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Emergency Planning for Small Businesses

How prepared are you for some natural or man-made disaster? Now that we are well into the 2008 tornado season here in the U.S., that’s a question many small business owners should be asking themselves. Most people don’t have the first clue as to how to prepare their business for a disaster of any size, but have no fear. We’ll show you how to plan for a disaster and get your company up and running again as quickly as possible. 

An Overview of Disaster

Let’s face it, as insulated as we may feel from vagaries and dangers of the natural world, they are still out there and occasionally they drop in, as if to remind us that there is something bigger and badder than we are lurking out there and to let us know that we had better watch our step. Our friends at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency have listed the most common types of disasters and how you ought to prepare for them. 


Fire is the most common of all the hazards. Every year fires cause thousands of deaths and injuries and billions of dollars in property damage. Knowledge is key so make sure your people know the fire procedures. Some other things you should consider include:

·        Meet with the local Fire Department to discuss the community’s fire response capabilities and your operations, especially any processes or materials that could either cause or fuel a fire, or contaminate the environment in a fire.

·        Have your facility inspected and make sure you are up-to-date on fire codes and regulations.

·        Ask your insurance company for fire prevention and protection tips.

·        Educate your employees on how to prevent fires in the workplace, how to contain a fire, how to evacuate the facility and where to report a fire.

·        Keep evacuation routes including stairways and doorways clear of debris.

·        Assign fire wardens for each area to monitor shutdown and evacuation procedures.

·        Establish procedures for the safe handling and storage of flammables and to prevent combustible materials, including smoking materials, from accumulating.

·        Keep your equipment operating safely through preventative maintenance.

·        Place fire extinguishers where appropriate and train your employees to use them.

·        Install and maintain smoke detectors and consider installing a fire alarm that called the fire department automatically.

·        Consider installing a sprinkler system, fire hoses and fire-resistant walls and doors.

·        Identify and mark all utility shutoffs so that electrical power, gas or water can be shut off quickly by fire wardens or responding personnel.

·        Determine the level of response your facility will take if a fire occurs.

Hazardous Materials Incidents

Hazardous materials are substances that are either flammable or combustible, explosive, toxic, noxious, corrosive, oxidizable, an irritant or radioactive. They have to be properly labeled, handled, stored, produced and disposed of. All of which is laid down in the Federal regulations that apply to your company and the materials you are using. Consider the following:

·        Obtain material safety data sheets (MSDS) for all hazardous materials at your location.

·        Get help from your local fire department in developing response procedures.

·        Train employees to properly handle and store hazardous materials and to recognize and report spills and releases.

·        Develop a hazardous material response plan including:

o       Notification of management, employees and emergency responders.

o       Evacuation procedures.

o       Training and organization for an emergency response team to confine and control hazardous material spills according to regulations.

·        Identify nearby facilities that use hazardous materials and how an incident at one of them could affect your facility.

·        Identify ways hazardous materials could be transported near your company and how an accident nearby could affect your operations.

Floods and Flash floods

Floods are the most common and widespread of all natural disasters. Most communities in the United States can experience some degree of flooding after spring rains, heavy thunderstorms or winter snow thaws. Most floods develop slowly over a period of days. Flash floods, however, are like walls of water that develop in a matter of minutes. Flash floods can be caused by intense storms or dam failure. Some things you can do to prepare include:

·        Determine your risk. Are you in a location that floods?

·        Review the community’s emergency plan to determine evacuation routes and where to find higher ground.

·        Develop a warning and evacuation procedure for your company

·        Inspect your facility for areas that are subject to flooding and identify records and equipment that can be moved to a higher area.

·        Obtain a NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm and battery backup and use it to listen for flood watches and warnings.

o       Flood Watch. Flooding is possible. Stay tuned to NOAA radio. Be prepared to evacuate. Tune to local radio and television stations for additional information.

o       Flood Warning. Flooding is already occurring or will occur soon. Take precautions at once. Be prepared to go to higher ground. If advised, evacuate immediately.

·        Obtain flood insurance. Regular property and casualty insurance does not cover flooding.

·        Consider flood-proofing your facility.

·        Participate in community flood control projects.

·        Make advance plans to move records and equipment in case of flood.


Hurricanes are severe tropical storms with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or greater. Hurricane winds can reach 160 miles per hour and extend inland for hundreds of miles. Hurricanes bring torrential rains and a storm surge of ocean water that crashes into land as the storm approaches. Hurricanes also spawn tornadoes. Hurricane advisories are issued by the National Weather Service as soon as a hurricane appears to be a threat. The hurricane season lasts from June through November. Here are some things to prepare:

·        Obtain your local evacuation plans from the emergency management office in your community.

·        Develop comprehensive shutdown procedures for your facility, warning and evacuation plans, and communication plans for you and your employees.

·        Obtain a NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm and battery backup and use it to listen for hurricane watches and warnings.

o       Hurricane Watch. A hurricane is possible within 24 to 36 hours. Stay tuned for additional advisories. Tune to local radio and television stations for additional information. An evacuation may be necessary.

o       Hurricane Warning. A hurricane will hit land within 24 hours. Take precautions at once. If advised, evacuate immediately.

·        Make plans to protect outside equipment and structures and to protect windows. Permanent storm shutters are best, but covering your windows with 5/8” marine plywood is a second option.

·        Consider whether you need the following backup systems:

o       Portable pumps to remove flood water.

o       Alternate power sources such as generators or gasoline-powered pumps.

o       Battery-powered emergency lighting.

·        Be prepared to move records, computers and other items to a safe location within your facility or to a different, secured location.


Tornadoes are incredibly violent local storms that extend to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour. Spawned from powerful thunderstorms; tornadoes can uproot trees and buildings and turn harmless objects into deadly missiles in a matter of seconds. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Tornadoes can occur in any state but occur more frequently in the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest. They occur with little or no warning. Consider the following when planning for tornadoes:

·        Find out about your local tornado warning system from your local emergency management office.

·        Obtain a NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm and battery backup and use it to listen for tornado watches and warnings.

o       Tornado Watch. Tornadoes are likely. Be ready to take shelter. Stay tuned to radio and television stations for additional information.

o       Tornado Warning. A tornado has been sighted in the area or is indicated by radar. Take shelter immediately.

·        Develop a way to inform employees when tornado warnings are posted.

·        Have a structural engineer or architect help you designate shelter areas in your facility. Your local emergency management office or the National Weather Service office can help with this. Consider the following:

o       Healthy adults require about six square feet of space each; patients need more.

o       The best protection in a tornado is usually an underground area. Alternatives include:

§         Small interior rooms on the lowest floor and without windows

§         Hallways on the lowest floor away from doors and windows

§         Rooms constructed with reinforced concrete, brick or block with no windows and a heavy concrete floor or roof system overhead

§         Protected areas away from doors and windows

o       Auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums with flat, wide-span roofs are not considered safe.

·        Train your employees in what to do in case there is a tornado both before and after they get to the shelter.

Severe Winter Storms

Severe winter storms bring heavy snow, ice, strong winds and freezing rain. Winter storms can prevent employees and customers from reaching or safely leaving your facility, leading to a temporary shutdown until the roads can be cleared. Heavy snow and ice can also cause structural damage and power outages. Here are some things you can do to prepare:

·        Use your Weather Radio to listen for the following weather information:

o       Winter Storm Watch . Severe winter weather is possible.

o       Winter Storm Warning . Severe winter weather is expected.

o       Blizzard Warning . Severe winter weather with sustained winds of at least 35 mph is expected.

o       Traveler’s Advisory . Severe winter conditions may make driving difficult or dangerous.

·        Develop procedures to shutdown your facility and release your employees early.

·        Collect and store food, water, blankets, battery-powered radios with extra batteries and other emergency supplies for stranded employees and customers.

·        Install a backup power source for all critical operations.

·        Arrange for snow and ice removal.


Earthquakes can seriously damage buildings and their contents; disrupt gas, electric and telephone services; and trigger landslides, avalanches, flash floods, fires and huge ocean waves called tsunamis. Aftershocks can occur for weeks following an earthquake.

In many buildings, the greatest danger to people in an earthquake is when equipment and non-structural elements such as ceilings, partitions, windows and lighting fixtures shake loose. Earthquakes occur most frequently west of the Rocky Mountains, although historically the most violent earthquakes have occurred in the central United States. Earthquakes occur suddenly and without warning. Some things you can do to prepare for the next “Big One” include:

·        Obtain recent and historical seismic information for your area.

·        Discussing with a structural engineer thing you can do to strengthen your building, including:

o       Adding steel bracing to frames.

o       Adding sheer walls to frames.

o       Strengthening columns and building foundations.

o       Replacing unreinforced brick filler walls.

·        Follow safety codes with any new construction or major renovation.

·        Inspect, assess and develop measures to prevent damage to non-structural systems such as air conditioning, communications and pollution control systems.

·        Move large and heavy objects to lower shelves or the floor. Hang heavy items away from where people work.

·        Secure shelves, filing cabinets, tall furniture, desktop equipment, computers, printers, copiers and light fixtures.

·        Secure fixed equipment and heavy machinery to the floor. Larger equipment can be placed on casters and attached to tethers which attach to the wall.

·        Add bracing to suspended ceilings, if necessary.

·        Install safety glass where appropriate.

·        Secure large utility and process piping.

·        Maintain copies of the facility design drawings so that its post-quake safety can be assessed.

·        Review and update the handling and storing of hazardous materials.

·        Obtain earthquake insurance and discuss damage mitigation with your insurance company.

·        Conduct earthquake drills and educate all personnel on earthquake safety and procedures.

Technological Emergencies

Technological emergencies include any interruption or loss of a utility service, power source, life support system, information system or equipment needed to keep the business in operation. Such emergencies can be easily planned for:

·        Identify all critical operations, including:

o       Utilities including electric power, gas, water, hydraulics, compressed air, municipal and internal sewer systems, wastewater treatment services

o       Security and alarm systems, elevators, lighting, life support systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, electrical distribution system.

o       Manufacturing equipment, pollution control equipment

o       Communication systems, both data and voice computer networks

o       Transportation systems including air, highway, railroad and waterway

·        Determine the impact of service disruption.

·        Ensure that key safety and maintenance personnel are thoroughly familiar with all building systems.

·        Establish procedures for restoring systems. Determine need for backup systems.

·        Establish preventive maintenance schedules for all systems and equipment.

The Bottom Line

What it all comes down to is preparedness. By the time the water is around your ankles, it is too late. A small expenditure now will ensure that you can stay in business later so consider it an investment. If you do nothing else, investing in the following items will put you well on the road to being prepared for anything.

·        A NOAA Weather Radio (

·        A fire inspection and a risk assessment for the other hazards mentioned above.

·        Specialty Insurance (flood or earthquake).

·        Data back-ups and off-site file and data storage.

·        Uninterruptible power supplies for critical systems.

·        Preventative maintenance for all equipment.

·        Flashlights, batteries and fire extinguishers.

For more information on disaster preparedness, visit