When it comes to emergency preparedness, humans have a natural tendency to procrastinate. It's understandable not to want to dwell on the prospect of facing down a catastrophic, possibly life-threatening situation. But, as the old adage reminds us, "Failing to plan is planning to fail." The message is especially critical in light of the Bay Area's earthquake-prone geology. In the case of a temblor, the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have said that relief agencies will concentrate their efforts on the most highly impacted areas. "If a 7.1 quake hits San Francisco, all the resources will be directed there. It can be seven to 10 days and possibly more, depending on the magnitude of the event, before they can respond by providing any supplies to outlying communities," warns Genevieve Pastor-Cohen, emergency preparedness manager with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department (LPFD).
"We need to take care of ourselves as a community," she stresses. "That's why we all, whether families or businesses, need to have a disaster plan. Disaster preparedness begins at the individual level with personal emergency plans and kits for our home, vehicle, and workplace."
To shake off public complacency, for the fifth consecutive year the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has designated September as National Preparedness Month. Sponsored by the department's Ready Campaign, the annual observance is designed "to create a culture of emergency preparedness," encouraging Americans to take simple precautionary steps not just in their own homes, but also at work and in the community.
"When you also consider that the number of declared major disasters nearly doubled in the 1990s compared to the previous decade, preparedness becomes an even more critical issue," notes the DHS Ready.gov web site.
Particularly vulnerable are small businesses, up to one-quarter of which do not reopen after a major disaster like a flood, tornado, or earthquake, according to a 2006 Small Business Administration report. "These shuttered businesses were unprepared for a disaster; they had no plan or backup systems," the document observes.
Fire tops the list as the most common of all business disasters, according to Ready.gov, but there are many other adverse situations to anticipate. In addition to fire, FEMA classifies the following conditions as emergencies: hazardous materials incident, flood or flash flood, hurricane, tornado, winter storm, earthquake, communications failure, radiological accident, civil disturbance, loss of key supplier or customer, or explosion.
The list clearly goes beyond extremes of nature, and in fact the agency essentially defines a business emergency by describing its impact: "any unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility's financial standing or public image."
Even an instance of product sabotage falls into the emergency category, Pastor-Cohen explains, citing the Tylenol case as an example. "The company had to respond quickly and positively to show its progress in taking care of the situation," she says, noting that business recovery efforts typically entail some degree of municipal involvement. "The police and fire departments would make a connection with the commercial business that will probably pull some city services for law enforcement or other functions. We are very sensitive to that and the need to all perform as a unit."
Ready.gov emphasizes the importance of inter-connectedness with its key advice to "coordinate with others." "Talk with first responders, emergency managers, community organizations and utility providers," the site's experts urge.
According to FEMA, "emergency management is the process of preparing for, mitigating, responding to, and recovering from an emergency. Emergency management is a dynamic process. Planning, though critical, is not the only component. Training, conducting drills, testing equipment, and coordinating activities with the community are other important functions."
Fortunately, a wealth of resources is readily accessible to guide businesses through the myriad dimensions of planning. The multiple layers of government - federal, state, county, regional, and municipal - have all spearheaded preparedness efforts, developing not just policies, procedures, and reporting structures, but also materials to assist communities and individual residents in formulating their own plans.
At the local level, the cities of Pleasanton and Livermore address disaster planning through the jointly operated LPFD. Moving into a post that had been vacant for almost two years, Pastor-Cohen will be spending time reinvigorating existing programs and setting up new ones. Formerly the security and emergency operations program manager at Lawrence-Berkeley National Labs, she holds a Masters in emergency management and certification as a business continuity professional. Sixteen years of experience in the field, along with her familiarity with local needs and programs, enable her to hit the ground running.
One of her first priorities will be the question of debris management. "Hurricane Katrina left so much debris that it was quite a feat to determine where it should go," she comments. "Some items were shipped to other areas, for recycling, etc, I'll be looking at that for Pleasanton and Livermore."
Another early focus will be on redeveloping and reconnecting with the teams of volunteers from city programs like CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team, and LEAP, the Local Emergency Action Program. CERT classes offer hands-on training in disaster first aid, basic fire fighting, disaster preparedness, damage assessment, utility control, light search and rescue operations, and team emergency organization.
LEAP is a joint effort with businesses that aims to strengthen emergency resources, facilitate a coordinated response, promote recovery, protect community financial stability, and foster communication and commerce. Continuity is a major focus. "No matter how big or small, companies are dependent on their suppliers and vendors of raw product," Pastor-Cohen observes. "If they are located in the same area as the catastrophic event, everyone involved will be taken off line. My emphasis is not only to look at local vendors but also outside the area to help supply you just in case."
Pastor-Cohen would also like to reach out to forge stronger ties with the private and service sectors, avenues of cooperation that have been successfully implemented elsewhere. "Working with another city, I created a citizen corps, a council of both public and private entities. Another example is Alameda, where I live. We have an interfaith association whose key leaders are part of the city's disaster council, and we rely on those kinds of organizations to be there for the community if there is a catastrophic event," she notes.
A new disaster counsel for Pleasanton might include city agencies, the school district, hospitals, the Chamber of Commerce and any other business associations that might want to be involved, plus faith-based organizations. "We need to discuss where we are in terms of emergency planning so we can all be on the same page," she says. "We will both plan and exercise together. I can see evolving LEAP into that."
Employees will, of course, be thinking beyond the workplace should a disaster strike. "It's natural to want to leave the place of business in an emergency to check with loved ones," Pastor-Cohen remarks. Depending on the nature of the emergency, however, it may not be possible for everyone to return home. When companies focus on preparedness, they have to give some thought to arranging for temporary accommodations and supplies.
"This is another reason why disaster planning is important," she notes. "There should be a designated team to stay behind to work on recovery, and then a plan for later relief. Teams should be three-deep in each area of responsibility so people can rotate out as plans are put in place. We want everyone to know that their families are doing well."
A good source of home preparedness information is the LPFD's 34-page Family Disaster Preparedness Guide at www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/pdf/livfamdis00.pdf . "Four Steps To Prepare For A Disaster" are described at www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/services/fire/prepare-disaster.html . Links to additional advice and checklists are available from www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/services/fire/emergency-preparedness.html .
Pleasanton's 2005 Emergency Management Plan is a comprehensive document outlining the city's responsibilities in the event of natural disaster, human-caused emergencies, and technological incidents. It provides a framework for coordinated response and recovery efforts with local, state, and federal agencies and establishes an organization to direct and control operations by assigning responsibilities to specific employees. It can be viewed at www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/pdf/eoc-basic-plan-05.pdf .
Other planning aids are FEMA's Emergency Management Guide for Business & Industry, at www.fema.gov/business/guide/index.shtm ; and the American Red Cross's Business & Industry Guide: Preparing Your Business for the Unthinkable at www.redcross.org/services/disaster/0,1082,0_606_,00.html . Hacienda has produced a custom Emergency Procedures Manual for download at www.hacienda.org/forms/forms_materials_security.html .
The LPFD Public Safety Information Hotline at (925) 454-2375 offers pre-recorded contact information for disaster preparedness presentations and CPR, first aid, and CERT emergency training. The department also offers inspections to make sure businesses, apartments, etc., are fire safe. These can be arranged by calling (925) 454-2361. Pastor-Cohen can also be reached through that number.
Emergency 911 services from the LPFD Operations division include:
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