I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Joel Vetter, Chief Emergency Support Services for Suffolk County, Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services (NY) to hear about the steps the county takes to prepare for storms and the lessons he learned from his planning and response to Superstorm Sandy. As he was describing his tips, I couldn’t help but see how they apply to corporations faced with similar severe weather situations. While we can’t prevent storms from happening, we can implement a proactive plan to mitigate the effects. As Hurricane Preparedness Week took place last week, May 7-13, consider the following tips to develop a proactive plan to lessen the effects of a disastrous storm.

1.Develop a communications plan.

An effective communications plan ensures people can react in an informed way during an emergency. Technology has become a major resource for emergency notifications, and helps organizations save valuable time. For example, during Superstorm Sandy, Suffolk County residents needed to evacuate residents in flood zones. In the past, every resident submitted paper applications for evacuation assistance. The manual process required each application be sifted through to determine who needed to be moved and when. Additionally, every person needed to be called and notified manually, which could take hours to complete.

Today, new technologies enable Suffolk County to complete targeted mass notification to a customized database compiled of area residents and employees who opted in to provided additional data to emergency managers. With this information provided in an online portal, Suffolk County can easily target the individuals in need with one message disseminated via phone, text and email. In Suffolk County’s case, they were able to communicate to the individuals at risk of flooding during Sandy to have them evacuate, rather than the whole county.

Corporation can leverage this concept of targeting notifications based on location and need. If one office location or group of traveling employees is at risk, only those employees could be notified.

2.Embrace two-way communications.

Sending a mass notification will not adequately serve the needs of those you are trying to protect.  The communications should enable responses so you can open a dialogue and better help those in need.

In Suffolk County’s case, during Snowstorm Nemo, they sent bulk messages to identify vulnerable individuals. Each message included a phone number to call if someone needed emergency assistance. Through this outreach an elderly couple in dire need of cancer medication responded that they were unable to get out to the pharmacy. By utilizing two-way communications, Suffolk County understood the individual’s need and delivered the medication to the couple.

As the boundaries of the corporate office are torn down and employees have the freedom to work from wherever they please, two-way communication like the one outlined above become even more crucial.

3.Don’t wait for an emergency to begin using the technology.

The first time an individual sees your emergency preparedness plan in action should not be when a storm is settling in. It’s important to use various pieces of the plan in non-emergency situations so employees become accustomed to the procedures.  

For example, organizations should use alerts in non-emergency situations to inform employees. This is a practice that Suffolk County has started to employ that works well. In non-emergency situations, they alert residents of happenings at local parks and events within the community. By utilizing the tool regularly, staff can confidently use the tool under the stress of an emergency and residents are accustomed to these types of communications. 

Hurricane season is not far off, so now is the time to begin to develop proactive plans to ensure adequate procedures and technology are in place should severe weather occur. By learning from public safety agencies, corporations can leverage the best practices to further protect their people and business.