The Importance of Emergency Contingency Plans

Recent events have demonstrated that no one is exempt from a disaster situation and people everywhere need to be prepared.

by James Lee Witt / August 7, 2013
This apartment complex was destroyed by the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013. Photo courtesy of State Farm/Flickr CC

Boston. West, Texas. Mayflower, Ark. What connects these locations? In recent months, these cities have become the poster children for man-made disasters. These recent victims of man-made disasters have experienced devastation, not only in the specific cities but also the surrounding areas. Between the bombings, fertilizer plant explosion and oil pipeline burst, these seemingly unrelated areas have jointly demonstrated that no one is exempt from a disaster situation and people everywhere need to be prepared.

Any entity can be vulnerable to a man-made disaster. In the U.S., we have seen school shootings, acts of terrorism during landmark events and accidental environmental disasters in multiple forms. Regardless of the cause, accidental or otherwise, each of these events impacted much more than the specific victim or target.

Entire communities can be shut down by a disaster. This includes local businesses, government buildings and city services. It’s essential that each of these organizations create an in-depth emergency plan for the continuity of operations.

There are consequences for every moment that an organization is shut down or unable to function. For hospitals, people are unable to receive treatment and patient care will suffer. For schools and universities, students need a safe place to stay. But one of the biggest risks is to businesses; the loss of day-to-day operations can cripple a company and lead to significant revenue loss from which some may never recover.

The best way to ensure that your organization is ready to reopen following a disaster is to create an emergency continuity plan. The first step is to identify the organization’s greatest vulnerabilities, both internally and externally. Each entity will have its own distinct weaknesses, including threats to security and data systems as well as concerns regarding hazardous materials.

After identifying specific vulnerabilities, the next step is to create a plan that addresses any of those possible threats. This should include a contingency plan for all essential functions. Each plan should include preparations for any system malfunction, power outage or employee shortage due to lockdown. An emergency management continuity plan should include:

  • a resource management plan;
  • a crisis communications plan; and
  • an outline of individual personnel responsibilities.

Additionally, it’s necessary to establish and confirm that you have an extensive business insurance plan. Many of the businesses impacted by recent events did not have adequate insurance plans, and some of those organizations are still suffering. The worst time to realize there’s a flaw in the plan or a gap in your insurance coverage is during the chaos of a disaster. Therefore, once a plan is written, it must be tested to ensure that there are no loose ends.

Having a comprehensive emergency plan for your organization is a great start but that does not mean you are out of harm’s way. The impact of a man-made disaster isn’t limited to the specific building, company or school, and it is not limited to the city limits. Knowing a disaster can stretch beyond what’s expected, the entire surrounding community needs to be ready to work together.

The contingency plans created by local governments, businesses, schools and hospitals are often intertwined and dependent on one another. The government needs the community to bounce back from disaster quickly to avoid an economic downturn, and businesses need the area safe and clear to remain open. Everything is interconnected. State and local governments need to work with individual entities to ensure a community not only survives a disaster but also thrives. 

James Lee Witt is the executive chairman of Witt O’Brien’s and former FEMA director under the Clinton administration.