Prepare for a disaster before it strikes

BY DOUG SANTORO PLUMBING CONTRACTOR MOST OF US either think we are prepared for emergencies, or we just assume they will happen to someone else. As a resident and business owner in south Florida, I can say that both of those mindsets applied in my case. I realized, however, that I must be even better prepared after having endured three direct hits by hurricanes over the last two years. For everyone

BY DOUG SANTORO
PLUMBING CONTRACTOR

MOST OF US either think we are prepared for emergencies, or we just assume they will happen to someone else. As a resident and business owner in south Florida, I can say that both of those mindsets applied in my case. I realized, however, that I must be even better prepared after having endured three direct hits by hurricanes over the last two years. For everyone else, you don't need to have it beaten into your brain as I did to organize your own emergency preparedness plan.

While our plan is specifically designed for hurricane preparations, it may be used in other emergency situations as well. The plan addresses the needs when utilities (electric, phones, water and sewer) may not all be in service and access to the usual vendors may not be available. This may be the case whether the emergency is caused by a blizzard, earthquake, landslide, wildfire, tornado, tsunami or act of terrorism. It doesn't matter what part of the country you live in, everyone is susceptible to some form of catastrophe at any given moment.

If you don't have a plan for an emergency already in place, once it has happened it is usually too late to try to put one together. You, like many others, will be flying by the seat of your pants. While a plan can't guarantee a perfect outcome, it may reduce the effects of a disaster and allow you and your business a faster recovery.

Very importantly, if your community is hit by a major disaster it will not matter whether you consider your company new construction or a service/remodel-oriented company. You need to be able to respond to emergency conditions. Ruptured water mains and lines, broken sewers and leaking gas piping are among the major types of repairs that must be addressed immediately after a disaster has struck. Your ability to respond to the types of work that are available can determine just how fast you have your business back up and running. New construction projects may be put on lengthy holds pending insurance claims and damage inspections being completed before any construction could possibly resume.

While the key points below address the needs of our company for emergency preparations, you should develop your own by reviewing the total operation of your business. First decide which components of your business are absolutely vital for you to operate in some form that will allow you to withstand a disaster. Then decide what it will take to make that happen.

Cash reserve: Have enough cash reserve in a safe accessible place that will allow the business to operate at a bare-bones level for a minimum of two weeks immediately after a disaster. While many business expenses will not be able to be billed or paid during this time, having enough cash to pay employees (even partially) and fund any emergency costs for repairs or business operations is imperative. Banks and vendors may be open but not able to transact business by their normal means.

Bank reserve account: Maintain a line of credit, reserve account or other means of access to funds to operate for at least 90 days as your accounts receivable may not be settled in their usual time frame. Although banks may not be immediately open, they will open in some capacity rather quickly. Remember, it is not only the situation at your place of business but could also be that of your customers or their ability to pay for your services. Initially, the ability to process credit cards may also be hampered. Be prepared to offer credit by having simple credit applications and contracts available.

However, know your limitations as to how much credit you can carry and for how long.

Fuel reserve: Since hurricanes give us advanced warning, we fill all the gas cans and trucks before the storm as a lack of fuel has been a problem in the past due to power outages. While you do not have advanced warning in many disasters, the problem is the same. You will not be able to run any business if the trucks are out of fuel. Plan to restrict all driving to the least amount possible. Devise plans that assign employees geographic areas or staying in the area of the last call until you are dispatched to the next to help reduce fuel consumption.

Generators: Check operation and maintain regularly. Have any major maintenance items performed before hurricane season or before any season that your area may be more prone to weather disasters. Have enough extension cords to safely operate only the most vital parts of your business. Do not run any generators or other combustion engines indoors. Carbon monoxide from the exhaust can be deadly. Tragically, following our storms, there usually are people who didn't place a generator in the proper location and lost their lives after surviving a hurricane.

Inventories: Make sure during hurricane season or any season of potentially dangerous weather that enough inventories are in the warehouse and on trucks to operate for a month without relying on deliveries from your suppliers. Service trucks should have their stock replenished regularly so they're not on the road after a storm without enough materials; this would result in needless driving.

Office supplies/snacks: Since computers may not be workable after a storm, be prepared to do business the oldfashioned way on paper until such time data can be entered into the computers. Also, by having nonperishable food supplies at your business, you may eat without having to rely on eating establishments, which may not be operating, or on bringing supplies from home, which may be critically needed there as well.

Computer back-ups: Make sure that a back-up of all data and systems is performed immediately before closing the business for a storm and that the back-up is safely stored from potential damage. Actually, this is a process that needs to be done even without a disaster looming. A major computer crash can be a disaster all its own.

Equipment and files: Raise all electronic equipment from the floor and place on desktops in case of flooding. Cover all equipment in plastic bags to prevent water damage in case of building failure. Vital files should be placed off the floor in a safe room (we have a fireproof concrete structure within the building) or offsite.

Building/site storm preparations: Immediately upon the issuance of a Hurricane Watch (a hurricane may strike within 36 hours), begin to secure any loose materials at jobsites and at the warehouse. Once a Hurricane Warning has been issued, or if a Hurricane Watch is in effect when the evening or weekend comes, all hurricane preparations are to be completed before discharging the employees. Once employees have been discharged from work under a Hurricane Watch or Warning, they will not be called back to work unless the threat of a storm has passed. If you're not in a hurricane area, then make sure there are not any dead trees next to your building that will come down during the first snow or ice storm. Again, the idea is to find ways to protect your property from your most probable disasters.

Communication plan: Develop a plan to communicate with employ-ees after a disaster. Each employee should have the phone number and address of all employees. Assign a chain of command to communicate with employees as sometimes the situation may require them going to the other employee's house since even wireless communication can be down or extremely unreliable. The actual magnitude of the disaster will determine how easily communication works. Employees are instructed to follow the news reports and not report to work until they have received an all-clear message from authorities to travel or they have had contact with another employee confirming the need to report to work. You should include your main suppliers in this plan as well as they may be open but cannot communicate or deliver through their regular channels.

Returning to work: Once the threat has passed, employees need to get safely back to work not only for the company's sake but for their wellbeing also. Something about returning to "normal" is comforting to most people as they begin to sense that everything is going to be OK. Safety is a great concern as employees will have their minds on other disaster issues that they are dealing with at home and may not be paying attention to the potential dangers as much as they should. Many additional dangers are involved, such as driving when traffic signals aren't working when you're in a 15,000-lb. truck or you're working around downed power lines and standing water. There's also the possibility of contaminated water from backed up sewers and inoperative water supplies.

Stay positive: Your leadership abilities will be tested during a disaster situation. The circumstances could be very tough. Somehow you must find a good positive part of what is going on and relay that to those around you. Your employees will be relying on you. You may need to give those returning to work some time to talk about what they have been through. Try to help them wherever you can.

Now that I have laid out the basics of our emergency plan, it' s time for you to examine your company's preparations. You may not agree with every item of my plan, but you need to analyze what makes your company tick and make your plan around those items.

If a function vital to your company's operation could be severely affected by a disaster, then you should make a contingency plan that will allow this function to continue to operate normally. Or, make sure there is a temporary alternative measure in place.

Once you have covered all your plan contingencies, discuss the plan with your employees, suppliers and major customers so that they're all in the loop and know what they can expect from you if a disaster should strike.

Doug Santoro owns General Plumbing in West Palm Beach, Fla. He is a member of Quality Service Contractors, an enhanced services group of Plumbing-Heat-ing-Cooling Contractors - National Association. He can be reached at 561/585-2591 or at [email protected]