Businesses prepare plans for when disaster strikes

Disaster plans not one-size-fits-all, as each business has specific needs

Sara Dowd of Madrona Medical Group gives Guide Meridian/Cordata resident Harold Minkler a first aid kit at a picnic to kick off the neighborhood’s implementation of a disaster preparedness plan.


Bellingham sits along the calm waters of the Puget Sound, surrounded by lush green forests and the ever-present Mount Baker towering in the east. We have a robust economy and clean air and water. It’s hard to imagine it any other way.

But then again, that mountain is also a volcano. And some say we’re due for a mammoth earthquake. And then there’s the possibility of avian flu, forest fires, tsunamis, snow-filled winters…. Those all come with big ifs, but they’re all possible.

So maybe the question isn’t if a disaster will happen, but what can we do when one does happen? Are you and your business prepared?


The business of being prepared

To prepare for disaster at home, the primary concern is being able to survive several days without power and access to food, water or medical services. But for businesses, disaster preparedness is multifold — the safety of employees and customers is compounded with keeping the business viable.

Laura Fields, emergency services director of the American Red Cross Mt. Baker chapter, said it’s equally important to be prepared at home and work in case disaster strikes.

But making a business disaster plan is not one-size-fits-all.

Larry West, manager of the Northwest Avenue branch of Whidbey Island Bank, said banks have to think of security in a disaster more than most businesses.

And medical service providers have a dual role if disaster strikes Bellingham. Not only are they a business with employees, but agencies such as Madrona Medical Group would concentrate on maintaining its ability to provide medical care to the public, said Madrona Facilities Director Scott Meaker.

Also, West’s branch of Whidbey Island Bank has five employees, compared to the more than 300 employed at Madrona, creating different logistics in accounting for staff and maintaining communication during a disaster.

Tom Dorr, director of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center, said he works with businesses to develop tailored disaster preparedness plans contingent on different needs, but businesses do not take advantage of the service enough.

“Every business should do it and not enough businesses devote enough resources to it,” Dorr said. “It’s not difficult to do, but it is time consuming and takes thoughtfulness.”

Fields offers disaster preparedness presentations for businesses and organization, but said much of the concern about being prepared is reactionary.

“After [Hurricane] Katrina there was a huge upsurge of people interested in being better prepared in homes and businesses,” Fields said. “But as the big disasters get out of the headlines, people stop thinking about it.”


Pondering disaster

Dorr said the first step to be prepared is to assess what potential disasters can affect a business. For example, while an earthquake in the Bellingham area could affect every business, not all are threatened by floods.

“Most emergencies are much simpler than the large emergencies, such as an earthquake that knocks the town down,” West said.

With many records stored digitally, a simple computer failure can be a disaster.

Dorr said a recent small fire caused a power surge that irrevocably damaged two computers in his office. The event has the SBDC evaluating how to keep future data safe.

But one of the primary considerations for a business is the safety of customers and employees. While each business has its own needs, several common themes thread through most disaster plans.

One is providing basic needs. The Red Cross sells disaster kits for two to 10 people, which include medical supplies and food and water to survive for several days.

But with a growing population and expanding needs, what constitutes several days has changed.

A few years ago it was the norm to have enough medical supplies, food and water for three days in the case of a disaster, Fields said. Now people should expect to have to survive up to a week without basic necessities, she said.

Another theme is communication. Dorr said businesses should make it well known which employees have first aid and CPR training, along with emergency contact lists and some method of communicating with major stakeholders and customers about what is going on.

Regular employee disaster preparedness training is also essential. Dorr said reviews of the plan should at least be annual. Another common element of disaster plans is having established meeting areas outside the building, and periodically reviewing where those areas are is important.

Some businesses hold training more frequently. West said Whidbey Island Bank has meetings on a monthly basis to review the safety and disaster plans for the bank. Meaker said Madrona employees train regularly not only for internal disaster preparedness, but to provide care to community members as well.

Along with knowing who has medical training, Fields said making sure some employees are trained in first aid and CPR is a good idea. The Red Cross offers regular courses for both.


More than business

Last winter brought unusual amounts of snow and freezing, closing schools and businesses on a large scale. The snow left large groups of people without power across Western Washington, including most of the Guide Meridian/Cordata neighborhood. Two thousand people were without power for several days as Puget Sound Energy worked to restore hundreds of downed power lines in the area.

Many of the people in the area are seniors, making basic necessities all the more important.

With power restored and snow a distant memory, the neighborhood has taken giant steps toward being the first Bellingham neighborhood association to implement the Map Your Neighborhood (MYN) plan. The plan, sponsored by the emergency management division of the Washington Military Department, outlines steps to identify resources and vulnerabilities in neighborhoods.

Businesses, such as Madrona Medical Group, will play a large roll in the implementation of MYN.

“We’re participating as a member of the community,” Meaker said.

On June 30, the neighborhood held a picnic at Whatcom Community College, where several services and 11 area businesses donated resources and set up tables demonstrating what each could contribute in case of disaster. The focus, said neighborhood resident Pamela Sorensen, who organized the picnic, was to begin the implementation of MYN through education of community members. Amid the strawberry shortcake from IHOP and hotdogs cooked up by Whidbey Island Bank and Costco were first aid kits handed out by Madrona Medical Group and fliers on disaster preparedness from the Red Cross and the Bellingham Fire Department.

“Local businesses just gave and gave,” Sorensen said.

Even the Community Food Co-op, which will not move into the area until fall 2008, was on hand with food samples and artwork.

Cheryl Stewart, the membership officer of the Guide Meridian/Cordata neighborhood, said the businesses involved realized they provide a service besides just a product.

“It’s very forward thinking,” she said.

West and Meaker serve on the committee organizing the neighborhood plan. But the implementation of MYN is still in its preliminary stages.

Guide Meridian/Cordata resident Carol Nall said the first stage is to break down the neighborhood into smaller units. Nall chairs one of those units, comprised of 36 households.

“The first job is to map neighborhood: what they need, what they have, what they can contribute,” she said.

That information pooled into the larger map of the neighborhood. The next phase is to do the same with businesses.

“We feel fortunate we have businesses like Madrona that we will be able to tap into during an emergency,” Nall said.

Sorensen said she hopes the neighborhood serves as a model for Bellingham’s 22 other neighborhoods, and that their emergency strategy evolves into a comprehensive city-wide plan.

“That’s where we’re headed,” she said. “We’re starting little but eventually everybody will be under the umbrella.”


Online resources


Small Business Administration

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

American Red Cross


What to have on site


Here’s a list of what to have on hand in case of disaster

First aid kit, sized for business

Battery-powered radio and extra batteries

Flashlights and extra batteries

Non-perishable food

Non-electric can opener



Plastic garbage bags, ties


source: American Red Cross

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