Are you Prepared? Emergency Considerations for Small Business Owners

First Responder during a disaster

As a small business owner, it’s important to understand that when disasters strike, lack of preparedness can not only mean a loss of money, productivity and business assets, but it can also mean the difference between life and death. 

An emergency can be defined as any set of unplanned circumstances that puts people, property or the environment at unacceptable risk. When that risk escalates to the point where it can cause significant damage to your company, it can be considered a crisis and is something that all companies should try to minimize in order to maintain business continuity.  To reduce the risk of damage to both people and property, businesses must plan in advance for any emergency that can negatively affect their company.

3 Rs of Emergency Response for your Business: Ready, Respond and Return

One tool that can be helpful to small businesses is to think of the 3 Rs of emergency response, which refer to the phrase “Ready, Respond and Return.” By understanding all aspects of disaster response, companies can prepare for anticipated emergencies, respond in the event of an unplanned incident and then return to normal business operations. There are several ways in which this can be achieved.

READY: Creating an Emergency Response Plan.

Business planning Meeting

The first step in preparing for any emergency is to understand potential risks that may affect your business.  By creating the necessary infrastructure within your company, employees are then capable of responding to any crisis, whether it be an earthquake, flood, hurricane or security risk.  The most important tool for any company is to create an emergency response plan. This document outlines the key people who can make decisions, emergency numbers to call, the response team to provide first aid assistance, and any key items that will be needed to aid in managing the emergency.

Businesses should consider the use of a response team with a clear leader- this person should be called because they are capable of making the decisions that are in the best interests of both persons and property for the company.  Usually, the head of the company acts as the head of this team, but the most vital factor when choosing this individual is to ensure that the person in charge can make important financial and business decisions in an emergency.  The team can also consist of financial, safety and operational members of the company who can provide support and critical knowledge.

The emergency response plan should document these key personnel, their phone numbers and any contact information required should the emergency occur outside of normal business hours.

Listed in the plan should also be emergency contact numbers for response agencies in the area of operation of the business. These numbers can be extracted easily from the plan and posted up for all employees to see in the office.  It is often the case that due to the heightened tensions brought on by the emergency, employees may forget these numbers. It is therefore beneficial to have a readily available list that can easily be viewed by all persons in the office.

All plans should include the steps that should be taken in the event of an emergency.  Some steps are applicable to all situations, for example:

  • Ensuring that insurance is up to date and valid and includes flood and damage insurance
  • Creating a list of key assets for insurance purposes and photograph these assets for documentation purposes
  • Creating a pre-approved list of persons or contracts that you can use in the event of an emergency.  It may be best to have more than one because during an emergency these companies will be inundated with requests for assistance.
  • Carrying out a meeting with employees to remind how to respond during natural disasters
  • Review emergency response plan and remind employees of the key contact personnel, protocol for flooding and ways that they can protect themselves during a storm.

Communications During a Disaster

A key consideration that is often overlooked during emergencies is that normal lines of communication may not operate.  It is often the case that cell phones and internet sites are not operable, landlines and telephone poles are downed or destroyed during hurricanes and earthquakes, and it is impossible to physically reach both employees and businesses during and after a storm.  Companies may want to consider the use of phone trees and if possible emergency radios as a means to communicate with members of the company.

Once key personnel are identified, they should be trained in first aid response and emergency response.  However, all employees should be trained in the company’s emergency response procedures.  First aid training not only teaches employees what to do in case of emergency, but employees often find that being trained lessens the panic that arises in the first moments of an unexpected disaster.

Protecting your Data and Critical Infrastructure

For companies with critical electronic information, it cannot be stressed enough that all data should be backed up to an offsite location so that the continuity of business operations does not solely rest on the accessibility of an office site.  Should a disaster strike, it may not be possible to access offices for days and in some cases may result in the complete destruction of building infrastructure. Should this happen, business operations may be up and running over the course of several days instead of months where physical assets are not a vital part of the company’s day to day operations.

All companies should invest in fire protection for their offices, but most importantly, all employees should be trained on how to use these tools.  Fire extinguisher training should be carried out at least once a year to remind employees on how to use these devices effectively. Buildings should be up to code and where possible automated sprinklers should be installed to minimize fire damage to equipment.  If the business employs chemicals in its daily operations, where possible these should be kept in a fireproof cabinet to minimize the spread and impact of fire.

Emergency Response Planning and Drills

Drills must be conducted regularly with employees so that they know how to respond to various emergency scenarios.  For example, earthquake drills can include protocols on sheltering in place and/or subsequent evacuation from unsafe buildings, while meetings or drills can be held with employees to test their knowledge on communication procedures and the location of emergency response devices in the building.

Specific considerations should be taken for hurricanes such as:

Pre-season preparations:

  • January-April
    • Facility and office checks should be done to determine any infrastructure that may need to be fixed prior to hurricane season, and make suyre these repairs are undertaken
    • Key items to be purchased may include:
      • Bottles of water in enough quantities to for all employees on site (1 gallon per day for 3 days), flashlights, matches, batteries, a transistor radio, toiletries (toilet paper), dry snacks and first aid kits should be kept on site.
      • Heavy plastic sheeting, masking tape, duct tape,  sandbags, emergency generators, storm shutters, plywood, hand tools.
    • Carry out a meeting with employees to remind them about required preparations to undertake both at home and in the office to prepare for hurricane season.

In the event of a storm:

  • Take photographs or video of business establishment inside and out, from all angles for any insurance claims that may be required
  • Determine a safe point at which employees will be sent home, considering that they will need to prepare their own home in anticipation of the storm
  • Remove antennas or loose objects from the roof.
  • Bring in display racks, and other objects usually left outside. Secure all loose objects, such as trash cans, which might cause damage during strong winds.
  • Remove outdoor signs, especially those that swing or are portable.
  • Building exterior glass frontage: clear out that section of the building as much as possible and use shutters or board up to protect the glass. If there are no shutters or boards, strong masking or duct tape may be used — tape in an “X” fashion on the inside of the glass to reduce shattering.
  • Cover merchandise, office machines, specialized equipment, file cabinets, copy machines, computer terminals, etc. with tarps or plastic sheeting and secure with sturdy tape.
  • Turn off the electricity except for refrigeration at the power box

RESPOND: How to ensure Safety during the Crisis.

Storm

The response to an emergency varies depending on the disaster experienced, but the most important factor that should be considered is the notification of employees and external aid agencies during the incident.  Should there be an unexpected disaster, employees should contact both the key personnel on the disaster response chart as well as external agencies.

During emergencies it is often not possible to carry out extensive communications, therefore if employees know who to call in the event of an emergency, the task of communication can be delegated while employees manage the situation at hand.

Following any disaster, all persons should be aware of the dangers of injury or illness and where possible avoid traveling or moving around in disaster-struck areas that can have downed power lines, contaminated waters or potentially spilled chemical and other discharges.

Some other Business Considerations:

  • You should be prepared to go without access to emergency services for at least 72 hours, but depending on the severity of the disaster that timeline could stretch out a couple of weeks.
  • As a business owner, you need to be prepared for the possibility of break-ins and looting during the disaster and during the aftermath of the crisis.
  • Make sure your business has adequate food, water , and emergency supplies on hand in case your employees become trapped inside your building during the disaster.

RETURN: Making sure your business can function in the aftermath of a disaster.

Open Sign

Small business owners should understand that there is a realistic chance that they may be unable to access their worksites or offices after a natural disaster has occurred. Owners are recommended to consider setting up temporary facilities- for example at their residence or in another worksite, hotel or other premises- until they are able to fully return to normal operations. 

Immediately following a disaster, the team designated to manage emergency response of the company should carry out a damage assessment where it is safe to do so.  This is important as companies must avoid putting their employees at risk by allowing them to return to a site that may not be safe. A site assessment is also helpful in documenting potential insurance claims and can be written, voice recorded, photographed or video recorded. This helps both for insurance claims as well as enables companies to understand their future risks should disaster strike again.  This will allow business to be better equipped to weather a storm in the future.

Companies in need of financial assistance may first contact FEMA to apply for immediate financial assistance. Companies may also be able to apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan of up to $2 million if the following criteria are fulfilled:

  • The business is in a declared disaster area
  • The business is one of the following:
    • Small business
    • Small agriculture cooperative
    • Private nonprofit organization
  • The business meets the ‘substantial economic injury’ test of being unable to meet its obligations and ordinary operating expenses

There are also special federal tax provisions to help businesses recover financially from the impact of a disaster, particularly if the federal government declared the location of the business to be in a major disaster area. Employees of an affected company may make use of Disaster unemployment assistance and flood recovery assistance if individuals become unemployed or their line of work interrupted as a result of a major disaster.

Federal Disaster Relief Resources

SBA Disaster Resources
The Small Business Administration can help provide businesses with disaster assistance loans, programs, and resources to help you recover from a disaster.

DisasterAssistance.gov
DisasterAssistance.gov delivers disaster relief information to people and businesses from the U.S. Government before, during and after a disaster. The website has over 70 forms of assistance from 17 federal agencies. You can apply for disaster assistance or check the progress of your applications. To apply for disaster relief assistance, you can also call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

211 / United Way (SBA)
211 is a nationwide service for getting quick, detailed information and referrals to critical health and disaster relief organizations in your area.

Shirts of Liberty
The Ultimate Situational Survival Guide

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