Advice from the experts: Workplace preparedness: Protecting your employees — and your bottom line — during emergencies

Q&A with Bob Boyd, president and CEO of Agility Recovery in Charlotte, N.C.

Disasters are inevitable, but preparedness extends beyond having a plan at home. In this interview, Bob Boyd, president and CEO of Agility Recovery in Charlotte, N.C. —  a company that develops workplace disaster preparedness plans — provides the Get Ready campaign with information to help business owners, managers and employees prepare for emergencies.

Why do businesses need to be ready for disasters?

Having a business continuity plan or a preparedness plan will help protect that organization. If an interruption impacts a business or the community that business operates in, having that plan is going to ensure that the business can bounce back as quickly as possible. It’s going to provide a map, if you will, that’s going to enable the company to overcome any kind of interruption — whether that’s a hurricane or a burst pipe — and take care of your employees, your customers, your vendors. There are some very disturbing realities that face businesses who don’t have a plan and aren’t prepared. The Federal EmergencyManagement Agency, the Red Cross and many other (organizations) say that if a business doesn’t have a plan and suffers an interruption, nearly 70 percent of those businesses won’t survive in two years. We did our own survey (and found that) 65 percent of the businesses don’t have a plan today, so obviously those two realities are coming together to cause a problem for businesses today.

Bob Boyda, Agility RecoveryWhat kinds of businesses need to be ready?

All businesses need to be ready and have a plan, and historically only the largest of large companies had a robust, testable executable preparedness plan in place. I think many small (and) medium-sized businesses felt like it was going to be too expensive or too time-consuming. Many think you need to have some expertise to get prepared, and that’s just not true. There are lots of things business can do to be prepared for those things.

What are the more common disasters affecting businesses in the United States?

Typically, everybody thinks about disaster and disaster recovery (in terms of large regional events such as) hurricanes — we just had Hurricane Irene — or the earthquake that hit the East Coast, or forest fires and those kinds of things. Clearly, when those happen, they impact thousands — millions, in some cases — of employees, residents and businesses. And if you’re in an area that is susceptible to those things, you have to be prepared to deal with them. Most interruptions that businesses experience aren’t due to those large natural events because 70 percent of the interruptions that we help businesses with are due to isolated things (such as) a burst pipe in your office, a piece of technology that fails, a power outage and those kinds of things. Those literally happen everyday across our country and so we really caution businesses that you need to have a plan to deal with those large very visible Weather Channel types of things as well as those everyday things that can occur.

Disasters happen all the time in our changing world. How can businesses be ready for anything that comes their way?

I want to give maybe five quick steps that any business can take. They don’t have to spend any money on these things, but if they do them they’ll find themselves in a better position.
The first thing I would tell businesses to do is that you need to assess your risks. You need to figure out both internal and external risks that your business is susceptible to. What are the things that could happen because of geographically where your business is located. Are you in a hurricane-prone district, a winter weather area or (on) an earthquake fault line? Clearly, if you are you need to take steps to prepare for those things. You also need to look at things that could occur from just where the nature of your business is. Are you in a high-rise tower in a downtown urban setting, or are you the sole tenant of a single-story building? Those things are going to impact how you can recover, from maybe some of the changes you can put in place, maybe some of the plans you operate in. And also look at who your neighbors are. Are they doing anything that could be a threat or a risk? Maybe you’re near a hospital, meaning you’re on a good power grid and your power may come back quickly. So assessing your risks will enable you to figure out what to do to prepare for most and first.

Second, look at your business organization. What are the functions or duties or things that have to get done inside your business, and then try to prioritize those. Which are most critical? What has to come back first and what can come back last? If you do that you’re then going to be able to put together a plan so that you know the most important things (to concentrate on ) to get up and running first, or maybe (postpone, such as accounts payable, because (you’re not) going to pay a lot of the bills because of the disaster.

The next thing we would do is tell you to look at your vendors, suppliers and partners. We’ve seen this time and time again where we’ve had members impacted because there’s an interruption at one of their key vendors and something happens in their supply chain or their partnership levels that has a direct impact on their organization. Ask your key partners what are their plans. Get comfortable with what they’re doing and how they’re going to get back up. If you can’t, maybe look for an alternative provider. Not that you have to shift your buying patterns or who your partners are, but you (need to) know where you would go if Company A failed and couldn’t provide those services for you. So having that established is a really important thing.

The fourth thing I would tell businesses to do is they have to put together a communication plan. They have to have multiple ways they can communicate with their stakeholders and there may be a variety of different tools. Think about things other than using your cell phone to make phone calls, because the cell networks may not be available. Your landline phones may not work. Take advantage of (social media) such as Twitter and Facebook. Have an alert notification system so you can send out text messages and email messages that are outside your network. Know who your local news stations and radio stations are so that you can use them to broadcast if you’re open later or close earlier or what not, and communicate effectively. Most importantly, appoint somebody in your company to be the spokesperson so that everybody in your organization knows who’s going to talk, what they are going to say and how they are going to say it (so that) you don’t have everybody in your organization communicating different stories out to the public.

And the last thing I would tell businesses is to plan for an alternative workplace. Everybody thinks, “Well, I’ve worked here for 20 years and we’re just fine.” But you need to think about where you would go if that building, for whatever reason, wasn’t available. Maybe there’s a flood, or there’s a fire, or they find black mold or the power goes out. Where would you go? And there are lots of options — some of them you don’t have to spend a nickel on. You could have a reciprocal relationship from a friend of yours. You could have a secondary location that you have and you’ve made arrangements to use it. You could plan a telecommuting (arrangement). You could have the ability to access other space — a cold site or a hot site — or mobile office space. But thinking through those things will give you the tools on how to prepare, and any business can do those and none of them cost money.

What are a “cold site” and a “hot site?”

There may be a business out there that would say, ”I need to have instant availability to space.” So a hot site would be…available space on an instantaneous basis. A cold site would be access to space, but maybe not populated with all that technology. So maybe it would take them 12 hours or 24 hours to get the technology and connectivity into those sites.

What emergency supplies should a company keep on hand?

There are two kinds of emergency supply kits that I recommend people have access to. One is a personal kit for your home (and the other) is for your business. The business kit needs to contain…contact lists, your customer lists, important records. Things to think about having access to are your software keys or licenses because you’ll be able to reload those onto new technology and have that system up and running. Copies of things like your insurance policies, a list of your fixed assets and cash is critically important because in many cases if a disaster is a widespread disaster, having credit cards doesn’t do you any good because people can’t take the credit cards, so having some cash on hand is really important. Things that you may have to have in a business (such as) seals, stamps, those kind of things, just those things that you would need to be able to operate in another place you need to have in a kit someplace.

You also need to think through things like first aid kits. If there are people in your office that are on regular medicine you may want to make sure they have access and supplies to medicine and those sorts of things. A lot of businesses are stockpiling things like food and water and those kinds of things, thinking “I need to be able to provide for my employees for that first 72 hours,” and so those are all really good things to have.

What did the 2009 flu outbreak teach business owners and managers about the need to be prepared?

The 2009 swine flu (pandemic) was a mixed blessing in many different cases. On the positive side it was another one of those visible, highly covered stories which really stressed the need for businesses to get a plan. At the time, if you remember, CDC was talking about the potential of 40 (percent) to 50 percent of workforces being unavailable because they may come down with H1N1. And so businesses really needed to think through what would they do if 40 (percent) to 50 percent of the workforce wasn’t there. How were they going to staff and rotate that work and manage and get the functions done. And so it forced us as business owners and operators to think through those plans and develop those policies. If you get sick do I have the right to make you go home? Do I send anybody else home? Are those paid days or unpaid days? Do I make your sick days vacation days? Thinking through those things in kind of the calm, rational light of the day means you’re going to make better decisions. If you do it when you develop the swine flu you’re probably not going to make great decisions, and so that’s part of the planning that’s a really good thing and I think it forced us to take a step. On the negative side we all remember H1N1 didn’t turn out to be as bad as we thought. So I worry about people getting overwhelmed by this information (and thinking) that the next time somebody talks about the flu (it’s not) going to be so bad because the H1N1 wasn’t bad, and then it turns out to be really bad. So we have to be worried about the fatigue effect of some of these large events, but clearly I think it forced us to get prepared and think through some of those policies.

Many companies are small and have fewer than maybe 20 or even 10 employees. Can you just go through some no cost or fairly inexpensive measures that small business owners and managers can take to increase their employee safety?

Create those emergency plans. Create those communication plans. Test those plans. Involve your employees in the test and find out where your plans fail in the assumptions you made that maybe weren’t great assumptions, and improve that process. Just like you do fire drills, test some of these plans. And when you do test those, include your staff in them. Make them be part of it. Try to push this concept of preparedness including your staff. If you do, they’re going to feel engaged in it and you’re going to have a much more successful outcome.

How can employers work with staff to encourage preparedness?

It’s really important to get your staff involved in the development of these plans and the testing of them. Also, employers — and this is something I think is just now really beginning to start — can really push this concept of preparedness down to the family level. As a business owner, I want my employees to have a plan for themselves. I want them to be safe and secure and know what they’re going to do because they’re the biggest asset I have, and so I want them to be able to come back to work. So engaging them and talking about the important stuff and helping them put together those plans and programs, both at the business level and at the family level, will create kind of this community involvement in planning.

What kind of practice drills and exercises should business managers and owners use to prepare employees?

There’s a huge range of exercises that you can conduct, and they can range all the way from a simple table-top exercise where you can bring your business people — your staff — together. (Give them) a hypothetical situation. What’s our plan? How are we going to respond? Walk through that. Take a couple hours, half a day with it. It’ll be fun. There’s no pass or fail if you’re just trying to walk through that process. You can do hardware tests. You can do data recovery tests. You can do connectivity tests. We have businesses that actually operate their entire businesses in our facilities for a week so they can know their plans actually work. There’s nothing like actually doing the work to know that it’s going to work.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m convinced that if we can get all parts of our country — at the community level, the business level, the family level — to think about preparedness planning, in many ways we can make our country immune to the threat of disasters and interruptions. Years ago, smallpox, polio and those kinds of things killed and injured millions of people, and today they don’t exist. We wiped them out, and I think we can do that same thing with interruptions. No business should go under because of interruptions. It’s just too simple to recover from those things, so I think this is the first step in getting people prepared.

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA. Posted Dec. 19, 2011.

Listen to this interview as a podcast.

Workplace preparedness fact sheet
For more tips on workplace preparedness, download the Get Ready’s campaign’s fact sheet in English or Spanish.