Wednesday 28 September 2022

Planning For Disaster! What You Need to Know

A crisis communication plan is an investment, not a cost!

Written by Robyn T. Braley 

We tend to think, "It will never happen to us!" And then, it does. Is your company prepared for the unthinkable? 

Having a crisis repsonse plan is usually on the to-do list but is often put aside due to more pressing issues. However, executing a well-written plan can save lives, calm fears, and provide a structure for responding to the event and moving forward. 

Canmore, Alberta floods of 2013

Hurricane Fiona devastated the east coast from Maritime Canada to Florida and into the Caribbean. Hurricane Ian was close behind.

Whole communities have been turned upside down, businesses destroyed, homes left in rubble, and lives changed forever. 

When I spoke at a recent conference, I showed images of recent disasters. The photos were sobering, and the audience became very, very quiet.

As I showed a photo of the 2013 flood in Canmore, Alberta, a man raised his hand. He was very sombre as he pointed out his house in one of the images. Due to the rapid erosion of the riverbank, it had been on the brink of collapsing into the raging waters.

Disaster Knows no Boundary

A crisis can strike at any time, to anyone, in any place. Disaster respects no person and knows no boundary. 

Most disasters happen in the twinkling of an eye with little warning. Once touched by a disaster, you are touched for life. 

All we can do is take as many precautions as possible to be as ready as possible. A crisis plan will help reduce the impact on people. 
  • Employees
  • Families
  • Suppliers
  • Customers
  • The Community
  • Leadership
  • Company value

Fort McMurray Wild Fire.

The Fort Mac Fire

The City of Fort McMurray in the Province of Alberta was surrounded by a mammoth wildfire that soon engulfed the city forcing thousands to flee on a single highway. 

It destroyed thousands of hectares of the surrounding forest. Billions were lost due to the necessary shutdown or nearby oil sands recovery operations.

Close to 90,000 people were evacuated. Twenty percent of the city was destroyed. Many billions of dollars to needed to recover and rebuild. The effects are still felt today. 

It happened suddenly that morning. What seemed to be a minor fire was burning near the edge of the city. Within minutes, the wind shifted and the fire became a raging inferno headed straight for the city. 

Mandatory Evacuation

Within hours a mandatory evacuation order was given forcing thousands to flee. Compounding the crisis was the remoteness of the urban centre located deep within the forested wilderness. There is only one highway leading south to civilization and north to industrial sites for recovering oil from bitumen.   

Crisis response teams quickly mobilized and became a model of how to manage a crisis. The entire country responded to send fire crews, crisis management professionals, water bombers and other resources. 

More than $80 million was raised within days for the survivors who had left Fort McMurray with only the clothes on their backs. Private individuals opened their homes to evacuees who were complete strangers. Amazingly, there were only two indirect losses of life attributed to the disaster.

Southern Alberta floods, 2013

Tsunami of Decisions

Having a crisis communications plan provides a handle to hold onto. Why? 

In the midst of a crisis the brain must process thousands of pieces of information, all creating extreme stress. A plan instills a sense of order, calm and hope in the midst of chaos.
"As the person in charge, there are waves of “stuff” coming at you from many directions. Each requires an immediate decision." 
The first questions that must be answered are;
  1. How do we quickly evacuate our employees to safety?
  2. Which emergency services do we need to contact?
  3. What records must we save and where are they?
  4. What inventory and equipment can we save?
  5. Who do I need to call when I am in a safe place?
  6. What do I do next?

Crisis Definition

A crisis is any event that can seriously harm the people, and destroy the bricks and mortar, reputation, or financial stability of an organization. 
  • It can begin as a small problem that slowly escalates into a major situation. 
  • It can be an unexpected event that comes from nowhere and brings utter destruction within minutes.

It's a Small World

Disasters can be broken into two categories; natural and man-made. Under the natural list, I include fire, hail or snowstorms, tornadoes, droughts, floods, tsunamis and others.

In a global economy, a key supplier hit by a tsunami in a faraway country can have the same negative impact on your business as an explosion in a facility across the road will have. Neither is your fault, but both can be equally devastating.

Man-made disasters include explosions, building collapse, rail derailments, arson, pipeline leaks, toxic spills, political policy reversals, employee fraud, financial collapse or the death of an owner. 

The Plan, the Plan

A plan provides a system for managing the crisis. You have an orderly guide and a step-by-step process for moving forward.

Where do you start? When our firm develops a plan, I ask my clients to identify ten ‘what if’ scenarios. A crisis plan guides you in answering questions.
  • Outlines what is known and not known
  • Provides details of what happened
  • Describes who and what has been affected
  • Reveals the possibility of casualties 
  • Explains whether the event is contained or if there is still danger
  • Shares the response/go-forward plan
  • Identifies resources required for a quick response

Crisis Plans Include

  1. A written policy
  2. Who is in command
  3. Who reports to whom - decision-making hierarchy 
  4. Maps showing route maps to muster points
  5. Lists of who needs to know
  6. Location key company documents and digital files
  7. Contact info of emergency response and recovery services
  8. Situation analysis and reporting processes
  9. Key messages and relevant background information for media inquiries
  10. Online and social media crisis posting and response strategy
  11. Media performance coaching tips
  12. Record keeping mechanism for the duration of the crisis

A Resource of Contacts

After the Alberta floods of 2013, I interviewed Suzanne LeValley, who owned Longley Condominium Servicesa property management company. The company operates various rental properties that were flooded in High River. Evacuees were out of their buildings for three months or more.

Suzanne attributed her company's recovery success to having ‘what if’ relationships in place before the disaster. Being able to mobilize critical support with a couple of phone calls saved her company thousands of dollars and reduced stress for her and her tenants.

“The bottom line,” she stated, “Is that we got
our people back into their homes 
as quickly as possible.”      

On the day of the event, it is unlikely you will find the specialized resources needed to speed your recovery by googling them in the midst of a crisis. If you find them, they will undoubtedly be already committed to helping others.  

"And that," as they say, "Is why you need a Crisis Communications Plan."

Robyn T. Braley is a writer, speaker and occasional media guest. He is the President of UniMark Creative which does website design, video production, media services (editorial and advertising), and graphic design. He speaks at business conferences and also blogs about branding. 


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