Communication in the workplace during a disaster

Effective communication can be crucial to a disaster recovery (DR) plan. In this tip, Leo A. Wrobel and Sharon M. Wrobel discuss best practices for ensuring effective communication with employees in the event of a disaster.

It's 2 a.m., and you receive the call you have always dreaded -- disaster has struck your place of business. Lightening...

has struck a gas storage tank and triggered a tremendous explosion. Your mind races to the first person that you will need to recover the operation and literally save everyone's job. Let's call him "John."

You reach for your cell phone and dial. Half asleep, John's wife answers the phone and you apologize, explain that the building has blown up and ask that John come immediately in to work.

There is a long pause followed by inconsolable crying: "John is at work!" Now you have two problems. This is a prime example of what not to do in communicating with your employees after disaster strikes.

Establishing command and control

The concept of "4Ci" is not new, as the military has used 4Ci for many years. It stands for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence. The first two terms "command" and "control" strongly suggest the presence of an authoritative figure (often called a recovery chairperson). The recovery chairperson establishes a clear chain of command and is responsible for directing and coordinating the strategies needed to accomplish a successful recovery from a catastrophic event. This is accomplished by identifying and prioritizing necessary personnel, equipment and other resources. The most important factor in such a response, particularly in the opening hours after an event, is communications. Communications in this context means communications "up" the ladder to the recovery chairperson. 

What happened? The "what happened" part to the chairperson must be 100% accurate, and almost immediate lest it delay the responders. It's best to think of in military terms. An invading force attacks. The general must know how many, from what direction, how severe, what kind of weapons, etc. Then, they issue instructions regarding troop movements, allocation of resources and general response. Now, let's explore this idea in the context of disaster recovery.

As in the military example, disaster response with companies and other organizations begins and ends with communication. First, management must be informed immediately, and precisely, what happened. Such a report is passed upstream after an initial damage assessment has been performed at the affected facility. This implies that people should be defined in the plan as onsite responders, since putting two eyeballs on the problem is usually the only way anyone can properly determine whether or not it is a true disaster. It is not always immediately obvious that a disaster has occurred. Even the act of declaring a "disaster" is not always an easy decision.

Set up response teams and define responsibilities

Team building consists of the executive management team, under which your organization, large or small, will comprise subgroups of teams according to responsibility. Some common teams include the affected site team, finance team, legal team, software/hardware team, etc. Some of these teams (after being properly trained) are responsible to report immediately to the recovery headquarters (RHQ) location identified in the plan. Some will report to the damaged site to provide the critical first reports to the RHQ. Still other employees who are not on a specific team or not critical to the recovery should be advised to stay away from the facility until cleared to come back. Non mission-critical employees should also be briefed not to call the company's landlines or cell phones to check up on the situation to avoid tying up lines or frequencies needed for the recovery. Instead, they should be given an 800 number working out of a remote (not in the same geography) location that will have appropriate recorded updates or live instructions. One interesting service to do this can be found at telecomrecovery.com.

A communications in the workplace checklist follows that shows teams your organization may or may not use.

Support function
Recovery headquarters
Affected Site
Employee relations Yes No
Facilities Yes Yes
Finance Yes No
Risk management Yes No
Internal audit Yes No
Labor relations Yes No
Legal Yes No
Telecommunications Yes Yes
Office services No No
Mail services Yes No
Security Yes Yes
Shipping & receiving Yes Yes
Medical Yes Yes
Public Affairs Yes Yes
Purchasing Yes Yes
Transportation Yes No

Reprinted with permission from Leo Wrobel's upcoming new book Business Resumption Planning Second Edition, coming in Fall 2008. © 2007 Taylor Publishing, New York, NY. All Rights Reserved.

Use all the diverse communication technology you can

In most instances, the chances for recovery -- even if your organization does not have a documented plan -- are greatly increased if you can communicate with your people, even in the absence of formal teams. Leave yourself "room to live" and consider all of the following communications technologies to ensure you stay in touch:

Wireless phones. Be careful of using wireless phones because frequencies can be problematic in major phone outages. In addition, cell towers usually only contain 12 hours of batteries, after which the system can be off the air.

Satellite phones. In worst-case Katrina-class disasters, these may be your only link to a twenty-first century communications infrastructure. They often require clear line of sight (view of the southern sky), which means you may need to go outside or near windows at precisely the time you wish to avoid both.

Pagers and Blackberrys. Since these are often satellite-based, they have the same advantages as satellite phones and could be a valuable link in wide scale disasters.

VoIP phones. I/P was originally designed for data, and to have a means for data to get through even if every AT&T office in the United States was in the upper atmosphere after a Soviet nuclear strike. Today, however, I/P is not only for data but also for voice, too. It enjoys the same resiliency for either medium. With today's technology, and with a little preplanning, as soon as you can locate a wireless hot spot that is still working, you should be able to talk. And if you can talk, you have command and control and can recover.

About the authors: Leo A. Wrobel has more than 30 years of experience with a host of firms engaged in banking, manufacturing, telecommunications services and government. An active author and technical futurist, he has published 10 books and more than 500 trade articles on a wide variety of technical subjects. Leo is presently CEO of Dallas-based b4Ci. Inc.

 Sharon M. (Ford) Wrobel served as Corporate Secretary and Director of Personnel for Premiere Network Services Inc. prior to joining b4Ci in 2004. During that time Sharon was instrumental in getting Premiere certified as the first CLEC to be certified in all 50 states by aiding in filings and when called upon, attending hearings. Sharon also engaged in extensive research for Premiere, a function she continues with b4Ci as Vice President of Business Development.

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