Former FEMA officer weighs in on business continuity after devastating tornadoes
WASHINGTON—The dozens of tornadoes that ripped through the South last week left 340 people dead and hundreds still unaccounted for, according to the latest reports from the Associated Press. As one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the storms have people and businesses scrambling to recover from the incredible devastation. But is it even possible for businesses and employees to prepare for a catastrophe of this scale?
As the former corporate liaison officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration, Barry Scanlon helped organizations prepare for the worst. He developed and implemented "Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities," a $100 million public-private sector initiative. As part of this program, he helped secure more than 5,000 corporations against damage from natural disasters. Now, as the president of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm that he helped found with former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, Scanlon continues to help organizations prepare for emergencies.
“Unless you have a crystal ball, odds are the events you’re going to be impacted by are events that you haven’t even thought of,” he said. Preparing for such catastrophic events requires an all-hazards approach to business continuity. Businesses can prepare themselves for any level of disaster, but to deal with events of this scale requires extensive planning.
Conducting a security review and impact analysis as part of continuity planning is a must, but businesses must also think beyond their own walls. “There are a lot of tentacles that go in and out of an organization and you really need to think about what will cause ripples in the pond and the things that could effect you three or four steps removed,” he said.
An important element is making sure vendors have conducted impact analysis review and have redundancy plans in place to ensure their organization can operate during a crisis. “We’ve had several clients who no longer purchase products or services from vendors who don’t have business continuity plans,” he said.
Also, business continuity planning is not limited to the operations of the business, but must include one of the most valuable assets of any organization: its employees. “During crises people are dealing with their homes and the safety of their families and companies should make sure their people have hurricane shutters on their houses and have taken the steps to make sure their families are prepared,” he said. “From a bottom-line perspective, you want them back at work as soon as possible, and if you don’t help them be prepared, you’re failing your employees and the company at the same time.”
It’s also important to conduct exercises and make sure executive teams and employees alike know what to expect during an emergency. “Setting away a small amount of time to make sure you’re prepared [is critical],” he said. “You’ll be in a much better place if you have thought about and practiced reacting to different scenarios.”
It’s also important for private-sector organizations to reach out and form relationships with the public sector. Scanlon said that businesses need to communicate with public sector leaders, such as the mayor, fire chief and police chief, to ensure those leaders understand the operations and needs of a business.
As thousands of people and businesses continue to recover from the devastation in the South, Scanlon said the truly challenging recovery period is yet to come. “The challenge with any disaster is that there’s a lot of focus for three-, five-, seven days, but after the TV lights go off, those people face a long process of recovery and that’s a big challenge,” he said.