Maryland’s Private-Sector Integration Program Helps Keep Businesses on Track

When the businesses began calling the Maryland Emergency Management Agency for information, the agency answered with its virtual business operations center, part of the Private Sector Integration Program.

When businesses began calling the Maryland Emergency Management Agency during the Baltimore protests, the agency answered with its virtual business operations center, part of the Private Sector Integration Program
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When protesters filled Baltimore streets during the civil unrest this spring after Freddie Gray died in police custody, downtown businesses had many questions and decisions to make, including: Was their business in the path of the demonstrations? Should they send their employees home early? What were other area companies doing?

When the businesses began calling the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) for information, the agency answered with its virtual business operations center (VBOC), part of the Private Sector Integration Program (PSIP) that Maryland developed to help businesses respond to and prepare for emergencies.

The VBOC is an online collaboration portal MEMA uses to let private-sector members sign in, interact with one another and view information — such as images, documents and live streams — posted by emergency managers and other businesses.

MEMA used the VBOC to provide information on the demonstration schedules, but many businesses used it to get more information from nearby businesses about protest locations, whether other companies were closing early and so on, said Christina Fabac, private-sector liaison for MEMA.

The VBOC looks completely different during other events, such as adverse weather, Fabac said. Rather than posting flyers and documents with protest information, MEMA may stream Doppler radar or live traffic cameras, along with alerts from weather experts. “They can ask questions of me. They can ask questions of each other,” Fabac said.

The PSIP was originally established in 2012 in response to renewed focus from the federal government on private-sector involvement in emergency management efforts. The idea behind the PSIP was to integrate the private sector into emergency management efforts in the state, said Chas Eby, external outreach branch manager for MEMA, which includes emergency managers from MEMA and other state and local government agencies, and also nonprofits, faith-based organizations and others. “Even if they don’t consider themselves in emergency management, they’re doing functions that help emergency management,” he said.

In addition to the VBOC, PSIP offers businesses a dedicated phone line and email to access the state’s business operations center (BOC) within the state emergency operations center (SEOC) during an incident.

When Fabac became MEMA’s private-sector liaison in 2014, the program began to focus on helping businesses prepare for and recover from a disaster by providing information to the private sector.

“We really made it focused on how can we help these businesses be prepared and help these businesses make sure that during response and recovery they have the information needed to make the best decisions they can,” she said.

While the PSIP is aimed at helping businesses, the goals of the public and private sectors are fairly well aligned. Typically private-sector business continuity managers and risk managers have two main focuses: business continuity and employee safety, Eby said. “We feel that these marry well with a lot of our goals in emergency management.”

Linking People with Resources

MEMA also lets certain businesses post their status during a large-scale incident on a mapping application called OSPREY. When activated, the OSPREY Business app is available for viewing by the public and lets companies tell the public whether they are open, closed or under limited operation. The default status for all businesses is “unknown,” unless the business changes it. When companies update their status, they can leave comments for the public. A business could, for example, direct customers to an alternate entrance if the main entrance is blocked by debris, said Fabac, or tell shoppers about limitations on goods available.

While the PSIP is open to all Maryland businesses, companies that sign up to appear on the OSPREY map are currently limited to nine business categories that MEMA deems essential to the public during a disaster, like grocery and home improvement stores. However, Fabac said, MEMA will add other categories if it sees the need.

So far, Maryland has not needed to activate OSPREY Business, but MEMA has tested the application with businesses to ensure that it works and businesses are familiar with it. Both citizens and businesses can also use the OSPREY application to track power outages, traffic issues, weather and other information.

Working on Preparedness

When PSIP isn’t activated, the program focuses on helping businesses prepare. The PSIP provides training and webinars, and sends out a quarterly newsletter on emergency planning and business continuity. These activities also help raise awareness about the program.

Fabac said she and others from external outreach frequent meetings with various business continuity groups statewide to spread the word about PSIP. “I go out and meet every person I possibly can,” she said, adding that she regularly attends the meetings even if she is not presenting. Eby said now that the program is established, with a little more than 200 members, many businesses come to the program through word of mouth.

MEMA recently held a tabletop exercise for private-sector members. It walked approximately 100 businesses that participated through a scenario that began with a weather forecast of an anticipated derecho, and included the storm impact and related events, such as road closures and a train derailment.

“Emergency managers were there, but it was really a focus on the private sector, and how do we make sure that they’re prepared and they have these plans, and making sure that their plans were going to serve them,” she said.

In addition to helping businesses build and test their plans, the exercise was aimed at helping the public and private sectors understand what the other does in an emergency, so government emergency managers can work more effectively with businesses during a real disaster. During the exercise, participants filled out worksheets, answering questions about their planning, which MEMA will use to provide better information and assistance.

Blaise D’Ambrosio, global business continuity manager with T. Rowe Price, was among the tabletop attendees. He said one important aspect of the exercise was having the opportunity to meet emergency managers and other businesses.

“You can meet people face to face, and that assists in building relationships so that when you are communicating using all of our digital communication, there is a little bit of a real-people element to it,” he said. Building relationships is essential to working together effectively to achieve community resilience, he said.

D’Ambrosio said that during an incident, one of the biggest benefits of being part of a program like PSIP is knowing what the public sector is doing so he and his company can plan accordingly.

 “It’s also reciprocal,” he said. “If we’ve already decided to act, it’s important that the authorities know.” For example, he said, if T. Rowe Price decides to send its Baltimore employees home in the middle of the day, the authorities may want to know that more than a thousand people will be heading out at noon, rather than five or six in the evening, as usual. He said the ability to communicate with other businesses through the VBOC saves him time because he doesn’t have to reach out individually to colleagues in other companies for information. “That is really a great value when you are trying to make decisions.”

PSIP members range from multinational companies to small mom-and-pop stores. And each has a role to play in recovery. For a large business, like T. Rowe Price, getting employees back to work means a large portion of the community can return to normal.

“Our employees are members of the community,” D’Ambrosio said. “So it’s important for us to work with the government authorities to make sure we can keep our business going with minimal interruption because we are the community.”

It also means that smaller businesses that rely on T. Rowe Price can return to normal too. For instance, a large business may work with any number of small businesses, such as caterers and housekeeping agencies, in its daily operations.

Interconnected Economy

Many of those smaller businesses are the ones that have the most difficulty recovering in a disaster. Shutting down even for a short period can be a big financial hit for a small business, said Tom Phelan, principal consultant with Dr. Tom Phelan Consulting, because they tend to have less equity to fall back on. If it qualifies, a company may turn to the Small Business Administration for a disaster loan to make repairs or buy new equipment, but those that do will have to carry the extra burden of paying off the loan.

 “Our biggest problem is that businesses don’t prepare themselves,” said Phelan, who is not involved in Maryland’s project. “Only a small percentage of businesses, even large businesses, have a real good emergency preparedness plan,” he said. Disaster recovery plans that deal with IT are common, he said, but many businesses large and small have nothing in place to address evacuations, pandemic planning and other scenarios. “Most small businesses don’t have any kind of emergency plan at all.”

Lack of preparedness for small companies is unsettling because about 50 percent of the workforce works for a small business, and in some cases, large businesses rely on those small businesses to keep operations humming as well. Because of this, large businesses have an interest in helping the community, including smaller businesses, prepare for and respond to a disaster. In the past, Phelan said, the private sector has been underutilized in disaster response, but that’s changing.

Beyond good PR, companies stand to benefit from getting communities they operate in back to normal and restoring infrastructure, he said, because that helps them move their products and get employees to work.

“Businesses need to have all of that stuff working,” Phelan said, “so anything they do to help the community recover actually helps their business.”

In addition, it’s important to include the private sector in planning and response because a lot of the information businesses need in a disaster will likely come not from government, but from other private-sector entities because most of the infrastructure businesses rely on is controlled by the private sector. And emergency managers at all levels need to help businesses prepare by sharing what they know, said Phelan.

“If you’re not reaching out, then reach out,” he said. “Go visit a business, a business organization, a business school — like a college or university that teaches business. See that doing an emergency plan and dealing with resiliency issues and risk and crisis communication becomes part of your community’s business thinking. It’s so important.”

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