Archive for Emergency Response

Are We Prepared for the Next Disaster?

I found and listened to this NPR radio story titled, “Is the U.S. Prepared for the Next Disaster?”.  Even though this interview was conducted a year ago, I think the message is still valid and important.

I think the interviewee, Craig Fugate, does a good job in identifying a problem with past disasters being a failure to engage the proper level of support through a formal request for assistance.  Although Mr. Fugate doesn’t use this term, I like to label these the “triggers to engage”.  One of the biggest problems with the response to Hurricane Katrina was that Federal authorities assumed the trigger to engage was a call from the local authorities, whereas the local authorities thought the trigger to engage was the event itself.  While Federal agencies were waiting to be asked for help, local agencies were sitting and waiting for the help to arrive.  Meanwhile, crucial time was slipping by and the losses and damages were escalating.

I was glad to learn that FEMA now self-engages not only when an incident occurs but also when the threat of incident rises.

I think this is an important lesson to learn and address in our own plans.  I think it is important to identify and practice those “triggers” for engaging certain components in our Emergency Response, Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Programs.  What are the “triggers” for: putting vendors on alert; communicating with employees; mobilizing resources; alerting customers and other stakeholders; declaring a disaster; etc.?

Also, Mr. Fugate notes that having a single entity in charge introduces a single-point-of-failure in the response process.  Whereas, I understand his point, I also think it is important to mention that when you have lots of links in your communication and control “chain” you have lots of opportunity for the chain to break.  If the mayor engages the governor who engages the president – well, there are lots of mis-engagements that can occur.  And, if one link in the chain breaks, all the links that follow are missed.

I agree with Mr. Fugate that we are better prepared today than what we were in the past, but saying you are in better shape today than you were when you were grossly out of shape, does not mean you are in good shape.  Unfortunately, I also believe that the further removed you are from the last significant event, the more likely you are to get back out of shape.  We are never more prepared to respond to a disaster than we are immediately after a disaster occurs.  Lessons learned are fresh in the mind, implementation guidelines and procedures are reviewed, refreshed and rehearsed.  But, as time goes by, we start to, once again get complacent and once again start to slip back into our bad habits.  And, as soon as we start to believe we are in good shape, I start to get more worried.

In conclusion, I think this is a terrific interview with important messages that are worth listening to again.  I encourage you to think about and rehearse the “triggers” in your program and to identify potential weak links in your communications and engagement chains.  And, never allow yourself to believe we are prepared for the next disaster … continue to work on improving your level of preparedness.  After all … how do you think people would have responded to the question, “Is the U.S. Prepared for the Next Disaster?” on September 10, 2001?

The Denny Wilford Foundation Presentation

On January 10, 2012, we posted a blog titled, “A Worthy Cause”, which introduced you, our readers, to the Denny Wilford Foundation.  The Denny Wilford foundation was established to help continue the Rotary Club’s mission of eradicating the world of polio.  Denny and his group have been focused on assisting communities in Ethiopia deal with a still prevalent polio crisis.

In that blog, we asked for donations on behalf of the Business Continuity and Emergency Management Planning community, at large, to contribute to this cause.  We also posted the blog in several Linked-In special interest groups for business continuity planners.

Today, May 8, 2012, at the Gig Harbor Midday Rotary Club luncheon, Joe Flach, CEO of Safe Harbor Consulting was able to present to Denny, on behalf of all Business Continuity and Emergency Management professionals who graciously contributed to this cause, a check for $500.00.

Denny was very thankful for the contribution and was proud to announce that this check just about helped him reach his total funding goal for the water aerobics therapy facility his foundation is building in Addis Ababa, Ehtiopia.

If you did not have a chance to contribute during this drive, but still wish to make a donation to the Denny Wilford Foundation, please do so through this link.

I knew I could count on my fellow professionals to help out on this worthy cause.  Thank you for your thoughtful contributions.

Nuclear Power Plant Emergency Information – An Example of Good Plans

We are currently assisting a company in preparing for certain risks that could impact its employees and/or their ability to work from certain strategic geographic locations.  One of their facilities lies in the Phoenix, AZ area.  Their facility lies within the 50 mile “ingestion pathway” of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station.  Although their facility is outside the 10 mile “plume exposure pathway”, which could be evacuated during a “General Emergency”, some of their employees may live within 10 miles and, they are aware, that panic and confusion could result in many more employees not being available to work during a significant Palo Verde emergency.

This webpage from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (US NRC) provides a good explanation of the two pathway zones and nuclear power plant emergency classifications.

During the course of our engagement we reached out to the Arizona Division of Emergency Management for a copy of the information packets they send to residents within 10 miles of Palo Verde.  Each year, the ADEM, sends out Palo Verde emergency information in the form of a new calendar with instructions and information for residents to follow in the case of emergency.

Without getting into the discussion of “real” risks versus “perceived risks”, I applaud ADEM for compiling this information and making it available to the public.  I think the calendar is well done and is a good example of keeping the plan short, concise and useable at time of need.  Putting the information in a calendar format with appealing and creative content, helps increase the probability that the calendar is actually posted in an accessible and remembered location.

I have not looked at the information provided for residents of other nuclear power stations in the United States, but am sure that the respected offices of emergency management do an equally impressive job at educating the public of the dangers and plans in place to respond to an emergency.

If you are an emergency planning professional, or, if you happen to live near a nuclear power plant (either in the plume exposure or ingestion pathways), I encourage you to take a look at the information provided through the links in this blog.  I think business continuity planners could benefit from trying to keep their plans simple and creative as shown in the calendar example.

Thanks goes out to the folks at the Arizona Division of Emergency Management who so willingly worked with us on behalf of our client.  Their responsiveness in providing us the information through links and in hard copy is much appreciated.

Time Inc. Special’s, “Disasters That Shook The World”

While traveling this week, I picked up a magazine/book published by Time Inc. Specials titled, “Disasters That Shook The World”.  This is a very simple and interesting read.  It is a quick synopsis of a number of disasters with no great detail, but some very interesting insight into these events.  The articles focus on the human element and what was learned about our responses to these events and what could have been done to mitigate the impacts of, and in some cases prevent, these disasters from occurring.

Many of the case studies included in the book were very familiar to me, such as:

  • The Sinking of the Titanic
  • The Hindenburg Disaster
  • The Great Chicago Fire
  • The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster
  • The Exon Valdez Incident

This book also included relatively recent case studies, such as:

  • The Costa Concordia Accident
  • The Miracle on the Hudson
  • The Tsunami in Japan
  • The Oil Spill in the Gulf
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • The Nevada Air Show Crash

And, this book included case studies of lesser known and forgotten events that should be remembered for the lessons learned and changes they influenced.  These included:

  • The Triangle Sweatshop Fire in NYC
  • Munitions Ship Explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire and Stampede in Boston
  • Circus Fire in Hartford, Connecticut

And a few more.

Even with those that I was familiar with, the articles included shared something that I was not aware of.  Anyway, I just found the read to be fascinating and great airplane fodder, although the chapter about “Disasters in the Air” I was very careful not to leave those pages exposed to my fellow travelers.

If you happen to come across this magazine at the Newsstands, I recommend you pick it up.  It will only take you a short time to read it and you might find it interesting and, perhaps, even learn a thing or two.

The Evacuation Process

I review many Emergency Response Plans that include evacuation congregation points for employees to gather and be accounted for.  I know that this is a common practice that has been around for many years and incorporated in many, many programs … I am just not sure if this really works, or even if it is a good idea.

First of all, most congregation points are designated near the evacuated building and are department specific based on the location of the department within the building.  For example, if the Accounting department is located in the southeast corner of the building, the congregation point for the Accounting personnel is in the southeast corner of the parking lot.  This solution assumes that all employees are at their desks when the alarms sound – not a likely occurrence.  You do not want Accounting personnel, who might have been in a meeting in the northwest wing of the building walking around the parameter of the building trying to get to their designated congregation point.  The last thing the first responders want is to have people walking around the building trying to get to their gathering spots.  People should exit the building out of the closest and safest egress point and continue to walk away from the building until they are in a safe zone.  You can be accounted for later – most immediately, get to safety.

Furthermore, if it were a real situation, in the chaos, confusion and stress of the situation, the employee is not likely to remember or care where the congregation point for their department is.  Add in an inclement weather component to the event … and, well, I think you see where I am headed.

I have even seen this strategy documented in city locations for companies that have offices in high rise buildings with many other occupants.  The congregation points are often too close to the building the plan is written for and are not coordinated with the other tenants of the building.  The chaos, confusion and intermingling of people from a multitude of companies, not to mention other members of the public stopping to watch the situation, will prove this strategy to be impractical, at best.

Working with a number of companies that have experienced large scale evacuation situations, including those I worked with after the tragic events of 9/11, I am seeing more and more programs that include a “reconnect process” to account for their employees.  The premise of the reconnect process is to tell employees, at time of an evacuation, to follow the instructions of the floor wardens and responding authorities, get to a place where you feel safe and secured and then call into a central number – on a phone system supported in another region – and account for yourself.

This will not necessarily be a quick and timely accounting of your employees, but an accurate head count at time of event is virtually impossible to achieve.  Besides, first responders are looking for orders of magnitude, not exact counts.  First responders’ immediate job is search and rescue – any information helping them identify where to first focus their efforts will be valuable, or any information detailing an approximate number of people that could still be in the building.  An exact accounting of who got out will not be available and trying to achieve this through congregation points that may be in the way of the first responders, compromised by the footprint of the disaster, or “contaminated” by other people, is not, in my opinion, a viable solution.

These types of practices look good on paper and can often be made to appear feasible and practical during controlled drills and practices, but, and I think history will support me on this, are not always the best, or even achievable, solutions at time of a significant event.

Think about how your organization might implement a reconnect process to help account for your employees.  After the tragic events of 9/11, many employees, having finally reached their homes, waited for days before someone from their company finally found them.  If they had been taught and instructed to account for themselves, this process may have been accomplished quicker.

Also, think about using a “virtual meeting place” for management teams to gather as we suggested in this other blog article.

I hope you never have to try your evacuation process and procedures for real, but if you do, you want to ensure you have implemented the safest and most practical plans you can.

Virtual Emergency Meeting Locations

I have been working with a few companies lately in reviewing their business continuity plans and strategies for individual business units.  Many of these plans include listing an off-site meeting location or department command center for managers to gather following a building evacuation and prior to opening an alternate site facility.  In many cases, this location is the head manager’s home or a local coffee shop or other public gathering place.

Whereas, I like the concept of gathering the managers for information sharing and decision making purposes, I like even more the use of a “virtual meeting place” through the use of conference, bridge calls.

I have been recommending that these individual departments utilize their existing conference bridge capabilities to initially get the decision makers together to assess the impacts on their employees and discuss their options for responding to and recovering from the incident.  Furthermore, I have suggested that, when a situation occurs where they are alerted of an incident preventing access to the primary facility, they establish a default meeting time via the conference bridge.  For example, the department plan could be, “Once alerted of a situation in one of our facilities housing department personnel or business functions, until such time as you are contacted otherwise, call into the bridge conference number every hour on the hour.”  I think this is a good default plan should other communication techniques or alerts not be viable at the time.  You call into the conference bridge on the top of every hour and see who else may be on the call and do the best you can to manage the situation.  Once other arrangements or schedules are made for this particular event, then you adjust from there.

This suggested strategy has been well received from all the management teams I have talked to and most of them have implemented this strategy in their plans.

Just thought I would share some free advice here in my blog.  If you like the suggestion and are thinking about using it or you have a better idea, I welcome you to share your comments.  Thanks.

Preparing for the London Olympics

I am assisting a client in developing contingency plans for their London offices in preparation for the upcoming 2012 Olympics.  We are researching possible risks, threats and disruptions based on past Olympics and past London-area events.  And, believe me, there is plenty of material there to raise a concern.

In this process we have developed two paths of recommendations: Precautionary Strategies and At-the-Ready Contingencies.

Precautionary Strategies are actions we recommend be taken to lessen the possible impacts of disruptions that are likely to occur.  These actions require no triggers to enact; we recommend following this course of action simply as a matter of business during the Olympics.

Precautionary Strategies include:

  • Scheduling work-from-home times where the capability already exists and the disruption to work flow negligible.
  • Rerouting business processes to non-London offices where this can be easily accomplished and does not stress the remote offices work flow.
  • Utilizing facilities outside of the Olympic parameters where possible.  This may include working out of their business continuity work sites if this can be managed at little expense.

Precautionary Strategies will be temporary, low cost, easy to implement and low disruption activities that can remove some of the stress that the Olympic events may cause.

At-the-Ready-Contingencies are more of your typical business continuity solutions that will be engaged only if threats and disruptions occur.  These actions will include identified triggers that must be monitored and tracked throughout the Olympics.  Most of these strategies, hopefully, are already in place as part of their existing Business Continuity Program.

The London Olympics will certainly disrupt the commuting processes to London area businesses and introduces a threat of civil disorder, terrorist activity, and security breaches.  London area companies should be well aware of the Olympic footprint and understand the traffic flows that may interfere with their employee’s commutes.  And, these interruptions and threats will exist for pre-Olympic activities as well as for the Paralympics that follow.

Where possible, we believe London area businesses should evaluate the possibility of minimizing their London-based business activities during this event to lessen the possible impacts to their firms.  Wherever you can take precautionary steps at low expense, it might be advisable to do so.  And, of course, you should brush the dust off your Business Continuity Plans and ensure that your recovery strategies are still viable given the risks this event incurs.  For example – if your alternate site locations are also within the Olympic footprint, you may need to establish a temporary other location during this event.

Certainly, there will be plenty of security provided and lots of precautions and contingencies put in place by the local and national authorities.  Be sure you are aware of these plans and make sure that your plans will work within the parameters provided.

We hope for a smooth and exciting Olympics in 2012 – let’s just hope all of the excitement is on the athletic fields and within the competitive framework of the games.

Seattle Area Snow and Ice Storms

All of last year, we in the Seattle and Puget Sound area, sat comfortably by watching the rest of the United States, and rest of the world, suffer through one weather and geological disaster after another.  Well, 2012 is letting us know early that we will not have that same luxury this year.

So far, I am one of the lucky ones who still has power in my office and home as the number of outages keeps increasing from falling tree branches and power lines.  As I sit here typing, however, the lights are flickering and the trees outside my window are looking ominous.

Yesterday, this area was hit with one of the worst snowfalls in recent history and today that snow is being covered with a coating of ice and freezing rain adding to the already serious travel conditions.  The Sea-Tac airport has been closed all morning and, like I said above, power outages are steadily increasing.

Tomorrow, no doubt, as the temperatures continue to rise, will bring floods warnings to the area.

Weather emergencies seem to have their way of eventually getting to all regions of the world.  I doubt there are too many locations where you are safe from all tricks that Mother Nature has up her sleeve.  Undoubtedly, your time will come when you need to respond to or wait out a weather related event.

Last year, that was true for almost all areas of the United States except the West Coast and Pacific Northwest.  It’s only January 19 and the Pacific Northwest is already experiencing its first significant weather emergency in 2012.  I am sure we will be reading stories of business challenges and losses following this event in the coming days.  Airlines and airport services are already taking a huge hit over these past two days, not to mention those individuals relying on these services to get to their job locations.

Are you and your company prepared for what might be in store in 2012 for your part of the world?  I am sure, time will tell – we just don’t know when or what will measure that.

Removing the Fluff from the Stuff

I understand and appreciate the need to document your Business Continuity, mission, objectives, process, justification and analytical results.  I think all of this information is valuable in advancing and promoting your programs; educating management and participants on your program; and, providing a foundation for internal and external audits.  And, I think it is important to mandate that certain, key players in your program read and understand all of this information.

But …  Oh, come on, you knew there was a “but” coming.  But, I don’t think that stuff belongs in the same document that includes your “at-time-of-interruption” action plans.

Too often, I see organizations create one tomb of everything Business Continuity and call that their Business Continuity Plan.  In my opinion, you should have the book that explains everything business continuity related and then a stand-alone “Action Plan” that is you instruction manual of what to do when the lights go out.  In fact, you should probably create a whole bunch of “Action Plan”s – one for each unique function in your continuity, recovery and emergency response program.

I think reading and understanding “the book” prior to an emergency is important and should be mandated.  However, much of the stuff in “the book” just gets in the way at time of event.

“The book” should: set the premise for your program; identify objectives, assumptions and givens; explain, holistically how teams work together; provide background on how and why strategies and solutions were selected; explain the entire planning and implementation process – all stuff that is important to know, prior to an interruption, but just becomes a burden to flip through when trying to figure out just what to do now that an event is occurring.

The “Action Plan”s should be concise and detailed, step-by-step, vetted through testing, tactical tasks to be undertaken once a disaster is declared.  These plans need to be easy to follow (relatively) easy to reference and to enough detail that a backup team member, with less experience in the process, can follow and successfully implement.

I have seen organizations get very creative in producing wallet sized plans, tri-folds and/or thin plans that get right to the point and, in some cases, provide a way to record which steps were executed along the way.

There are a number of software products that also help maintain these action plans and allow you to track the implementation process at time of disaster.  These can be very powerful emergency management tools if properly implemented and monitored.  (They can also become just as cumbersome and useless as the War and Peace-like plan if implemented incorrectly.)

So look at your documentation and ask yourself if you have successfully separated the wheat from the chaff?  Do your team members have a useful tool to help them execute their recovery responsibility at time of disaster without having to flip through pages of “fluff” to find out exactly what they are supposed to do?  And, when you test your program, do you make sure these plans are being referenced and updated to ensure the documentation matches the reality?

More on this topic to come in future blogs, but – I use that “but” word a lot, don’t I – I think that is enough for today.  Thanks for visiting our blog.

Goodbye 2011; Hello 2012

My how time flies.

An entire month went by without a single blog being posted to this site.  What was I thinking!?

The good news is:

  • Business at Safe Harbor Consulting has picked up and I have been busy spending time on other, income generating tasks.
  • I took time off in December to spend with my family and friends and let this blog take second priority for a while.
  • There have been no real big, disaster events demanding my attention and prompting me to write a blog.

The bad news is: 

  • I have been experiencing a little writer’s block and have been challenged to come up with new topics to write about.
  • I have received little feedback from blog readers on my postings and have wondered about the effectiveness of this tool.
  • Business at Safe Harbor Consulting has picked up and I have been busy spending time on other tasks.  (Sometimes, news is both good and bad.)

But alas, it is time for the New Year’s resolutions to kick in and I must, at least, try to fulfill one resolution before the month of January expires.

I hope everyone had a terrific holiday season and a safe and happy New Years.

2011 was an interesting and eventful year for many of us in the Business Continuity and Emergency Management arena.  If the Mayans are correct, 2012 will prove to be even more so.

If you have any subjects or ideas you would like me to try to tackle in the next few blog entries, by all means, let’s hear them.  Otherwise, I may ask you to bear with me as I repeat a few topics, with perhaps, a new spin or refocused emphasis.

May 2012 bring you much joy, happiness and few disasters – at least none that you can’t recover from.

Happy New Year,

Joe Flach