Disaster Preparedness 101

Dave Lusk knows disasters. He’s operated through tornadoes and hurricanes, terrorist attacks and political uprisings, floods and wildfires.

For almost two decades, Lusk has served as senior manager of the FedEx Global Operations Control Center (GOCC). The GOCC is responsible for managing the shipment of packages around the globe and creating and executing contingency plans for a variety of crises.

Lusk is an avid participant and speaker at numerous small-business conferences on emergency preparedness. Among his credentials, he’s listed as a multi-year panelist at the Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado.  He’s also been a speaker at the Building Resilience through Public-Private Partnerships Conference, an annual event that focuses on homeland security issues and improving public-private sector relationships.

As part of his role in the GOCC, Lusk handles the company’s response when a disaster strikes. And he’s getting prepared to spring into action ― the hurricane season is fast approaching.

FedEx Updates spoke with Lusk to tap into his expertise about disaster preparedness. He discussed steps small-business owners should take to ensure their organization and employees can weather any storm. You can read his advice in order as shown below or click on the links to drop down to a particular section:

What situations should a small business consider when planning for emergencies?

The three primary ones are natural, technological and acts-of-man events, but really businesses need to assess their own unique risks when it comes to emergency planning. For example, some businesses in the Pacific Northwest are exposed to not only earthquake and tsunami risk, but also volcanic risk and potential flash floods. A lot depends on the specific geographic location of the business, as well as a host of other local factors.

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What's the first step a small-business owner should take when building an emergency plan?

First, acknowledge that a disaster can happen to your business. Next, assess your business’s possible vulnerabilities based on your location and any specific needs it might have during an emergency. Essentially, you should ask yourself, what could put me out of business? When you ask that question, it doesn't take long to come up with a list of events that might require a crisis response.

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When preparing for a disaster, is it better to have a small team managing the process, or to involve all employees in every stage of planning?

It’s important to take both tacks: it's crucial to have a clear chain of command during a disaster, and it’s critical that everyone in the business understand what that chain of command is and what their roles in the response plan involve. One key to building a solid emergency response team is to identify the person or people with the best skill sets to do that, keeping in mind that it might not be the CEO, founder or business owner.

Here at FedEx, we use a model called the incident command system, or ICS. It's an organizational structure for incident management that’s recognized and understood by the first responder community — firefighters, medical professionals, the military, paramedics, what have you. Small-business owners can create a lean version of that, scaling it down to a size that works for their organization. That basic structure provides a uniform means of communication between small businesses and their local emergency management agencies.

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Why wouldn’t the person who's normally in charge of the business be the best person to lead in an emergency?

Running a business requires a very particular set of high-level skills, but those skills don’t always apply in a crisis. I would encourage owners of small and medium-sized businesses to really get to know their employees’ backgrounds when planning for emergencies. You might have a former fire chief working for you, or former nurses or veterans. Those people are going to be familiar with the relationships that need to be developed with the first-response organizations — the fire department, the local and state emergency management communities. Knowing who those employees are and building on their skills sets is like adding sandbags to your disaster plan.

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What are some other free or inexpensive steps a small-business owner could take to prepare for a disaster?

One easy step is to invite members of the local fire and police departments to your business. Have those representatives get to know you and your employees, and tell them about your organization and any special risks it faces, like hazardous materials on-site, for example. They’ll take that information back to the firehouse or police station, so that if they ever have to respond to an emergency, they’ll know exactly what sorts of risks are involved with your business.

If you go to www.ready.gov, you can find the closest local emergency response unit to your business that teaches disaster planning or community emergency response team [CERT] training. Virtually every fire department in the country offers CERT training. It's a two-day-long class; my wife and I went through it about three years ago. They have experts who discuss the hazards that are most prevalent in your community and how best to mitigate them. They teach you how to shut the main gas valve off at your house or your business and how to identify and shut off the main water cutoff. Doing this as soon as possible after an earthquake can trap gallons of drinkable water inside the pipes of your building.

They also teach basic first aid and triage, all sorts of “disaster 101” information. Just imagine having that kind of knowledge base in your business and the carry-on effect it will have in your employees’ families and communities. Your small or medium-sized business is a vital part of your community’s social fabric — what better way to shore it up than to take advantage of disaster preparation training, and for little to no cost?

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How often should a business run emergency drills or review their emergency plan?

It really depends on the size of the business, but a good benchmark for running drills is once per quarter. Plans need to be exercised to determine their value. In terms of reviewing, while doing it quarterly is good, a plan really needs to be reviewed any time there are significant changes in the business. These might be personnel changes, like new staff members or changing roles, or environmental changes, like impending bad weather or political turmoil.

These kinds of changes can dramatically increase the number of risks and exposure points a business can experience, and you have to develop plans to address them accordingly.

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Is there a rule of thumb about how much of a business's budget should be allocated to emergency planning?

Not really. You could go out and find business continuity contractors who might say you should spend 20 percent of your annual budget, or 30 percent, but really it's not a question of money. It doesn't cost a lot to get information, which is available from some of the best emergency management experts in the world.

Now, depending on the nature of your business, you might need to spend a certain amount of money. If you run a diagnostic lab with lots of expensive equipment, you’re going to need to spend more on protecting it not only from natural hazards, but from legal hazards; imagine if medical records were lost in a fire — that's a huge legal risk.

Basic training programs like CERT are extremely valuable; really the biggest cost to small and medium-sized businesses would be the loss of work time if you chose to have employees do the training while on the clock. Two days spent in training, however wise an investment it is, is a lot for a small business. But there are other options. You could offer a small monetary incentive to employees who take the training on their own time. That's cheap. There are also many companies out there that can provide inexpensive emergency kits, or “go bags” — these include things like bottled water, a first aid kit, space for extra clothes, and other things that are good to have in an emergency.

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What are the common mistakes businesses make when planning for disasters?

I’ve noticed that in some businesses, even large ones, few people think about the implications of lean supply chains and just-in-time distribution networks. Say I'm a baker who gets specialty ingredients delivered every day. What happens if that supply chain is disrupted by an earthquake or tornado? Breakdowns like that can have a cascading effect on a business.

Small-business owners also have to consider employee-family preparation. The CERT program, for instance, can not only prepare a business for risk, but also instill employees and their families with preparedness skills and a crisis-response mindset. Say a tornado strikes during the workday, and employees are asked to stay at work, to help protect the business. Will their minds really be on the task at hand, or will they be wondering whether their families are safe, or whether their houses are still standing? There's a tremendous return when you prepare your employees, who'll in turn prepare their families and the larger community.

Another element business owners might forget to think about is the means by which they communicate about emergency planning to their employees. How are you getting that information to them? Are you using flyers, emails, face-to-face meetings or some combination of communications tools? How are you wording your messages? How often are you repeating them, if at all?

It's human nature for people to take in information in different ways, and I think there's an opportunity in that fact for small businesses. I would suggest reaching out to a local community college or university's sociology department to ask for help in thinking through how best to disseminate this information within a business. Thinking carefully about how best to communicate your plan to employees is a great step to take after your plan is in place, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

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What would you say to small-business owners who don't think they need to undertake emergency planning? What are the repercussions of not planning ahead?

There's a common mentality that disasters always happen somewhere else to somebody else. As a society, we’re inundated by news of disasters and crises all around the world on a daily basis, but I don't think people take that as an opportunity to ask, what if it happened here? Would I be prepared, and would my employees be prepared, to maintain the business?

The biggest possible repercussions from not planning obviously are injury or loss of life. In addition to that, you run the risk of temporary or permanent shutdown, financial losses and other factors that can damage a business irrevocably.

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Is it important to do a plan assessment after an emergency has happened?

Absolutely. We call this an after-action report, or a postmortem. In our organization, we do that after every major event. We ask ourselves three critical questions: What went right? What went wrong? What were the missed opportunities?

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What advice can you give to a small-business owner who might be overwhelmed or scared just thinking about these kinds of traumatic events?

It's important to keep in mind that you can only control what you can control. In the Clint Eastwood movie, Magnum Force; the character Harry Callahan says, "A good man knows his limitations." A certain level of anxiety is healthy — after all, the fight-or-flight instinct is part of human nature. But always remember that some of the smartest, most capable people around are out there every day on the front lines making sure that all of us are safe. Just thinking about that makes me feel better.

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Take the next steps
Make use of these free and inexpensive resources Lusk mentions in our discussion:

  1. Invite the local fire department to your business.
  2. Take a CERT disaster planning class.
  3. Learn basic first aid and triage.

Learn how FedEx responds to disasters.

More from FedEx Updates
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