Fresh Focus: Disaster Plans

April 7, 2007

Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Rita. Hurricane Wilma. Just a few months ago, these storms changed the lives of millions of people. Even if you did not work in areas affected by those storms, perhaps you shipped produce to – or received produce from – firms in the Gulf region. Think you weren’t affected by these natural disasters?

Now, multiply that thought a thousand times and you have some idea about why it is necessary to have a disaster plan ready to go should you face a similar crisis in your hometown.

How can you plan for a crisis or disaster when they usually happen unexpectedly? How easy is it to anticipate something that you haven’t experienced? These are two reasons owners and managers may feel paralyzed when faced with planning for a crisis. It may feel alien to some to even try to imagine what to do or put on paper, so it is easier to put it off for another day.

Emergency Planning

But let’s look at it in a different way, possibly in smaller pieces, so you can get your arms around the possibilities. One of the first things to do is assign this job to one person – it may be you or someone else – and form a small team to support the effort. One leader will make this a more efficient and effective process.

So, what’s the first thing you can do to plan for a crisis? Make a list. A simple list of “what ifs” is a great place to start. Think of Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” No matter how weird it may sound, write down everything that could apply to your business – from environmental disasters such as earthquakes, floods or hurricanes to a product recall. This list should cover anything that could result in an interruption in your regular business cycle.

Do you think that the processors in south Florida planned for multiple hurricanes in 2005? When I talk to some people down there now, they can’t even keep the names of the hurricanes straight or which ones resulted in what phase of damage. I would bet that most companies in south Florida now have a hurricane-disaster plan that includes things such as alternate power sources, product diversion plans and communication lists (for both customers and company personnel) by now.

Business Recovery Plan

Once you have the list of “what ifs,” take a look around to analyze the critical services and functions of your business – the ones that keep the doors open. Some items that come to mind are employees, cash flow, equipment to operate with, telephones and computers and serving clients. These are the critical functions that will be crucial to get up and running as soon as possible after a disaster.

Next, take this new list and categorize the items into three or four major categories that contain everything of similarity, such as “Financial,” “Communications,” “Operations,” and “People.” Now, you can start to see how your plan will look – preferably before a crisis erupts with no warning. You can identify one person to be in charge of each main category and ask the “team” to take some time to research and write a plan for handling their category during a crisis.

The first phase of the plan deals with the emergency disaster. This is a user’s guide for how to preserve an organization during the immediate disaster. In order for a plan to be useful, it must be created before an interruption occurs. The next phase of a plan, “recovery,” is designed to keep the funding coming in, the services going and the clients served to keep the business moving forward after the disaster is over. A final phase of “business continuity” must be planned to come full circle back to the point where the company was performing before the disaster.

Organizational Plan

Several areas that need more in-depth planning include storage of information such as employee, insurance and financial records; computer hardware, software and data; and a building site map and utility specifications. Organize this important data so there are multiple copies, with a set stored in an alternative location in case the main office is destroyed.

An even broader phase of planning includes risk analysis and business impact analysis. These plans are specialized and could prepare your company to avoid crippling financial losses. There are many Web sites that have strong planning tools available to help in all phases of this planning process, but the following are good sites to start with:

•The American Red Cross has good information for businesses at www.redcross.org.

•The Institute for Business and Home Safety provides planning tools on its Web site at www.ibhs.org/business_protection.

•The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a comprehensive list of important Web sites at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/prepared/.

•The federal government has a site for preparedness at www.ready.gov.

Breaking the planning task into small chunks and organizing a team to work on the plan will make this a more comfortable process. The American Red Cross reports that as many as 40 percent of small businesses do not reopen after a disaster such as a flood, tornado or earthquake. Don’t let your business suffer because you didn’t have time to set up a plan.

EGA is a consulting firm specializing in helping the produce industry with third-party food safety audit preparation, fresh-cut product development, market research, marketing strategies and advertising plans. For more information, call (616) 784-2728 or visit www.edithgarrett.com.