Putting it all in Perspective

On September 11,  2001, this transplanted Torontonian was sitting in the living room of his McLoud, Oklahoma home, planning last minute details his trip back to Toronto later that day to attend the Hardlines Marketing conference. Instead, I watched the terrible events of the day unfold. After living in what we always consider to be a non-partisan, relatively safe environment in Canada, I couldn’t believe the feelings of helplessness (and later, anger) that came across me as more carnage occurred. It brought home my feeling that we need to put our lives in perspective and my personal belief that “we work to live”, not the opposite.

A fellow Toronto acquaintance was in town seeing customers and found himself stranded for a few days as international travel was banned. As the world virtually stood still reeling from this catastrophe, it gave us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the local golf courses, where much of our chats seemed to revolve around what was really important in life.

Shortly afterwards, a local police officer I was acquainted with asked me if I’d like to join him in starting up our town’s first Emergency Management services team. The idea was to increase our community’s ability to help ourselves in the event of a man made or natural disaster. As I had been looking for a community project, what a great idea! Shortly after assembling a team, Mike moved away and…gulp…the town council asked me if I would consider taking over. What, a Canadian never having any involvement in this area, charged with making our town more disaster-resilient? Sure!

Being a “city boy” until then, I had come to appreciate how down to earth and giving our small-town locals were. It wasn’t that difficult to assemble a group of committed volunteers wiling to educate themselves and help others with respect to readiness and preparedness at work and at home. We may find ourselves storm spotting (yes, Dorothy, this is the land of tornadoes), involved with crowd and traffic management (such as when we had to have a hospital helicopter airlift a traffic accident victim), and other unpredictable situations. We’re involved in supporting our volunteer firefighters on extended fire scenes and help coordinate field efforts when combined local, state and federal resources are brought together, such as the anthrax scare we recently had at our local women’s penitentiary.

The largest part of our duties though revolves around educating others in disaster preparedness. This relates to all of us, both in our personal and work lives. Within our businesses, we need to be ready to restore operations, train our employees and inform our customers too. I can only suggest that, just after the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and arrests of potential terrorists in Toronto this summer and the tornado warning issued in August, we take such warnings seriously…and prepare ourselves.

Business should develop emergency response plans, including data protection and recovery, telecommuting and contingencies for continuing operations during a disruption.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 40% of small businesses never open after major disasters.

Disasters don’t have to be terrorist attacks; they can be weather-related and other natural events. The management and recovery aspects are almost identical.

Business leaders need to think through what kind of effect a disaster would have on their operations and put a plan in place now. Most businesses aren’t prepared for disaster situations. Each needs to analyze potential threats, develop and plan, train mangers to the plan and be able to execute it. Consider these areas:

  • Develop a list of alternate suppliers. These may range from construction firms to rebuild a facility to food service companies that can provide hot meals to employees working long hours trying to rebuild.
  • Along with computer technology, paper and other supplies, companies should consider establishing an alternate line of credit and cash reserves.
  • Think about the public relations side; how will you communicate to your customers that it’s “business as usual”? The Oklahoma City-based National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (www.mipt.org) offers lessons learned and more information on their web site, in addition to contracting with companies to help develop their business contingency plans, including how to identify and mitigate threats.
  • Smaller companies can begin with free information readily available at www.ready.gov, but many should probably think about contracting with local security consultants.
  • Get serious about reference checks, including security background checks. It’s not that complicated to ensure your staff are on the up and up.
  • Don’t procrastinate on data backup…and keep a copy of it off-site. Depending on your volume of sensitive information in emails and other files, companies should back up files weekly or monthly. Also, don’t forget about securing and backing up phones and other devices such as Blackberries, and look for companies whose products can recover on to entirely different systems, such as from a Dell server to an HP server.
  • Talk to your employees about how they feel the work environment can be made safer and prepared. Draw everyone into this and add to your team’s ability to respond in the event of an emergency.
  • Most importantly, sit down with your family and develop a communication plan in the event something catastrophic happens during working hours. How will you reach one another if all the cell towers are crammed with traffic? Develop a meeting location that all family members are familiar with…and exercise it. You can find detailed plans and information at http://www.toronto.ca/fire/emergency_preparedness/index.htm

Remember, put it all in perspective; remember what’s really important in life, and plan to make the best of it.


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