By Melanie Mesaros
When Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast in late 2012, it took days, even weeks, for some businesses to get back up and running. Francisco Ianni, director of emergency preparedness for the Oregon region of the Red Cross, spent time deployed in New Jersey and hopes Oregon businesses were paying attention.
"We had days to say the storm is coming," Ianni said. "Being on the ground and talking to folks on the ground, Red Cross volunteers could get to affected areas relatively quickly. With an earthquake scenario, you don't know it's going to come. We will not be able to get to the coast if bridges collapse and a tsunami occurs. Those areas will essentially be islands. It's important for businesses to understand and be aware."
Disaster preparedness is something the Red Cross has been talking about for years but getting businesses to think about how an unexpected event might affect them is a new focus. Steven Eberlein, who manages health and safety services for the Red Cross, said businesses need to understand that being prepared starts with employees.
"If the person isn't prepared at home, that's going to create a lag time for when they can return to work," said Eberlein. "Without a staff, a business can't operate, and without operations, there's no cash flow. Any threat to operations is a threat to the business itself."
As Ianni points out, "Emergencies and disasters have an emotional, physical, and psychological toll."
Oregon OSHA Health Enforcement Manager Chris Ottoson said especially during times of distress, companies need to think about protecting their employees.
"This is especially important if your workforce will be called upon to aid in the business' recovery or will play a role in getting the community back online," Ottoson said.
The Red Cross encourages businesses to train employees to have a communication plan that goes beyond the front door of the business.
"What's the number one thing people think about when something happens?" Ianni said. "Talking to their loved ones and letting relatives know they are OK."
Businesses can learn how to specifically address preparedness and the role their employees will play with the five-step Ready Rating program. The program assumes senior leadership is committed to being prepared in the first place.
"It asks businesses a long list of questions to help identify weak points and it's meant to be scalable to any business – large or small," said Eberlein.
Ottoson said companies should view being prepared for an emergency as an extension of their existing safety program.
"If you are safety minded to begin with, consider how you can build on resources and address obstacles that might occur during a disaster," he said. "Keeping your employees safe should be a fundamental part of that response."
According to the Insurance Information Institute, 15 percent to 40 percent of businesses fail following a natural or manmade disaster. Smaller-scale disasters such as power outages or medical emergencies can also have a lasting effect, the Red Cross has found.
"One thing that can affect a small business is losing a key person," said Ianni. "Sudden cardiac arrest, for example, can be enough to threaten the entire business, especially if that person held all the knowledge and made important decisions."
Once a plan is created, Ianni encourages companies to conduct drills and rehearse who will be responsible for the different aspects of the plan.
"You'd be amazed how often this stuff sits on a shelf and is never exercised – often until the real emergency," he said. "An exercise doesn't have to break the bank – review simple communication."
"It's sometimes overwhelming to think about how your business or family would respond to a 9.0 earthquake," said Eberlein. "But if you are ready for the biggest disaster, you'll be ready for a small disaster like a power outage. Even if the earthquake doesn't come in our generation, you've still taken steps to ready your business for the small events that come our way."
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