What to Pack Before Disaster Strikes

Howard County Office Building Disaster
Photo Courtesy of HCDFRS

We all know the statistic: over half of all small businesses that experience disaster will never reopen.  Despite this fact, many businesses don’t have a plan for disruption or disaster. Maybe they are hoping it never happens to them, or that if it does, they will be on the right side of the statistics.

I have spoken to many business owners, and they worry about disruption and disaster. They worry about it a lot.

In my community, many business owners are talking about a recent Sunday morning natural gas explosion that destroyed a business complex (see photo) and displaced over two dozen businesses.  Fortunately, the Howard County Economic Development Authority jumped in and provided immediate assistance.

Each of those business owners expected their offices to be the same on Monday morning as they left them on Friday evening. Thankfully, no one was hurt or killed, but many owners had to start over from scratch.

Every day, we hear about something new to worry about. Business owners watch current events unfold around the country and wonder how their business would fare if calamity came their way.

Shootings, cyber-attacks, tornados, and hurricanes. With every headline business owners, employees, investors, and board members ask, “What would our plan be if that happened here?”

I understand why these plans don’t get finished, or even started. Small and midsize companies are constrained for people, time, and funding, and after the last jarring headline, momentum to take action slowly fades. These companies often don’t have staff dedicated to identifying and reducing risk at the strategic level, let alone doing the tactical work such as developing a business continuity plan.

Should we, then, wave a white flag and get comfortable with not having a plan? Of course not. If for no other reason, it’s National Preparedness Month, the time of year we rededicate ourselves to facing disaster head on and taking action. With the theme this year of “Be Prepared, Not Scared,” it’s time we do our best to move the needle.

There are lots of great resources available to you this month. If you are local to Howard County, Maryland, see what my former team in the Howard County Office of Emergency Management is offering by checking out their Facebook page. If outside Howard County, check your local and state emergency management office or visit www.ready.gov.

But maybe going to a workshop or seminar is still slightly out of reach. What else could you do that would inch you one step forward toward being prepared?

How about assembling a small resource kit so you are never standing on the sidewalk the morning after a disaster wondering how to start your business recovery? This kit might be kept secure offsite as a paper file but should also be made available online through a secure cloud provider. Not yet leveraging the cloud for business yet? Now is the time, as you may increase the security of your files, increase workflow efficiency, and make your most essential records accessible should you ever lose your office to disaster. Let’s start packing, shall we? Here are three simple things you should include:

Contact Information:  Keep an up-to-date list of key contacts. It should include employees, key stakeholders, customers, suppliers, and service providers. You need to know how to reach your bank, insurance company, landlord, payroll service, utility providers, etc. Brainstorm who should be on the list with your team, and then commit to keeping it current.

Key Documents:  At least annually, gather up copies of insurance policies, lease agreements, key contracts, even floor plans for your building. Include any manuals or records that would make disaster recovery go a little smoother. Again, rely on your team to develop a comprehensive list and then keep it current.

A Pre-Identified Rally Point:  Displaced business owners often don’t know where to go if they can’t access their normal worksite. Decide before disaster strikes where you would gather your key decision makers in the event of a crisis. You may even choose to store your key information, documents, and backup media at that location. Do you have a professional services provider or financial institution that could fill this role?  How about a business colleague with whom you could develop a mutual assistance plan? Now we are getting somewhere.

If you buzzed right through the simple steps above, maybe it’s time to survey your business’s Six Critical Functions and then take action to fill any gaps. Have you taken steps to protect your people, systems, and facilities? What could happen that might threaten your supply chain of essential materials and services?  Is your IT infrastructure ready to face cyber attacks? Is it fully supported, and do you have everything properly backed up? If you had to evacuate or relocate your operations, could you ensure the protection of your intellectual property? Would you be able to stay compliant with all laws, codes, and standards?  Are you sure you could ship your products and/or deliver your service no matter what comes your way?

In today’s world, we should expect disruption and disaster and plan for them. We need to take small steps toward being prepared as families, businesses, and organizations. This is how we create prepared communities. The good news is that taking a small step is not difficult, and it will slowly alleviate the feeling you get each time you read the news. Let’s take action together this September to make the morning after disaster strikes a little less overwhelming. Let’s resolve to become prepared, not scared. 

About the author: Ryan Miller is founder and principal of Critical Functions, a local operational risk-and-resilience advisory firm which helps organizations protect their critical business functions from disruption and disaster. Until recently, Ryan was the appointed Emergency Management Director for Howard County, MD, where he served for sixteen years. In that time, he was responsible for preparing for, responding to, and recovering from numerous complex disasters, including the 2016 and 2018 flash floods in Ellicott City.