Preparedness & Recovery

Staying Open: Disaster Preparedness for Small Businesses

Vulnerable small businesses find the answers to surviving a disaster.

by / November 3, 2010
A shop was open for business in New Orleans in October 2005, despite the sidewalk being blocked by crushed vehicles and debris leftover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Photo courtesy of Robert Kaufmann/FEMA. Robert Kaufmann/FEMA

Diana McClure wants small businesses to ask themselves a few simple questions in the face of a possible disaster: “What is it we do as a company? What would be the most important things for us to do to survive a disaster? And what would we need to get up and running again?”

As the business resiliency program manager at the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) in Tampa, Fla., McClure is helping small businesses find answers and shape them into meaningful action plans. She oversees Open for Business, a program designed to assist small businesses in their efforts to prepare for and mitigate the effects of a disater.

The free program offers a template that probes deeply into all facets of disaster preparedness, along with an eight-session online series addressing diverse areas related to planning and recovery.

Although many business owners may have an inkling of what disaster planning entails — like back up the computer and compile a detailed phone list — Open for Business goes considerably further.

Its 13 forms help business owners understand how to manage critical supplies, maintain voice and data communications, and identify and preserve key business functions. The list goes on.

Open for Business began as an interactive Web tool available to insurance agents and policy holders. More recently, the IBHS produced a print version that’s free to the general public.

The program came to life in the wake of 9/11, when Congress declared disaster preparation in the private sector a vital national interest. From that grew FEMA’s Voluntary Private Sector Preparedness Accreditation and Certification Program (PS-Prep), a collection of standards for companies to follow to ensure business continuity in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.

PS-Prep in turn became the foundation of the Open for Business effort. “We are trying to follow that process very closely and think about that in terms of small business,” McClure said.

For users who delve into Open for Business, the most immediate impact is to create not just a plan, but also a formal process whereby business owners can analyze their company’s needs.

“A lot of the value lies in going through the process, especially if you have a team,” McClure said. “Even a small team composed of people representing different job responsibilities can benefit because you are thinking things through [and] learning what it is you [must] have in place to recover your business.”

The planning process itself becomes a vital piece of a business’s ability to address continuity questions. Through identifying and understanding aspects of the business, owners and managers can find that improvements can be made not only to their disaster plans, but also to the enterprise’s ongoing operations.

“When people start going through this process, if they are talking with each other across departments and across job responsibilities, they start to learn how they depend on each other,” McClure said. “They may find there are things they can do right now to streamline their business operations to address some weak area they had not identified before. So there can be some real benefits operationally in the present.”

Turning a Blind Eye

Small businesses may be especially vulnerable in a crisis, simply because they’ve never devoted appropriate attention to the need to prepare. Some may feel they are (or in fact may be) unqualified to address the subject, said Tom Phelan, president of Strategic Teaching Associates Inc. and program director for Emergency and Disaster Management and Fire Science at the American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va.

“They are subject-matter experts. They know how to make pizza or repair computers. They may spend 80 to 120 hours a week just trying to work within that subject-matter expertise,” Phelan said. “So when someone says, ‘What have you done about backup?’ That’s just not on their radar. They focus on their core competency.”

As a result, such entrepreneurs may have a general sense that a fire or flood would be a bad thing, but they may miss many of the more subtle threats. “Suppose you have a street repair in front of your coffee shop,” Phelan said. “If the street is closed for weeks because of that, you’re out of business. They think about floods and hurricanes. No one thinks about it, but a parade can shut your business down for a whole day.”

Sometimes the threats are overlooked. In other cases, the problem is simply a lack of time
because business owners are stretched too thin to give much thought to disaster planning. And then there’s another common malady: turning a blind eye. “It’s human nature to be in denial, to say, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” McClure said.

Perils and Patches

There are many ways small businesses can get trounced by hurricanes, fires or floods. There also are multiple fixes and precautions that are surprisingly easy to implement.

Take for instance the case of a small print shop. When the lights go out, the owner still needs a command center to keep in touch with employees, customers and vendors, and that isn’t hard. “All you need is call forwarding to your uncle’s house,” Phelan said. “The call-forwarding apparatus is in the phone company’s central switch; it is not in your location.”

Some solutions are efficient, inexpensive and ultimately good for the business. Suppose a restaurant’s kitchen floods. Rather than wait for a contractor to mop up, Phelan said, you can use your cook and waitresses. Not only does the job get done, typically at less cost, but it also keeps your people employed, thus preventing them from skipping to other jobs the next town over.

Another easy fix: Get a weather alert device from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “You don’t even have to turn it on,” Phelan said. “It just sits there, and it only comes on when there’s a warning.” 

Nothing is simpler, except maybe a basic emergency kit: first aid, flashlights and a fire

Role of Emergency Responders

Though there’s much that small businesses can do to prepare for disasters, the emergency responder community in turn can take steps to help minimize a catastrophe’s impact on the business community. In doing so, emergency responders can free up their resources in time of need.

In the big picture, emergency responders have a significant stake in the welfare of small businesses, said Tim Lovell, executive director of Tulsa Partners Inc., a nonprofit enterprise in Oklahoma that’s working to build disaster-resistant communities.

“One of the key things about this, from the community perspective, is that first responders should be aware that small businesses play a critical role in the recovery of a community,” Lovell said. The faster small businesses get better, the faster the community as a whole can recover, “which means less work for the first responders.”

For first responders looking to be proactive, there will be challenges, as usual, in the form of limited resources. “In some communities, there may be just one emergency manager, and for them to go out to all these business and nonprofit groups is just not feasible,” Lovell said.

This can be avoided, however. “They need to work with those groups where the businesses come together,” Lovell said. “You can work, for example, through the local chamber of commerce to get the word out about this. That is help-ful, particularly if you can get the chamber of commerce to actively promote that message.”

Then there are the micro-groups. Tulsa has an American Indian Chamber of Commerce, a
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and as in most cities, a range of business organizations representing geographic areas.

Plenty of Resources

There are numerous resources for small businesses wishing to investigate preparedness, including:

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers disaster planning assistance and also has a range of financial assis-tance products for small businesses impacted by a disaster.

Business Physical Disaster Loans up to $2 million can be used to repair or replace damaged real estate, equipment, inven-tory and fixtures. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program provides up to $2 million to help businesses pay the stan-dard bills they would have paid if the disaster had not occurred. Both have low interest rates.

Ultimately small businesses will serve themselves well by planning in advance of any catastrophic event. “They don’t have deep pockets,” McClure said, “so whatever happens, they really can’t afford to not be in operation for a very long period of time.”

Adam Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.