Disaster Preparedness

Disaster: a "bad star." That's the derivation of this ancient Greek word. If a comet is hurling toward the earth, or our sun goes super-nova, there is nothing to be done. But there are disasters a co-op could face short of Armageddon.

A fire could reduce your building to ashes, a tornado could rip up your neighborhood, an earthquake could level your city, a flood could paralyze your region, or an act of lethal violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing could devastate your collective psyche.

As contrasted with a mere emergency, say a power outage or a snow storm, a disaster means your store can't function and/or your employees can't come to work for days, weeks, even months. Having a disaster preparedness plan can make the difference between survival and extinction for your co-op.

Emergency Response Team

The first step in a preparedness plan is to set up an Emergency Response Team before a disaster ever occurs. This team may or may not include all your managers, but would definitely include anyone with responsibility for building maintenance and personnel administration. Arrange for at least two people to back up each member of the ERT. In a disaster, key employees may not be able to get to the site when you need them. Designate a team leader with clear authority. There may be decisions to be made in a hurry, with no time for consensus. Be prepared to set up an alternate "control center" for the ERT in case the building becomes inaccessible.

Set your priorities

Typically, a disaster preparedness plan will establish the following priorities:

  1. Protect human life.
  2. Minimize risk of injury.
  3. Protect the physical assets of the co-op, including data.
  4. Resume normal operations as soon as possible.

To meet the first two priorities, the ERT should come up with a building evacuation plan that ensures escape routes from all work areas and a way of determining if all employees are out of the building. (For customers such a plan might be impossible.) Assess your building's potential structural weaknesses with the services of a structural engineer. Identify the safest place to take shelter during a tornado. Think through how to get out of the building if a door is blocked by fallen beams or a raging fire. An evacuation plan is only as good as employees' knowledge of it. They will need training in escape routes, the use of fire extinguishers and how to report an emergency.

Also in line with the first two priorities, task the ERT with setting aside supplies of potable water in non-breakable containers, padded jumpsuits, work gloves, transistor radios, flashlights and batteries for people trapped in the building or for cleanup crews. At least food supplies shouldn't be a problem!

Keep in mind the protection of life and minimizing of injury as top priorities when it comes to sending in cleanup crews, advises general manager John Corbett of North Coast Co-op. When an earthquake hit the co-op's store in Fortuna, California, staff were eager to go in and pick up. They toiled for sixteen hours, only to have a violent aftershock hurl everything in the store to ground yet again. Fortunately, no one was in the store for the aftershock, but from that experience North Coast management learned to secure evacuation corridors before setting staff back to work.

To fulfill the third and fourth priorities, ask all department managers to think through what crucial data could be lost in a disaster, and take steps to ensure its survival. For example, a financial manager might ensure off-site backup of key electronic data and financial records, including payroll records. A member services staff person might maintain off-site backup for member records, bylaws and articles of incorporation. A personnel or human resources staff person might keep an off-site list of staff phone numbers and emergency contacts, and a personnel policy manual.

In addition, department managers should plan ahead for their key responsibilities in the event of a disaster. This includes securing their inventory so that it will sustain, and cause, the least amount of damage in a disaster. Corbett recommends securing your bulk oil containers to ensure that oil doesn't end up on your floor along with smashed product, making the job of cleanup infinitely harder. Produce and deli managers should count on having to empty coolers and freezers of perishable product in the event of a prolonged power outage. Buyers should contact their main distributors to find out their contingency plans for deliveries in the event of an area-wide disaster. Keep in mind that shopping patterns may be different after a disaster, when customers are trying to replace their basic kitchen supplies -- or have no kitchens at all.

In order to resume business operations quickly after a disaster, Corbett advises forming a relationship with structural engineer in advance, someone who has credibility with your city or county authorities. After a city-wide or regional disaster, the local engineering department could be too overwhelmed to respond promptly to your request to assess damage and get your "yellow tag" removed so that you can open for business. An engineer working for the co-op might be able to certify the safety of your structure in a timely manner.

Keep in touch

Employees will need a way to find out what is happening. Set up a phone tree to rapidly get in touch with employees or, if they can't be reached, their emergency contacts. Larger stores might use a voice mail system where people can both call in to hear a message and leave messages themselves. If the store's phones are down, the ERT should designate someone to provide a phone center where employees can call for information. Ideally, ERT members will carry beepers.

Assess your insurance coverage

At GreenStar Co-op in Ithaca, New York, property insurance was inadequate when the store burned to the ground in 1992. "We didn't think in terms of total loss," says general manager Arthur Godin. His advice: plan for the worst-case scenario. In the aftermath of the fire, GreenStar management routinely reviews its property insurance every year with the finance committee.

In North Coast's case, in order to collect from the co-op's insurer, employees had to videotape their damaged inventory. "When they saw bin after bin filled with grimy product," Corbett recounts, "they paid up."

Fortunately for GreenStar, the co-op had business interruption insurance, which covered the payroll for the nine employees who ran the co-op collectively at the time. This insurance paid for all re-opening expenses, including consultants. Business interruption insurance is not for everyone. North Coast's analysis revealed that it would be more cost-effective to borrow money for repairs after an earthquake than to pay the premium for business interruption insurance.

Handling the media

If there has been a regional disaster, the media will probably not seek out the co-op. However, if the co-op is the only structure to be destroyed or the damage is spectacular, be prepared. Appoint a spokesperson with back-ups who are all trained in the following guidelines:

  • Avoid speculation and personal opinion; stick to the facts that you know to be true.
  • Avoid discussion of liability; don't accept blame or responsibility, and refer legal questions to the co-op's attorney. Statements to the media are likely to be reviewed in the event of a lawsuit.
  • Explain that an investigation is underway and that there aren't enough facts available to allow comment, if that is the case.
  • Tell what steps the co-op is taking to address the crisis.
  • (Guidelines from Bob Baughn of the Society for Human Resource Management's Workplace Safety and Health Committee.)

Emergency closure policy

When GreenStar burned down, there were only nine employees, and all their labor could be justified to the insurer as necessary to reopen the store. Today, with over 70 employees, Godin says the co-op probably could not justify nor itself afford to pay the entire staff throughout a lengthy shut-down. Before a disaster strikes, develop an emergency closure policy as part of your personnel policy handbook. This policy will specify (1) whether and for how long employees will be paid if the store is closed in a disaster, (2) who will have authority to decide who will work and who will not from among the employees available, and (3) how absences will be excused if the store is open for business but employees can't get to work due to a disaster.

Psychological aftershocks

Those who haven't lived through a disaster may not anticipate the impact on employees' ability to resume productive work. Employees may lose their homes or their source of income. Co-workers may be killed or severely injured. Sometimes work may be the only source of stability for employees who suddenly have no place else to go.

A thorough disaster preparedness plan arranges for counseling for grief and loss. An employee assistance program would be invaluable -- yet another reason to check out this low cost employee benefit for your co-op. Local governments sometimes provide counselors in the wake of a disaster. Employees may need information on where to go for federal disaster relief and low-cost loans. If someone on the Emergency Response Team has researched this information ahead of time, your co-op will be that much more prepared to handle a potential disaster.

No plan can cover every possibility. There will still be many difficult and unexpected decisions confronting co-op management in a disaster situation. But as those with experience in disaster preparedness say, any plan is better than no plan at all.

See other articles from this issue: #079 November - December - 1998