Hurricane Season Is Here. Is Your Organization Ready?

Hurricane preparedness expert Joe Trainor joins Danielle Ricci, Sr. Director of Marketing for AlertFind, to discuss why organizations need to move beyond the typical advice and ask themselves a series of key questions when creating their hurricane preparedness plan.

In our upcoming webinar, he’ll discuss the role that organizations play in reviving their communities and the ways they can better support their employees during a major storm.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Join Joe Trainor and Danielle Ricci as they continue this conversation and answer your questions live on June 21st.

Danielle Ricci: As companies start to prepare for a hurricane it can be a complicated process. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence and advice but not much has been thoroughly researched.

Joe Trainor: I agree. One of the issues with a lot of business continuity is that most of it actually does not have a strong research base. It's primarily driven by case examples, right? So company X or company Y did this thing one time and it seemed like it worked out for them, so let's repeat that. So that's fine. It's not necessarily a problem.

It's just a very different way of getting down to what really worked and what didn't work, what all the influences are. So that's one thing I think that's a little bit hard to navigate, right? A lot of the stuff that's out there as best practices have not been systematically evaluated.

Danielle Ricci: So how does that lack of researched and validated best practices affect businesses when they go to create or improve their own hurricane preparedness plans?

Joe Trainor: I think the big thing is that every place has something different and every situation is a little bit different. And it's hard to separate what turned out OK from what made it turn out OK. So just because it happened, in this case, to be fine, or it happened to be OK, doesn't necessarily mean that primary driver of that was X or Y.

And the truth is we don't have a systematic analysis that you would need to really know the difference. So I would say that a lot of it is just because it's like people passing on what they've done, which is great, right? There's nothing wrong with that. But that kind of next level, deeper look really isn't there.

Danielle Ricci: So where should organizations look for additional resources? How should they work with other groups to validate this information?

Joe Trainor: There are quite a few professional associations out there for business continuity, Rotary clubs, etc. You could share the resources among organizations to really dig into which of these things are really rising and creating a significant impact.

You could collect case studies and really do an analysis of them. It is more that exchange of information and exchange of outcomes and beyond your own company or small network. I understand it’s hard. On a day-to-day basis, you're driven by the job in front of you, right? And we don't create a lot of space in these places to think beyond the kind of immediate task at hand.

Danielle Ricci: Are there other steps organizations can take?

Joe Trainor: Maybe you bring somebody in to take a fresh look. What you need to do is broaden it beyond just the small business continuity team.

It's very hard and it's not something that's fundamentally wrong with those people. It just you only can see the world through your experiences and it's kind of hard to see now what you didn't even see then.

You want an external review processes to help people debrief their events in a real credible learning way, right? So there's a concept called high-reliability organization. And you want to be a high-reliability organization and have the traits of those organizations.

They seek out failures so they can learn from them. They seek out small problems and issues and they treat them like the tip of the iceberg instead of diminishing their value. They reward people for finding flaws in systems and correcting them. And because of this, they experience fewer than their share of bad outcomes, right? So part of it is a mindset that just because you've been doing something for a while doesn't mean that it's perfect, right? It's this constant search for the next problem or issue and rewarding them for finding and addressing them.

Danielle Ricci: So how does this approach help you find potential flaws in your hurricane preparedness planning?

Joe Trainor: It creates a broader culture of finding the mistakes. Especially when we're talking about big corporations with multiple sites and multiple business lines. And a lot of times the failure points are not obvious because they stretch across multiple departments or they stretch across multiple sites.

So it's not just like one person made a mistake in their job. It's that the system is created to fix problem A in one place and problem B in another place and those two solutions actually create a bigger problem when you put them together.

And when you think about them as independent you miss some of the ways that the system as a whole can fail. There's a very relevant example - the Challenger shuttle launch. After it exploded, the debrief found something like two or three dozen places where there were issues.

And the reason it wasn't is because each of the problems that each individual saw weren't big enough to stop the launch. And the problem though is when that little failure happened in place A, and a little failure happened in place B, and a little failure happened in place C the cumulative effects are what created the shuttle explosion.

Danielle Ricci: So can you give me some examples of how this plays out in the business world?

Joe Trainor: I think it magnifies even more when you're talking about business units spread across the country or globe. So a local store, for example, doesn't really understand what the corporate mentality is or what the central office's thinking. And you have tensions between units in different places because they're not even on the same page about what they would do, right?

I'll give you a great example of not thinking across the broader area. Think about a nursing home. It's common to have a contractor that is contracted to supply evacuation services to nursing homes for their critical patients.

But the problem is one nursing home hires an evacuation service provider. And then nursing home two says, "Well, you know what? I'm looking for somebody to hire. Who should I hire?" They go to their friend and they say, "Well, this is who I hired."

So then all of a sudden two, three, four, five people hire the same company to provide evacuation services. And the reality is if an event happens then they need to provide evacuation services to five different nursing homes at the same time.

While the company can meet the individual contracts, a lot of them don't have the capacity to do all five at the same time. You're not thinking about the sum total of the commitment over a broad area like we would see from a hurricane. Instead you're thinking about, “Can I deliver the individual service at this level?”

You have to look at the pool of your commitment. So that's another thing that you've got to look at what's going on across the entire organization and community.

Danielle Ricci: So what are some other factors that organizations need to consider in their hurricane preparedness plans?

Joe Trainor: Access to capital is also a huge problem for all businesses. You've got to have access to resources, but one of the major things for businesses that are in at-risk areas, is that they don’t have access to capital, or loans and their businesses fail because they don't have access to resources to allow them to kind of weather the storm long enough to rebuild or get their business back up and running.

If you have a downturn in income for a month, two months or however long it takes, your business is both absorbing the loss of revenue and taking on a significant expense line in terms of rebuilding or restaffing.

When you're in those areas that are potentially at risk, think about how much capital you keep and what kinds of emergency resources you have access to. There are some government programs, but the programs take a long time to work. The Small Business Administration does loans for businesses in those kinds of areas, but it's not fast money and it's not a quick turnaround.

Related to this issue of rebuilding is the idea of your corporate responsibility. How do you balance a quicker recovery by bringing in outside contractors who have lots of resources, with stimulating the local economy by using a local contractor.

Businesses are likely to make the first investments to get rebuilt and get going again and those first investments make a big difference because if you're investing in local contractors, it helps them to rebuild their business, but also, their customer base, and be able to purchase services and other things. So you want to think about kind of that dimension too, right, that balance between quick access to outside companies vs. supporting the other businesses in your community that are also trying to come back.

Danielle Ricci: What are some other key operational considerations when planning?

Joe Trainor: You also want to create flexibility within your business operations. One of the things that we know is that when crisis hits, one of the things that people tend to do is to tighten up, right? So they revert to standard operating procedures, policies, practices, rules, and it's kind of like a self-preservation thing.

Nobody wants to do anything to rock the boat, but the truth is, a lot of times, these are the situations where you actually need to strategically loosen organizational control, right? Because when you're really challenged like this, the problem is, you don't really know what you're facing.

You don't know what the business needs are. You don't know exactly how anything you do will lead to the specific outcomes you want, so there's got to be some space to try creative things that weren't part of your everyday system. And you can't do that forever, obviously, but that's how you find creative solutions to problems that are outside of your everyday operations, right? If you force everybody back into doing everything you've always done, you're likely to replicate whatever problem created the thing to begin with.

There's some balance required here. You don't want it to turn into the Wild West, where everybody just does whatever they feel like, but at the same time, you want to give people a little space to be creative.  You want to be clear about what the goal is - taking care of clients - and then give your employees space to find ways to do that. Maybe your office is flooded and they need to Facetime or Skype clients instead of meeting with them in the office.

Danielle Ricci: So how does this apply to businesses that have to have their employees on-site? Say in a hospital setting? How do they balance taking care of their family or personal needs with the needs of their employer?

Joe Trainor: There’s always going to be what we call role conflict or role strain. We’re all people and we wear different hats at different parts of our lives. I'm a professor. But I'm also a dad and a son and I'm a part of my community and I wear lots of different hats. And when you get into a situation like this, you compartmentalize. So when I'm at work, I'm a professor. When I'm at home, I’m a dad. You compartmentalize to some extent which role drives your behavior.

In situations like a hurricane, it kind of blurs the lines of where those roles fit. And the demands you have at home and the demands you have at work can come into conflict with each other. It's pretty common. And I think a lot of times when businesses look at this, they think about things like, "Well, how can we make our employees come in? How can we make our employees deliver what we want them to deliver?"

And I think that what the research suggests is that there's kind of limits to that. That if you ask somebody to pick between work and home, it's kind of Sophie's choice, right?

So the suggestion is that businesses need to think about the kinds of tensions that are likely to show up, particularly for critical personnel, and have systems in place to deal with that. So for example, one of the major barriers to on-site workers coming to work is, are the schools open? Because if the schools aren't open and parents have to be at home with their kids, it's a problem.

Maybe I'm abandoning my work but what's my alternative, right? Am I going to leave my kids at home by themselves?

So as part of your planning you need to think about these things. Maybe there's a temporary day care site at the office or you can arrange for some kind of short-term care to allow people to be able to come to work. Or maybe the business, as part of its community outreach, tuses some of their early resources to get the schools running again.

Companies need to work through their expectations. Employees may assume that they wouldn’t work if something like a hurricane happened, and the company's saying, "Well, I expect you to be here 12 hours after impact." And nobody's ever had the conversation, right?

So again, have conversations over what the expectations are. Who is and who isn't a critical employee? Everybody thinks that every dimension of the business is critical. But not every dimension is critical. Some things can be shut down for a couple of days, and it's going to be just fine. Other things, if you shut it down, the place is going to implode.

It starts with understanding who are the critical employees and then deciding what you are going to do to help support their needs, to empower them to be able to deliver value through their work with the company.

If I'm really a critical employee and the business can't run without me, then the business probably should think about how are they going to help make sure that that problem's taken care of so that you can be at work.

To address this, remember that an employee’s level of individual preparedness is directly linked to the business's interests. So you can put some time into business continuity training on personal preparedness. You help them think through it.You might even put some resources into it. Maybe they do a dollar-for-dollar match for preparedness-supply kit building or something like that.

Join Joe and Danielle as they discuss how companies can create hurricane preparedness plans that not only take into account their own operational needs, but also that of their community and their employees in our new webinar, “Is Your Organization Hurricane-Ready? 5 Actions To Take Now,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, June 21.

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