Ready or Not

Disasters come at a moment's notice, so it's important to be properly prepared

IN 1994, the city of Los Angeles experienced an earthquake that caused several commercial buildings and major freeways to collapse. Structures moved from their foundations and walls were shifted in residential buildings, homes and parking garages. Not only did the earthquake—deemed the Northridge Earthquake—cause damage to buildings throughout Los Angeles, it also instigated mudslides, resulting in additional road and waterline damage. Hundreds of businesses were affected; however, immediate response to the disaster was well-organized and planned.

"To assist in the aftermath of the disaster, we had teams working around the clock to meet the needs of our clients and community members. Our strategic communications plan was developed to respond to disasters such as the Northridge Earthquake, and it enabled us to communicate with employees out in the field who were working all over the Los Angeles region," said Brian Cescolini, president and CEO of Universal Protection Service, who knew that all of the company's clients in and around the Los Angeles area.

A natural disaster can strike at any moment, and people rarely have enough time to prepare for the situation after a warning is issued. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other severe weather can make communicating with loved ones and employees very difficult and sometimes next to impossible. A well-rehearsed and organized response plan will assist in ensuring that family, community members and employees are safe and able to communicate during a natural disaster.

Recent natural disasters have prompted many families, businesses and communities to discuss the importance of implementing a response plan, and developing and using emergency/safety kits. Although a discussion may have taken place, it is vitally important to practice and review the plan every six months to make certain that every individual is aware of what they must do to protect themselves during a natural disaster.

Disaster Supplies Checklist

A disaster supply kit should be stored in an easy-to-carry container and should include the necessary items needed for each family member. A smaller version of the kit also can be stored in your car. • Water—One gallon per person, per day. There should be a three-day supply.
• Nonperishable food—Three-day supply. If necessary, make sure a can opener is included in the kit.
• First aid kit
• Whistle—To signal for help.
• Signal flare
• Battery-powered radio
• Flashlight
• Extra batteries
• Waterproof matches
• Paper and pencil
• Tools—Pliers, wrenches and scissors.
• Soap and moist towelettes
• Chlorine bleach
• Garbage bags
• Change of clothing and durable shoes
• Sleeping bags and extra blankets
• Copies of important documents
• Personal items needed by each member of the family—This may include prescriptions, glasses, formula, diapers and feminine products.

When developing a response plan, consider what type of disaster is most likely to occur in the community where you live and work. Although this may seem like common sense, the response plan will vary. For example, if a tornado is more likely to happen in the community than a flood, prepare for a tornado. Additionally, many communities will often issue warnings and signals for disasters most likely to happen in a specific region. Familiarize yourself with how emergency officials communicate the threat of a natural disaster. For businesses, ensure that each employee is knowledgeable as to how the information pertaining to the threat of a natural disaster is communicated. For example, will a warning be issued via the company intranet, through an e-mail or personally by the department head?

Emergency/safety kits also should be updated and the contents reviewed every six months. At a minimum, these kits should include basic first aid supplies, food bars, water packs, a battery powered radio and copies of important documents, such as insurance papers and identification cards.

Despite having all the equipment for and knowledge about responding to a natural disaster, it does no good if you cannot communicate effectively before, during and after a catastrophe. A communication plan requires sitting down with family members, community leaders and employees to strategically determine the most efficient and effective way to reach one another if local and statewide communication equipment is hampered or inoperable. Knowing that everyone is safe and alive adds to the success of your entire response plan. The process of developing a communications plan can be broken down into four simple steps.

Identify and designate. Select two out-of-state contacts who each can be used as a point person to gather and relay information back to family members. One individual should serve as the primary contact, and the other should act as a back-up in case the primary contact is unavailable.

For families, use relatives or close friends that live out-of-state. For businesses, use an out-of-state branch or facility. If there is no out-of-state location, obtain an 800 number that has voicemail capability to leave messages for employees who are calling in. Community leaders should consider setting up a hotline that provides changing information of value to community members.

Provide contacts. Every family member should receive a wallet-sized card that includes the contact names, home, business and cell phone numbers of the primary and secondary out-of-state contacts. Each contact should receive a list of individuals to be accounted for, and each member of the family should keep the numbers stored in several places, including their cell phone, in their car, at home and in their wallet.

For businesses, a wallet-sized card also can be distributed to each employee that includes the 800 number and facility location. Additionally, employers should maintain an active database of the emergency contacts for their employees. Revisit this database once a year, and ask employees to update their emergency contact information.

Make certain that every family member and/or employee has their individual contact information on them at all times.

Where to meet. There is always the possibility of damage to local or regional telephone equipment, and service may be down for an unspecified period of time. Typically, when this does occur, nearby towers will attempt to compensate for the unavailable service; however, the overwhelming demand on local and cellular service may make it extremely difficult to reach your out-of-state contact. If you do attempt to use the phone and there is a busy signal or no dial tone, do not panic. Try waiting a few minutes to see if you can get a dial tone. Also, try using pay phones, as these lines are likely to be restored first.

When developing your communication plan, do not rely solely on the use of land line and cellular phones. Pick a designated place to meet. For families, identify evacuation routes to follow and where to meet; this may be the out-of-state contacts' home. Determine who is responsible for retrieving the children from school or daycare, and map out two different routes in case a road is blocked or closed.

Test the plan. Test the plan using different scenarios, making sure to include both out-of-state primary and secondary contacts. Families and companies should test their plan at least twice a year, and update and review the communications plan annually.

Implement your plan during and after a natural disaster, but make certain to listen to and follow the instructions provided by community officials. They will have first-hand information on what you need to do to keep yourself and family safe. It may take awhile for emergency response to arrive in your community. Working with neighbors until they arrive may save others from severe injury and perhaps save lives. Additionally, make sure you know how to turn off your utilities and make preparations for family pets in advance. Some shelters do not allow animals.

Finally, debrief and evaluate after a natural disaster. Did the plan work? If not, what went wrong? Were there factors that could have been controlled, or were they uncontrollable? Review the plan and make changes as necessary, and practice the changes so that every individual knows what to expect the next time a natural disaster occurs.

During a crisis, family and community members and employees must be aware of the plan, the communication methods and the response needed to help protect themselves and their loved ones. Each piece of the plan is vitally important to ensuring safety when a situation is unknown or changes rapidly.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Security Today.

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