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Updating Emergency Procedures In The Post-Katrina World

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We have all heard flight attendants tell us about the safety precautions to be used in an emergency. Parents place oxygen masks on themselves first and then, and only then, place a mask on your child.

The principle is a simple one. You cannot help others if you are in need of help yourself.

The potential threats these days are many–increased hurricane and tornado activity, pandemic bird flu, dam failure, or a biological, chemical, nuclear or radiological attack. And, to perform the important responsibilities of insurance professionals and meet the health, financial and retirement security needs of your clients, your business must remain operational during these potential emergencies. While some disruptions are unavoidable, adequate preparation can prevent some closures and shorten others.

The material appearing in this article is meant to provide general information only and not as a substitute for legal advice. Readers who want legal advice about emergency preparedness should talk to attorneys.

But, clearly, insurance industry professionals should be thinking about this topic.

Develop a plan.

Organization and planning are the keys to successfully weathering business disruptions. There should be a group within the organization responsible for developing a written plan and monitoring potential events.

Information is power. You must remain informed on a continuous basis. Someone must be tasked with the specific responsibility to monitor potential threats and keep others advised accordingly. Another person should be designated as a secondary monitor.

In Florida, for example, during hurricane season everyone has a weather link on their computer’s “favorites” list. Everyone is an “expert.” Nonetheless, there should be a person or group tasked with responsibility to monitor the potential threat and initiate discussion of certain decisions for the organization.

Who will decide when to leave the premises, or when to re-enter after the event has concluded? Who will protect critical equipment? Who will take charge if some key personnel cannot be present at the office? Recall the disruption after Sept. 11, 2001, when all air traffic was grounded for a period of days. Should there be (or when there is, as some health officials say) an influenza pandemic, executives may be similarly stranded.

Test the plan.

There must be employee training on the new policy and full scale practice runs or drills. Just as hospitals must conduct missing or abducted baby “Code Pink” drills to retain their accreditation, and chemical industry businesses must drill for accidental leaks, each business must address its most likely risks.

Staying calm and avoiding uncertainty is critical. Practice and communication of a clear and consistent message is important. How do people stay in touch during and after the storm? Telephone trees, with redundant confirmatory calls from the bottom to the top, must be developed and tested.

If a business closure cannot be avoided, then reopening becomes a priority, with minimal damage to the infrastructure of the business. Being proactive often means having more time to adequately respond.

Remember the lessons of Katrina and Wilma.

You must give thought to answering a diverse set of questions. Where do employees work if your regular offices are not usable? How can the geographic diversity of operations be used to your advantage? How do you cope without electricity or phones? Are your computers safe? How will you pay your employees? Will employees need some assistance in the short term? Do you need business interruption insurance? How can you monitor and document losses and downtime for potential recovery?

Each business must address how it will handle numerous concerns about employee wages and benefits. For example, according to a recent Wage and Hour Division Opinion Letter, an employer may deduct full days from a salaried employee’s pay, without affecting exempt status under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and it may require such employee to use accrued leave time, even if the workplace is closed. However, although such a position is lawful, do you wish to implement it, or will you be more generous?

Computer operations are the lifeblood of most companies. Is there off-site data storage, and is it secure? Ideally, employees and IT personnel should have remote access to company data from their homes, to keep at least some aspects of the business operational. If a bird flu epidemic occurs, this will be critical, as self-isolation (staying at home) may be recommended for non-essential personnel.

Are there regulatory or compliance issues which may be affected by a disruption in power, or by a short-term business closure? How will they be addressed?

Grace under fire.

What your clients seek is calm reassurance. You must instill in your clients, investors and regulators a sense of respect for your company’s competence in a time of confusion. That can only be achieved if one has vision and has taken affirmative steps to be prepared. There are many problems which may arise, and there are resources available to help, with many on the Web. A list of helpful links is provided below.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. You must act now to minimize disruptions to your business and to those you serve. Another hurricane season is upon us. Bird flu approaches. Each business is different, and there is no “one size fits all” plan. In coordination with your HR and Legal departments, you must start to think of the unthinkable and prepare.

Kicker: Emergency

Helpful Preparedness Links (U.S Department of Homeland Security) (Downloadable Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist. It’s specific to bird flu, but it’s an excellent general business disruption planning tool, as well). (Comprehensive plan for dealing with terrorism-related events including concerns about building occupants, facility management and first responders) (National Fire Protection Association and the American National Standards Institute) (Claims resources for adjusters) (Detailed weather site)