An emergency communications plan is essential for the survival of your business during and after a disaster. It’s also vital for your employees’ health and welfare, and it’s essential for keeping your customers in touch and informed. Depending on the type and duration of a disaster you will need communications to summon help, to protect your business assets and to coordinate operations and recovery. And the disaster doesn’t need to affect you directly to require you to use your emergency communications plan.

An emergency communications plan is an essential part of your business continuity plan.

The recent wildfires in California, and the resulting precautionary power outages are a clear demonstration of why this is true. When this happened, businesses found themselves without power and because the power was out, also without communications.

Without communications, customers couldn’t reach businesses, supervisors couldn’t reach employees or contractors, shipments couldn’t be arranged and supplies couldn’t be purchased. Business came nearly to a standstill.

Cell phones worked for a while, but once their batteries failed, as well as the batteries powering the cell sites died, wireless communications stopped.

Those sites with generators may run for a few days, but then they need fuel, and with the road network unavailable because of the fires, getting fuel to cell sites is problematic, even if the site itself is undamaged.

Adding to the problem, operational cell sites are jammed, landlines may also be jammed even if they’re operational, and while you may be able to make a few phone calls, you can’t count on it.

Outside of California similar events follow severe weather, with hurricanes in the Southeastern US, extreme winter weather and earthquakes pretty much anywhere.

What’s an Emergency Communications Plan?

An emergency communications plan is an essential part of your business continuity plan. After a disaster, you will need to know what your options are as you work to protect your employees, keep your business running and help you get back to business after it’s over.

The plan details each type of communications you currently use, such as internet access, wireless phones and landline phones, what you need them for and how essential each is to your business. The plan also documents procedures for communications during the emergency, how those procedures would be accomplished and who is responsible for carrying out each part of the plan.

Speed is Essential

For an emergency communications plan to be effective, it must be able to be executed immediately. This means you must have already identified which part of your communications infrastructure to activate first, who is responsible for doing it, and exactly what their duties are. For example, if your company is damaged by a tornado, you need to be able to call your local fire and rescue departments, so you need to know which form of emergency communications to use, perhaps a satellite phone if the local lines are out. The plan should say where that phone is, how to use it (such as only using it outside) and what to tell the emergency services when you reach them.

Building Your Plan

It’s critical to get senior level buy-in, so start there, and arrange to have your CEO or similarly placed executive to sign off on the plan. You can’t afford to have some assistant VP trying to second-guess during an emergency. Here are some steps to follow in creating the plan.

  • Publicize the fact that you’re creating the plan throughout the company, and ask for input. Make sure that the word gets out that you’re working under the auspices of senior management.
  • Create a team to take user input and then evaluate your communications needs in the case of an emergency. This will vary significantly from one company to another. For example, if you have an ISP handling your website and internet activity, you may only need to find an employee outside of the disaster to keep things running.
  • Evaluate your options for each type of communications. It may be that cell phones will work fine outside of the immediate disaster area, but you’ll need satellite phones otherwise. You may be able to redirect your landline calls to another site, and even set up a temporary call center off site.
  • For each company location, determine exactly what steps to take for alternate communications, and describe who is to execute those plans.
  • Create an external communications plan and appoint an executive to execute it. This external communications plan should publicize your company’s status in the emergency, tell the news media how your company was affected, tell your employees who to call and where to go and it should include contacts with other company offices so they can execute their plans for taking over your functions while you’re off-line.
  • Evaluate your emergency plans for external services such as power and water. If the power is going to be out for an extended period, someone will need to ensure that your emergency power is running and can be managed for the duration. This may include arranging for fuel delivery if you depend on diesel generators.

Power to the Process

One factor that’s crucial to a successful communications plan is to make sure you have enough electrical power. At the minimum, you need to be able to provide electrical power to work spaces that are required for communications, which probably means some of your office space. Depending on your organization, you may want to be able to keep essential parts of your business powered, or you may want to keep the whole thing running.

Mark Feasel, VP smart grid for Schneider Electric, says that he routinely works with companies to plan their backup power needs. He references the emergency power backup plan for Montgomery County, Maryland, where Schneider helped the county put together an integrated plan that included solar and natural gas generators sufficient to run county buildings including emergency services.

Feasel said that Schneider Electric was able to help the county make the solution affordable by putting together a financing package with Duke Energy, and then designing the digital control system so that the gas generators and solar collectors could sell power to the local power grid.

“Gas generators aren’t subject to the same challenges as diesel,” Feasel explained. “The generators run all the time.”

Feasel said that diesel generators can have reliability problems that don’t affect the gas turbines used in natural gas generators, and he pointed out that with diesel generators you still need to have a way to have fuel delivered every few days.

“You need diversity of generation,” he said.

Obviously, many companies don’t need a backup power plan on the scale of Montgomery County. It may be that your business is small enough that a backup generator will be sufficient, provided you have a means of getting fuel delivered or can store enough on site for several days of operation. It’s important to determine how much that is, how long to plan for, and how to make sure you have enough fuel for the emergency.

Getting Help

Making sure you have an adequate emergency communications plan, and all that goes with it, is probably outside of the expertise of most organizations. Fortunately, there is help. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a website devoted to helping business prepare for a variety of emergencies, ranging from power outages to hurricanes and earthquakes. There’s also a site for crisis communications.

Very small businesses can get help in their emergency power needs from local consultants that specialize in backup power planning, but it’s important that the company that’s helping you is aware that you need a reliable power capability for the long term. Larger companies can call on the services on companies such as Schneider Electric.

But before you go out and start buying generators, it’s important to have a plan. That plan needs to be in place so that you know what you’re actually going to need for communications, and how it all fits together.