7 min read / August 3, 2022 / Greg Heckart
Severe weather and natural disasters can strike anytime. Whether from climate change, natural weather patterns or other causes, their frequency has increased during the past two decades, and studies and reports predict the trend will continue.
Now more than ever, it’s essential to be prepared and have plans in place that protect staff members and your valuable business assets in the event of extreme weather and/or natural disasters. Here are some tips for putting a good plan together.
Create an emergency response plan
Preplanning is a main factor in successful project completion, and it’s also essential for responding to emergency situations, according to Troy Tepp, director of safety services with Sentry Insurance.
“Predicting when those events will occur is nearly impossible, and that’s why it’s essential to be prepared with response plans,” Tepp said during a webinar for the Associated Equipment Distributors titled “Developing Your Emergency Response & Recovery Plans – Before They’re Needed.” “Thoughtful preplanning that addresses potential scenarios is vital,” he said.
As a starting point, Tepp suggested establishing goals and priorities. “The top priority within any emergency response plan must be developing procedures that prioritize the protection of lives and the safety of your staff, customers and any other visitors to your facilities. Keep in mind, your procedures also need to account for employees outside of your fixed-base operations, such as field personnel, drivers and equipment operators.”
Having procedures in place “may not prevent the occurrence of a crisis, (but) it should replace chaos and panic with an organized and appropriate response to the crisis,” according to Michael Zisa, an attorney and partner at Peckar & Abramson P.C. in Washington, D.C.
“Before creating a plan, it is important to conduct a baseline risk assessment to understand predictable emergencies (such as events resulting in injuries and damage to property), identify which of your company’s processes are effective, and determine where gaps may exist,” wrote Zisa. “Once risks are identified, you should ensure that your company policies and procedures meet the challenges associated with those risks, and if not, revise the policies and procedures.”
In Jacksonville, Texas, WHM Construction Inc. uses technology to help protect personnel from severe weather. “Watching the weather is essential because it can affect everything we do, but keeping our staff safe is of utmost importance,” said Justin Holman, vice president. “We prepare by having apps on our smartphones that alert us if severe weather is imminent. If that’s the case, everyone is instructed to get out of harm’s way as safely and quickly as possible. After it’s passed, we assess the situation and determine our next course of action.”
Once life-safety priorities have been addressed, the next step is to focus on procedures to stabilize sites and protect buildings, premises and other key assets. Plans to protect sensitive records, money kept on site and other assets should follow.
Prioritize for your area(s)
Natural events such as tornadoes, fires, severe storms, hurricanes, ice and snow, and earthquakes are all considerations for weather plans. Prioritize those that are most prevalent and likely to occur in your area.
Some events such as wildfires and hurricanes are unique to certain areas. If your business works in those locations, you need to have appropriate plans in place.
“Where you conduct business needs to be factored in,” said Tepp. “If you are a contractor who works across various regions, or all parts of the country, you must have every type of weather in your plans.”
Tepp used a tornado as an example of how to align risk assessment with planning and awareness. “If that is one of your foreseeable emergencies, begin to create a plan by identifying the alarms and alerts that identify those events. Then, you develop action that mitigates the risk, such as designating a shelter or shelters.”
He continued, “You will also want to clearly identify them as such with signage and train staff to know where shelters are located and that they should immediately proceed to the shelters if they hear the alarms. You also need to designate and train staff members to assist those with special needs. If personnel are off-site, have a communication plan to check on their safety and well-being.”
When designing your response procedures, make sure they are specific. They should define roles and responsibilities as well as activate an assigned response team.
“These procedures will be unique to each scenario — no response is likely to be identical for any two emergencies,” said Tepp. “Along with response procedures and staff responsibilities, document specific steps for notification, ongoing communication and your planned role for municipal emergency response services. These service providers can help in developing plans and are often willing to assist with annual training and drills. Monitoring staff performance and identifying areas to improve and modify may be part of assessing training and drills.”
Kort Wittich, owner of Kort’s Construction Services Inc. in Covington, La., knows that preparation for multiple scenarios is essential. “We have a couple of major considerations in this region,” said Wittich, who provides a diversified list of site construction offerings, mainly in the New Orleans metro area. “One is thunderstorms. We keep our eyes and ears open to the television and radio stations for forecasts and updates and base decisions from those, as well as looking at radar on our phones and watching the sky. If we determine that severe weather is coming, we pull personnel off-site, so they can get to safety.”
Companies along the Gulf Coast can also face hurricanes that cause flooding and widespread damage. “Unfortunately, hurricanes come with the territory, but unlike thunderstorms, which can pop up anytime, you generally have a few-to-several-days’ notice before a hurricane,” said Wittich. “That gives us time to move assets out of areas where they may potentially be damaged and get them to a more secure location. Our goal is to do that in a safe manner as quickly as possible, so our staff also has time to prepare their homes and families.”
Blue Mountain Minerals also faces multiple scenarios at its limestone quarry in Columbia, Calif.
“Thunderstorms are always a consideration, and we keep an eye on forecasts,” said Richard Stringham, plant manager. “Heavy rain affects all aspects of the plant, and if we see it coming, we will build temporary berms to divert water and get our equipment to higher ground. More importantly, we get our people out of harm’s way to ensure their safety.
“Like anyplace that’s surrounded by timber and mountains, wildfires are more prevalent,” Stringham added. “We had one across the lake adjacent to our property last year, and we had to evacuate. Our plans definitely include that situation.” Stringham continued, “We have roads besides our main road that lead out of the site for us to exit. Being in Northern California, there is less of a chance of an earthquake than in the southern part of the state, but the possibility is always there, so we are prepared for that too.”
Communication remains key
To prepare effectively, create a business-recovery plan. According to Tepp, the plan should designate a pre-assigned business-recovery team. Other elements of the plan should include determining essential staff versus support staff, creating recovering operations, outlining IT needs, looking at communication considerations, preparing daily progress updates and phased recovery, testing and training.
“Reporting the incident to your insurance carrier in a timely manner should be your first step [after an incident has occurred],” said Tepp. “The faster it’s reported, the quicker an investigation can occur and reimbursements can be made. Your team will oversee successful recovery by putting the plans in place that you developed to deal with emergency events.”
Zisa wrote that a plan should “delineate specific responsibility to appropriate staff or outside resources for various tasks that may arise during a crisis and establish clear reporting guidelines. The plan should be communicated to all personnel, including through the use of trainings, to ensure that your employees understand who to contact depending on the nature of the emergency.”
Zisa added that there should be a process for collecting relevant documents and there should be someone designated who is authorized and responsible for speaking on the company’s behalf. Your plan should also include contact details for legal counsel and your insurance carriers.
Be sure to reevaluate your emergency plan periodically “to ensure that it is still fit for purpose in addressing your risks,” Zisa concluded.