According to a survey by Staples.com, just 19% of office workers believe that their company is prepared to handle a major emergency — which is especially concerning, since each year across the U.S. explosions and fires occur in approximately 70,000 businesses and cause nearly 200 deaths.
Furthermore, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that approximately 1,200 tornadoes occur each year, and virtually all states — not just those on the west coast or Hawaii — are vulnerable to experiencing a moderate to severe earthquake. For example, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake rocked Oklahoma in 2016, and a magnitude 5.9 earthquake rocked Virginia in 2011.
And that is not all: natural hazards are not the only threats that businesses need to be prepared to handle — though few of them truly are. For example, there are increasing incidences of human-caused hazards in the workplace; many of which have tragic consequences involving multiple victims. At the same time, the dangers of technology-based hazards are constantly looming — both those caused by non-malicious system and equipment malfunctions, and those orchestrated by cyber criminals through malware, viruses, ransomware, and more.
Yet, despite all these clear and present dangers, many small business owners feel secure in believing that they are largely out of harm’s way, since seriously and formally planning for the worst is only something that larger enterprises and governments need to concern themselves with. Unfortunately, this perception is wrong — and a disaster waiting to happen. In addition to the potential for serious injury and loss of life, research by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that approximately 25% of businesses do not reopen after a major disaster.
“All businesses, regardless of whether they employ a handful of people or thousands of them, need to be prepared and ready to act in a safe, structured and intelligent manner in the event of an emergency,” commented Jay Hart, former police captain and current head of MCAlert, a company that specializes in mass communication for emergencies by sending emergency and information alerts to residents through an innovative cloud-based communications platform.
According to MCAlert CEO and Former Captain Jay Hart, here are four critical objectives that help small business owners prepare for an emergency to keep their people, their customers, their assets, and their reputations safe:
1. Assess Risks and Hazards
There are many emergency situations that threaten small business operations and safety, such as fires, explosions, chemical spills, severe weather, regional disasters (e.g. flooding), medical emergencies, power, technology and equipment failures, and acts of terrorism. It is vital to carefully and comprehensively assess all risks and hazards, including those that may not be likely — such as acts of terrorism — but are nevertheless an essential part of the plan.
Former Captain Jay Hart points out that it is also important to factor in the surrounding area and business infrastructure. For example, a small business may not work with chemicals, but they could be situated near another business that does. A chemical or spill release over there could pose a serious threat that requires rapid, clear, and coordinated action.
2. Build a Team and Assign Roles
All employees should receive basic training on what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. However, it is also important to identify individuals from different teams who will take coordination and leadership roles.
The American Red Cross recommends that 15 percent of a workforce receive first aid and CPR training, which for small businesses typically means 1-3 staff members. Former Captain Jay Hart explains that one of the biggest risks that small businesses face during an emergency is a lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities. As a result, instead of focused and rapid action when it is needed most, the scene is chaotic, and efforts are uncoordinated — which makes a difficult, risky and dangerous situation even worse.
3. Create an Emergency Response Plan
Not all emergencies require the same type of response. For example, there are specific protocols and steps to mitigate injury and damage during a fire, and which significantly differ from those that are appropriate for a power outage or cyber attack.
It is essential for small businesses to map out and create a comprehensive and well-organized Emergency Response Plan in alignment with the risk assessment. Additionally, it is just as critical to ensure that all employees are familiar with the plan and know how to find it.
The survey by Staples.com found that 50 percent of employees work for a company that does not have an emergency preparedness plan, or if it does, they have no idea where it is. Former Captain Jay Hart emphasizes the fact that a one-size-fits-all Emergency Response Plan can be a liability instead of an asset. Each small business needs to create their own plan by themselves if they can do it in-house, or with the help of an outside consultant or firm if they lack the required expertise.
4. Monitor and Optimize
Last but certainly not least, training for emergencies and developing a robust Emergency Response Plan is not a one-time task. Rather, it is an ongoing effort — because risks and threats are dynamic instead of static, and they change over time based on a variety of internal factors (e.g. expanding workforce and new equipment) and external factors (emerging physical and online threats). Small businesses cannot afford to put their Emergency Response Plan and other related documents in a filing cabinet, or upload them to an online folder, and then forget about it.
At least once a year — though more frequently is advised — everything needs to be reviewed, assessed and optimized. For example, there are some small businesses right now with an Emergency Response Plan that covers fire or flood, but says nothing about what to do in the event of a violent incident in the workplace, or if a critical piece of equipment or machinery breaks down and creates a safety hazard or severe operational risk.
The Bottom Line
Abraham Lincoln once said, “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” His point is clear: the intelligent, successful action is rooted in exceptional preparation. Small businesses that heed Former Captain Jay Hart’s advice dramatically increase the chances that they will reduce — or better yet, avoid — losses due to an emergency.
Conversely, small businesses that mistakenly believe that preparing for an emergency is a waste of time or something that only concerns large enterprises, are essentially putting themselves, their people, their assets, and their reputations in harm’s way — which is a story that rarely, if ever, ends well.