Flirting with disaster Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Joe Paterno once said that the minute you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner. Rick Eckert, chief financial officer of ECBM Insurance Brokers and Consultants, says the legendary football coach’s words are a perfect reminder of the importance of having a plan so that you will be ready when disaster strikes.

“Anything that has the potential to take your business out for an extended period of time needs to have a plan attached to it,” Eckert says. “The last thing you want to be doing is trying to figure out that plan in the middle of it.”

Smart Business spoke with Eckert about what to include in your company’s disaster plan and how to ensure that your plan will work.

Why is it necessary for businesses to have a disaster plan?

In the middle of a disaster, you’re emotional, and if you’re making decisions based on emotion, you’re going to make bad decisions. So take the time to have a thorough, well-practiced plan before disaster strikes. It doesn’t make it any easier if it happens, but at least you’ll have an idea of what to do and you’ll execute instead of panicking.

If you think of people who deal with disaster all of the time, such as police, firefighters, EMTs and the military, the reason it works for them is that they are well-trained and well-disciplined. They don’t stop and think, they don’t panic, their hearts don’t start racing, and they don’t get worried. They execute. That’s why you need a plan.

What areas should a good disaster plan cover?

There are basic components that are the same for everyone, but from those core components, it changes based on your industry and size. There are a lot of variables, so not every company’s plan should be the same.

Start with life and safety. Look at your evacuation plans, fire protection, security, your access to health professionals and where you are located. If you lease space in an office building, you have to understand your neighbors’ plans, as well as your city’s plans, and know how you tie into them.

Then find out exactly what your mission-critical components are. What do you have to do to function, and how would that be replicated in a disaster environment? Can you get temporary space with communications, computers and warehouse space, and how long would it take to set up?

Look at how your business data is secured and if it is accessible off site. Can your employees work from home? Do you have other work sites that can house you temporarily?

Finally, you have to keep in mind that your employees will be dealing with that same disaster in their personal lives. You can’t just expect them to be your employees and do what you say, because maybe their houses got destroyed.

How can business owners develop an effective disaster plan?

First, don’t assume your insurance will take care of everything. Most people think their insurance will take care of it, but that’s not always the case.

You have to look at your plan as a business continuation plan. From there, gather a team that represents all aspects of your business.

Rank every aspect’s importance and determine how you would attack it in a disaster environment.

Then take that a step further and talk to others in your industry. Use trade associations, business groups, your insurance broker, even peers in your business. Government Web sites such as Ready.gov and the Pennsylvania version of that called Readypa.org can also be helpful.

You have to keep in mind that your plan is a living document. Once you build it, it doesn’t just end there. You have to look at it regularly, and you have to change and adjust it.

How can you ensure that prioritizing tasks in the planning process goes smoothly?

Have somebody from the senior executive or ownership level who has significant authority lead the charge, because people by natural tendency are going to get competitive between their units and want their issues to be covered first.

It’s a good idea to have somebody from the ownership level, which is where it really counts, who can referee and make a decision if they have to.

Once it is in place, how can companies evaluate their disaster plan to ensure it is working?

Three words: Practice, practice, practice. Dry run your plan using different scenarios to see what works and what doesn’t. You actually have to run the plan from start to finish. Create a scenario and then practice executing your plan based on that scenario.

With our team, I told them we would have a dry run on a Friday. I told them I wouldn’t spring it on them totally by surprise, but I wouldn’t tell them what time and what disaster would be coming. So they’re sitting on pins and needles, and I send an e-mail saying there is a tornado three miles from here — react.

Throw a few scenarios at them, then execute the plan from a tabletop level. We didn’t actually move people, at least on the first few runs. From there, you will find out what you missed. Then you can have some full-blown total company runs, as well.

Obviously you can’t do that a lot, because you don’t want total disruption, but you should do it at least one each year.

Rick Eckert is CFO of ECBM Insurance Brokers and Consultants. Reach him at (610) 668-7100 or reckert@ecbm.com.