Be Prepared

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2006

Just when we've all gotten out of the habit of monitoring huge spinning clouds on the Weather Channel, hurricane season is upon us once again. With eight hurricanes brushing past Florida in the last two years and hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimating Gulf Coast economies, businesses can no longer take hurricane preparation lightly.

"If businesses recover quickly, we all recover more quickly," says Dave Harrawood, executive director of emergency services for Sarasota County.

Improving communication with businesses is one of Harrawood's priorities this year. Last season, Kathy Baylis, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, began attending briefings at the emergency operations center so she could relay timely emergency information to businesses.

Every business should have a contingency plan in place and update it as business conditions and employees change, he says. Here's advice from Emergency Services of Sarasota County and the Small Business Administration:

10 Steps for Disaster Planning

1. Have a plan covering all kinds of emergencies. "You have to think of all the threats that can stop a business from functioning," Harrawood says. "Wall fires, drought-there are a number of things, including political disasters."

2. Make sure your plan mitigates threats and helps you recover. Ask "what-if" questions, such as what happens if the electricity is out for two days or two weeks? What happens if the facilities close for several days, are damaged or destroyed? Can you operate out of your home or an alternative location?

3. Keep extra, hard-to-replace parts or supplies on hand. Store them off-site. If this cannot be done, work with suppliers in advance to assure a secure and adequate supply. Store several days' supply in a place that is not vulnerable to the same disaster as your facility. Be sure to keep this auxiliary supply up-to-date.

4. Make upgrades now to prevent possible future damage. Strengthening exterior walls, adding a retaining wall, or shoring up a creek bank are relatively minor projects in comparison to losing the building to flood waters.

5. Back up critical accounting, customer lists, production formulas and inventory. Keep a back-up copy of your computer's basic operating system, boot files and critical software. Store a copy of all vital information on-site and a second in a safe off-site location. Make it a critical part of your routine to back up files regularly.

6. Check insurance. Understand what is covered and what is not. Make sure you can pay creditors, employees and cover your own needs during a prolonged shutdown. How long can your business survive if it is shut down?

7. Define employees' roles before and after a disaster and make sure they understand what they're supposed to do. Test the plan. Hold workshops for employees and practice emergency response. Harrawood says the emergency services department is always looking for partners to host workshops. "It's important to make sure employees have a personal plan themselves," Harrawood says. "It does no good to have a plan if half your employees can't make it into work because they're taking care of their own personal situations."

8. Plan how the business can continue with minimal employees. Some companies have gone as far as to provide on-site trailers so their employees have a place to live and can help the business recover.

9. Make sure your vendors and key suppliers have a plan. "So many businesses have outsourced key parts of their businesses," Harrawood says. "Make sure your key suppliers can survive." Ask them for a copy of their plan and develop contingency plans in the event they can no longer make deliveries or provide services.

10. Develop a communication plan. Maintain an up-to-date copy of phone numbers, computer and Internet log-on codes and passwords, employee phone numbers and other critical information in an accessible location. Develop an employee "telephone tree" to rapidly contact employees in an emergency.

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