This spring has been a tearfully harsh season for the residents of tornado alley. Joplin, Tuscaloosa, Smithville, and many other towns across the Midwest and Southeast have suffered tremendous loss of life and property in what is reported to be the largest outbreak of tornadoes in U.S. history.
In our crisis communications training for clients over the past few years, we have offered a number of key actions that organizations should take before a tornado or other natural disaster strikes to reduce personal and economic casualties. Some companies across the nation have learned too late that advanced planning for unpredictable disasters can mean the difference between life and death for employees and visitors—and for the business as well.
In particular, we advise organizations to implement six basic pre-crisis actions to help improve the survivability of those who may find themselves amid unexpected destruction and danger in the workplace:
Position supplies: Situate first-aid, food and water supplies in the building’s shelter areas and communicate their location to all employees. Surprisingly, .many companies store their first-responder kits at some distance from the rooms where people are advised to take shelter, potentially cutting them off from life-sustaining resources.
Designate usable evacuation areas: Move your evacuation point far from the building, and communicate the importance of gathering there. Often businesses designate areas right outside the front door or in the parking lot as an assembly point if an evacuation is needed or if employees are scattered by debris. Unfortunately, this is the area where rescue vehicles will need extensive access, where fire hoses will be draped and where the greatest danger from fire or explosion will remain. Instead of creating an evacuation point at the closest possible spot, designate the farthest walkable location to remove your employees from potential harm—and have a Plan B site in case your Plan A site is unusable during the disaster.
Establish contacts with neighbors: Far in advance of any disaster, contact a business within walking distance to create a mutual support agreement, allowing your employees to evacuate to the neighbor’s facility for shelter and communications and their employees, to yours. If one of the two buildings is not severely damaged in the storm, gathering there may save lives. Ensure that both facilities have emergency stores of food, water and first-aid supplies.
Keep employee/visitor logs: Impose sign-in and sign-out procedures for employees and guests and take this register with you to shelters or evacuation points. Too many companies are slack in tracking who is in the building at any point in time, making it difficult for rescuers to know who may have been left behind and may need assistance.
Provide safe access to contact lists: HR managers should keep printed employee rosters with home/cell phone numbers and emergency contacts in their car or in a fireproof box positioned at the evacuation point. Computers will not be available and mobile devices are not likely to work if tornado damage is widespread, preventing access to digital employee data. The only way to determine who has not made it to the evacuation point may be to refer to the printed list. Many employees are likely to have tried to go home, and managers may be able to drive out of the damage area to connect with them via mobile phone, again referencing the list (or store all employee numbers in the mobile phone, not on the office server).
Pre-arrange a command post site: Make arrangements with one or more nearby schools or hotels to use a room there as an emergency command center to maintain communications after the tornado strikes. From this center you can organize contacts with employees and families and direct your organization’s immediate needs to protect life and property. Multiple arrangements are advisable in case your first choice also is damage.
We may not be able to anticipate when or where a natural disaster will confront us, but we can take these steps in advance to help mitigate their impact on the lives of our employees and families.
— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.