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Is your business prepared for disaster?

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Willie Bence, American Red Cross Disaster Program Manager for West Metro Portland, shows an emergency starter kit. Preparing employees with such kits may mean the difference between them coming to work or not.  Will your business survive a disaster? Will you be able to serve your customers, your community and support your employees?

According to a study by the Institute for Business and Home Safety, an estimated 25 percent of businesses never reopen after a major disaster. Only two in 10 Americans feel prepared for an emergency, according to the American Red Cross, and they estimate that 60 percent of Americans are, in fact, completely unprepared.

How can you ensure that your business is a survivor? The Red Cross and some of Portland’s largest companies have some advice: Help your employees become prepared, and you will have the greatest chance of business continuity.

“It doesn’t matter how ready your business is if your employees aren’t ready at home too,” says Kelley Okolita, Director of Disaster Management Services for Cambia Health Solutions. “Because if they’re not ready at home, they’re not coming to work to help you recover your business.”

Dave Ford, Director of Business Continuity for Portland General Electric concurs, “We don’t have a business unless we have employees. We can’t count on them to be employees until they know that their families are taken care of.”

That process involves helping employees to gain an understanding about the realities of a disaster, and business continuity experts use a Cascadia Subduction fault event as a benchmark for that education. If a 9.0 or greater magnitude earthquake were to strike the Portland area, it is expected that residents should plan on an extended period of self-sufficiency, where even a 72-hour emergency kit might not be big enough.

Cambia has created financial incentives for employees who plan for emergencies. They can receive discounts on their insurance for being certified by the Red Cross in first aid, for building a home emergency kit, or by creating a family emergency plan.

Employers large and small can partner with the American Red Cross to help employees build emergency kits and develop communications plans.

by: PHOTO COURTESY PGE/MICHAEL DURHAM - One megawatt emergency generators for backup power at the PGE readiness center. The center is designed to handle vital processes for the utility in the wake of a major disaster.  “People need to check the assumptions that they’re making,” says PGE’s Ford. “’I’m going to call my family.’ No, you’re not. The phones are going to be down. ‘I’m going to run home.’ No, you’re not. The bridges are going to be down.”

The costs of disaster preparedness can vary greatly with the size and complexity of your business operations, “but getting into the disaster mindset is free” according to Willie Bence, a Red Cross disaster program manager for West Metro Portland. “Talking to employees is ultimately no cost to you.”

Ready Rating, a free program offered by the American Red Cross provides businesses with a self-assessment tool to determine their level of preparedness, and plan for improvements.

Both Cambia and PGE have teams assigned to plan for various levels of disasters. “Most are not smoke and rubble events,” says Okolita. They’re “not the 9/11s, Katrinas, or Hurricane Sandys. They’re relatively small things — fires, power outages, network failures, or roof collapses. Things that don’t make the national news. You don’t have problems by business line, you have problems by business site,” she adds, noting that Cambia uses a team approach to disaster planning that is focused by site.

About 20 percent of Cambia’s staff is trained for one of their “Blue Alert” site safety response teams. The teams are trained in evacuation, first aid, and lockdown scenarios to name a few. Each Cambia site also has a business continuity planning team tasked with identifying key processes and developing procedures to get them up and running after an incident.

If an event occurs, a local incident response team is activated to make decisions essential to operations.

“We identify who are stakeholders are, what they need to know, when they need to know it, and how we’re going to get to them,” says Okolita, adding “we use the same process regardless of the size of the event.”

Corporate leadership and IT disaster recovery teams complete the response roster and are brought in as needed. Cambia’s approach to IT systems involves identifying critical, time-sensitive business functions and then determining what applications and hardware are needed to continue.

“The benefit of plans is in the planning process, not in trying to execute the plans,” according to Ford, “because you cannot possibly write a plan for every scenario.”

Recently, PGE planners noted a weakness stemming from the geographic concentration and earthquake susceptibility of their essential facilities, and created a backup emergency readiness center well away from the exposed facilities.

Both PGE and Cambia conduct exercises to test their plans. “Exercises are not to test whether people pass or fail, it’s to identify things that we need to do better,” says Ford. “Was I able to get a hold of the person I needed to get a hold of, in the time that I needed to get them? If not, why not?”

“It’s not an insignificant cost, but it’s a prudent cost, it’s an insurance cost. Studies show that people react the way that they’re trained. If they’re not trained, they don’t react well,” says Ford.

“The truth is that crisis management isn’t taught as part of an MBA program,” says Cambia’s Okolita, who worked 15 months in an emergency operations center for Fidelity Investments following the 9/11 attacks.

“True crisis are rare,” he said. “If you don’t have a process in place for training leaders on that true crisis response, then you could end up not responding in a good way.”


John M. Vincent is a third-generation Oregon journalist. He can be reached at JMVincent2848@gmail.com