is no comparison to the training that first responders have received. The first priority in any emergency is notifying emergency personnel and following their instructions. Yet, the needs of these first responders should be considered. As an example, it is wise to supply local fire departments with building blueprints. Advance knowledge of the facility can save time and save lives in situations ranging from fires to active shooters.


Dealing with the disabled is often an overlooked aspect of evacuation. Appropriate equipment and a plan of action must be in place to help those with mobility or sensory impairments. This aspect must be reviewed annually to ensure that all locations, employees and potential visitors are covered.


The next critical component that is all too often challenged is communication during the crisis event. A truly chaotic emergency is dramatic and unforeseen. Information is shifting moment by moment. The consequences of action or inaction are not easily understood. Organizations must establish in advance who is calling the shots under what scenarios. It might not be the people in charge during normal situations.

This also underscores the importance of reliable communication systems. In nearly every major catastrophe, landline phones are down and cell phone networks become overloaded because they were not designed for the heavy influx of calls that result from tragedies.

Alternate means of communication such as satellite phones, direct nonpublic telephone networks and/or radio communications must be in place. In the event of a widespread disaster, the return on these investments can be tremendous.

Another aspect is external communications. Depending on the nature of the disaster event, the media and others may be hungry for information. Who is going to talk to them, and what are the messages to be conveyed? Who is the backup person? What training do those people have? The communications landscape has been changed by social media. How will those platforms be used?

Invalid assumptions

Another common problem with disasters is that companies mistakenly think their employees will be available to deal with the organization's needs prior to and following a catastrophe event. In widespread natural catastrophe situations, employees often are dealing with personal crises. They may not place priority on sandbagging your facility versus boarding up their own homes. For this reason, it is wise to line up contractors and/or bring in employees from other nearby regions if possible.

Following disasters, companies are often challenged to restore operations because they cannot secure the needed supplies. Supply contracts for fuel, equipment and building materials can be beneficial. While these arrangements may fall through, the organization is likely to be in better shape than if it had made no arrangements.

Organizations with nearby locations may also be able to supply the affected location. It is for this reason that large chain stores are often able to get up and running faster than others. For those organizations without this business dynamic, it may be possible to establish reciprocal mutual-aid arrangements with similar businesses. Understandings should be formally documented through contracts.

Learning from past mistakes

Many organizations have suffered through some form of disaster. But following the event, they just want life to get back to normal. It is important to take the time to examine what went right and what went wrong from multiple perspectives.

There are three major components in disaster management. First, protect people by contacting emergency authorities, evacuating the area, warning neighbors. Second, protect property by guarding the site, organizing salvage operations. Third, protect reputation by communicating with stakeholders, maintaining control of external messaging. Each aspect should be retrospectively examined and the plan improved upon in order to be better prepared for future disasters.

This is one way in which insurance companies can help. Insurers have seen an abundance of successes and failures in disaster situations. Property and workers compensation insurers can offer valuable insight in the planning and training stages. Crisis management expertise is often available through umbrella and environmental liability insurance policies. Look into these resources, if you have them available.