“Emergency planning is identifying potential risks and choosing a course of action prior to an event happening.”
The federal government has been involved in emergency planning as far back as the early 1800’s. An Act was passed in 1803 that allowed the federal government to give financial support to a town in New Hampshire completely destroyed by a fire. Since then the role and scope of the government’s involvement in emergency planning have continually been redefined.
Today the federal government has agencies like FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. All states are mandated to have emergency management agencies, and many big cities have their own departments. Chicago, for example, has the Office of Emergency Management and Communication which prepares for all special events in the City from sporting events to music festivals to snow removal.
So, what does this have to do with business?
Well, the concepts of emergency planning have slowly been applied to large businesses, and are even more slowly trickling down to small business. This blog is going to explain what emergency planning is, and why you should do it. It’s also going to give you insight on how to develop your own plan, what should be in it, setting short and long-term goals and why it’s beneficial to form partnerships with other organizations.
What is emergency planning?
First things first, what is emergency planning? Simply put, it is identifying potential risks and choosing a course of action prior to an event happening. This information becomes a formal, but flexible, document to guide your organization through various emergencies.
Modern emergency planning is still relatively new to the federal government, so it makes sense the private-sector is also new to these concepts. That doesn’t make it any less important though. The Small Business Administration estimates that only about 40% of small businesses have any type of formal plan.
Not having a plan in place can be detrimental to a small business. Most small businesses never fully recover from the loss of an emergency if they even reopen at all. However, if you have an emergency plan you can identify what is likely to happen and begin to prepare for it, and potentially eliminate some hazards.
What should be in my plan?
The beauty of developing an emergency plan is there are no set rules, or absolutes for what goes into a plan. That being said, many plans cover similar hazards including fires or severe weather. So, how do you know what you should be planning for?
The easy answer is, “plan for whatever you want to plan for.” But, I’m sure you aren’t reading this for that advice. In all seriousness, what I mean by that is you should plan for whatever you think is likely to happen to you. For example, if you live in Arizona you probably don’t need to worry as much about snowstorms as the people in Minnesota do.
Keep in mind though, your emergency plan should be a guideline of what you are going to do in certain events. It is not meant to be the definitive rule for every situation imaginable. Believe it or not, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a plan for a zombie apocalypse. This seems silly, but their thought was that if they can create a plan for surviving a zombie apocalypse then they can use that same plan during an event like drought or famine etc. (As a note, it started as a joke campaign for them, but has proved to be successful.)
How do I develop my plan?
- The first thing that you should think about is what has happened at your business in the past. Typical incidents would include fires, medical emergencies, severe weather or workplace violence. Some businesses may have more specific past incidents like a chemical spill or vehicle into their building. When you have identified what has happened in the past you need to know how it was handled. What was the outcome? Was it handled the best way we could at the time? What should have been done differently? What have we done to prevent this from happening again?
- Step two is to prioritize your emergencies. Figure out what is most probable to happen, how it will affect you in both the short and long-term, what type of advanced warning will you have and how long will it take to bounce back from it. This step needs to be a little more specific than planning for the zombie apocalypse. This is because a fire is likely to catch you more off guard than a storm that the local weatherman has been predicting for the past week so you’re going to need different triggers for your course of action.
- After identifying what is likely to happen, and then prioritizing these emergencies it is time to play out the scenario. Use this step as a brainstorming session with other key players in your organization. For example, you may want maintenance involved because they know how the fire alarm works, or whoever fills the HR role because they have insight on how to craft an effective policy.
- Assemble a team to work on one scenario at a time. Imagine how the incident is going to start, what is going to happen during the incident, who is responsible for what, what is going to happen over the minutes immediately afterward, the days and months after etc. Pick your best course of action for each scenario and start to flesh it out into an actionable plan.
- At this point, you have a basic emergency plan you can begin to train your staff on. Everyone should know that there is a plan in place and what they are expected to do. If your plan for evacuating the building includes the cashiers to guide the customers to the exit then they need to know that they are supposed to do that, and how it should be done. This is also a great time to see if your plan is feasible. Sometimes what sounds great on paper just doesn’t work in real life, and it is definitely better to find this out before you are faced with an emergency.
Once you have your basic emergency plan you can begin to train your staff on. Everyone should know that there is a plan in place and what they are expected to do.
Setting short and long-term goals.
Sitting down to think about all the bad things that could happen to your business certainly is not a fun thing to do. It almost seems counterintuitive, who wants to focus on all the things that can hurt your business when you are so busy trying to run your business? Not to mention when you start focusing on what you can do to prevent some of these things from happening you’re also going to start thinking about what it is going to cost you to do them.
Maybe you identified some holes in your security policy. What could fix this? Hiring a security guard? Improving your reception area? Upgrading your locks? This is going to be something partly dictated by finances, and where planning for short and long-term goals comes into play.
You may decide that building a new reception area is the answer to your security needs, but there just isn’t the money in the budget for it right now. Does this mean you rethink your plan to work around your financial restrictions? No, not at all. It just means you need to set a reasonable budget and goal date to have the project complete. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything in the meantime either. You should identify what a suitable short-term fix would be that can be implemented right away. Maybe this means you make sure that there is always someone at the front door during business hours, or you purchase a low-cost camera system so that the entrance can be monitored at all times.
Having people in place to help you out in your time of need can relieve some stress when that time comes.
By now you should realize the value of having an emergency plan. You probably also realize the financial impact that an emergency can have on your business. Having people in place to help you out in your time of need can relieve some stress when that time comes.
Think about all the things that you may need after an emergency. A place to work from while your store is being rebuilt, new office equipment or maybe temporary work for your employees. Then think about who can help you get those things. Seek them out, explain what your plan is and what you would like from them in the future.
If you can’t access your office because there was a fire in the building, but you have a friend in the next building over that has some extra space in their office you can try to work out a short-term agreement with them. When this agreement is made prior to any type of emergency both parties have an opportunity to agree on terms that are mutually beneficial, and it can provide a streamlined transition.
You can also apply for a line of credit with your bank so that you have liquid cash to purchase new computers and office equipment if they are destroyed. This way you don’t have to wait for the insurance check to clear which also means you’re out of business longer than necessary. The business loan process is stressful enough, do you want to go through that when you are trying to figure out if and when you’re even going to get back to work?
Now you know a little bit about how emergency planning came to be, and why it is such a useful tool in the business world. At first, look creating a plan can appear overwhelming, but taking a methodical and reasonable approach makes planning an easier task to accomplish. It can also prevent some bad things from happening, and get you back on your feet quicker for the things you can’t prevent.
The steps that I laid out, identify past incidents, prioritize, role play your scenarios, train and evaluate are meant to be a basic guide to get your plan started. Even so, emergency planning can quickly become overwhelming, frustrating and confusing. I want you to reach out to me with any questions or concerns you have so that you can have an actionable plan that fits your specific needs.