3 secrets of disaster response learned from Hurricane Sandy

Often the employees at a small to mid-size business feel they already have their hands full just running day to day operations. But what if a worst case scenario were to strike?

It’s not pleasant to think about, but necessary to do so. Consider the small businesses that have seen their offices washed away in the recent Alberta floods, or seen their employees stranded and displaced – or worse. How will the business pull together and survive the disaster, while communicating a plan of action to its employees?

When it comes for disaster planning there are few organizations in the world that have as much experience as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), an agency under the department of Homeland Security. So we’re looking to Robert Jensen, the principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at Homeland Security, for some strategies for disaster recovery communications planning.

He shared his experiences based on dealing with the fallout of Hurricane Sandy in New York last year.

Hone in on your target audience, but include all stakeholders

It might not be surprising that many Americans don’t trust the federal government. But it’s a bit surprising that Jensen recognizes that and factors it into his communications plan during disaster recovery operations.

“Many times people don’t necessarily trust the federal government, imagine that,” Jensen said.

He knew right away that winning over popular opinion across the country wasn’t going to be easy for FEMA in light of what many view as a botched response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans several years prior. So instead a survivor-first mentality was taken for the communications plan, focusing on getting information to the people affected by the disaster by any means possible. That meant reaching out to leaders of faith-based communities, private sector leaders, and

“We had to talk to these communities through their already trusted leaders,” Jensen says. “There is no recovery without the private sector.”

That includes communication in advance of a disaster striking, he adds. Homeland Security works with retailers on messaging around disaster preparedness and will provide signage with information about what to include in a 72-hour survival kit. It also knows the plans of grocery store chains to remain open or stay closed in different scenarios, so it knows where food will be most needed.

Including all the stake-holders in FEMA’s disaster response planning meant having multi-lingual messages and supplies organized ahead of time. For example, New York’s Jewish and Muslim citizens affected by Hurricane Sandy were delivered Kosher and Halal meals. Posters were also prepared in 20 different languages.

The takeaway for businesses? Choose your target market and make sure you’re inclusive of everyone that belongs to it. Don’t worry about those who are outside your focus.

Use social media, but don’t depend on it

Social media is ubiquitous and provides an often-visited online location that your customers turn to for information. That can provide a great communications channel in a disaster situation, but it may not always be accessible.

FEMA monitored conversations that were taking place on social media during Hurricane Sandy to keep tabs on community needs and to discourage misinformation, Jensen says. It also set up networks for iPads that it gave to volunteers going door to door and signing up residents for disaster assistance by surveying their needs.

But many people didn’t have access to social media with power out and cellular networks down, Jensen says. So he couldn’t depend on those messages reaching the people in need – hence FEMA’s effort to deploy 10,000 field workers and volunteers to help communicate information to the affected areas.

Practice makes perfect

In the case of disaster response, exercise your communications plan regularly, Jensen says. Unless everyone knows their own role and who does what, the plan will fail. This is particularly important when you’re the government, Jensen says.

“The worst thing that can happen for the national government when the media calls is to say ‘we’re surprised as you are.’ So you have to have something ready to say,” he says.

In the case of a business continuity plan, that requires being used every day, according to John Stagl, director of business continuity at Belfor USA. Testing a plan means you’re only going to use it if you really need to. A business continuity strategy means you’re ensuring your normal operations will be unimpeded by external events.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jacksonhttp://www.itbusiness.ca
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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