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Emergency planning a business necessity

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    Emergency planning a business necessity
    Not being prepared can have huge impact on the bottom line

    By Tess van Straaten - for Business Edge
    Published: 06/27/2008 - Vol. 8, No. 13

    When I attended my son's kindergarten orientation earlier this month, I was surprised to find a disaster kit - instead of pencils and paper - topping the list of school supplies needed for September.

    "We ask parents to send a care kit at the beginning of the school year so children will have some comforts from home if they need to stay at the school for 72 hours," says ?cole Margaret Jenkins School principal Rob Parker.

    The comfort kits are part of the Victoria school's extensive emergency-preparedness plan, which covers everything from earthquakes to lockdowns. Well-equipped with backup generators, first-aid supplies, large tent shelters, hard helmets and safety goggles, Margaret Jenkins isn't leaving anything to chance.

    "We have a written (emergency response) booklet that's updated every year and six designated co-ordinators in the areas of first aid, triage, shelter, search and rescue, student release to parents, and gas and electricity," Parker explains.

    "It's all very well laid-out and structured and there are forms and documentation that go along with it that teachers are trained in.

    It's also something we practise a lot so we're ready and in the event of an emergency, we know exactly what to do."

    Being prepared for an emergency is increasingly important as wild weather, power failures, computer viruses and aging infrastructure put not just communities - but Canadian businesses - to the test.

    "I think anyone who reads a newspaper or watches TV is increasingly aware that things are happening in the world that can interrupt our daily activities," says Adrian Gordon, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness.

    "When you combine the severe weather we're seeing with an aging infrastructure that's not being replaced or maintained at a necessary pace, the chance of a failure is even greater and that's why organizations need to be prepared."

    Yet, many organizations aren't prepared. A new survey by Office Depot found that 40 per cent of small businesses in the U.S. have no disaster-preparedness plan. Gordon believes the numbers are probably actually higher - and says many medium-sized and larger businesses are also at risk.

    "The majority of small and medium-sized businesses are not prepared," Gordon claims. "And while I would like to say that, in this day and age, most larger organizations are committed to this, it would really depend on the industry."

    Sounding the alarm at the 18th World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto this month, top Canadian and international experts agree that not being prepared can have a huge impact on a business's bottom line.

    "Businesses need to understand that, if they're not prepared, they will loose out competitively," Gordon says.

    "Clients increasingly want to know whether organizations have plans in place to minimize (business disruption) and businesses that don't have plans could find themselves out of business because without a plan, your chance of being resilient to something that interrupts your business is low."

    To help businesses survive emergencies big and small, there's no shortage of products on the market. The latest and greatest innovations showcased at the World Conference on Disaster Management included a full-size truck that converts into a self-contained mobile hospital operating room for communities, and antiviral drug kits for the office.

    "Our goal is to operationalize pandemic preparedness," explains Scott Ashley of Pandemic 101, based in Guelph, Ont. "Keep businesses running; keep people working so everything doesn't have to shut down like during SARS."

    With the economic hit from SARS estimated in the billions of dollars - a report from the TD Bank Financial Group pegged the cost to the economy at $2.1 billion in 2003 - Pandemic 101 is targeting both large and small businesses for its kits, which include training software and business continuity planning in addition to anti-viral drugs.

    "At the end of the day most companies think, 'I don't have time for this, I just want to run my business,' " Ashley says. "But will you still be able to deliver if something goes wrong?" Many companies like Pandemic 101 are now offering online toolkits for organizations to develop and test emergency plans. They're also providing certification for businesses to prove to clients that they're "pandemic-ready."

    "Most people believe a pandemic will have major consequences, but the reality is that it will not be as bad if people are prepared," says Ashley, a former flight paramedic. "If we learned anything from SARS, it's that we need to be prepared."

    Five years after SARS crippled Toronto, Ashley fears the lesson may have been lost on many businesses.

    "The shame of SARS was that when SARS was out there, all these companies had gloves and masks and hand sanitizers at reception desks and as soon as it was over, all the handwash went away," Ashley says.

    "All that notion of proper hygiene and handwashing suddenly vanished and yet a proper handwashing program will reduce employee absenteeism by 10 per cent and that will more than pay for the cost of a program like this."

    Indeed, some of the most inexpensive steps may do the most to safeguard a business.

    "Something as simple as doing a daily backup of your data and making sure it's stored offsite can keep you in business," Gordon advises. "If there's a fire or flood or you're locked out of your building for some reason and suddenly have no access to your data, how are you going to do business?" Maintaining duplicate copies of vital records and keeping an up-to-date contact list of all customers, staff and stakeholders is also crucial.

    "If you don't know how to get a hold of people in an emergency, things start to get very difficult very quickly," cautions Gordon.

    By far the most important thing any organization can do is have an emergency plan - whether your risk is high, low or somewhere in between. To develop a plan, experts advise doing a threat analysis to determine your business's most likely emergency scenarios.

    "Geographically, if you're on the west coast, earthquakes are a bigger issue than in Ontario," explains Gordon. "Maybe flooding is an issue or power failures or summer storms or perhaps you're located near a business that's high risk - these are all things you need to take into consideration."

    Once you've determined the main threats to your business, you can develop a plan to prepare for them - and in some cases, mitigate them. For example, if you're in an old building where the wiring may be suspect, you could replace it to significantly reduce your fire risk.

    It's also important to determine the key functions of your business so that if you are shut down, you know what you can defer and what has to be brought back as soon as possible. A good plan should also spell out who's in charge of what so that in an emergency, everyone knows what to do.

    "Managing a crisis is a very different business than managing an organization on a day-to-day basis," Gordon says. "If you're prepared, it means a whole structure is in place so if a disaster happens, the plan kicks in."

    With hundreds of children and their parents depending on him, principal Parker couldn't agree more.

    "I wouldn't want to imagine what it would be like (without a plan)," he says. "It would just be irresponsible."

    (Tess van Straaten can be reached at