Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
Outside, the fleet of trucks stand all packed, gassed
and ready. Inside, in the corner of every worker’s office, sits his
suitcase, filled with enough personal supplies to last several days.
And within the hub, where disaster is a twice-weekly occurrence, the
staff sits on alert, beneath banks of TV screens and mounds of electronics.
They lean deep into the phones, lining up long lists of possible volunteers
for possible dates of disaster — just in case. At the American
Red Cross, Central Jersey Headquarters, 707 Alexander Road, a wartime
atmosphere is business as usual.
But in the conference room next to the hub, a score of people wearing
visitors passes are visibly less settled. For these central New Jersey
business executives, disruption and destruction are anything but routine.
Their goal is to keep their firms running and their people safe —
today, every day, regardless. Yet the idea of maintaining these deceptively
simple goals in the face of crisis has been posing slews of unanswered
questions and uncovering sins of omission in even the most caring
Business folks don’t like that. By nature, executives are problem
solvers; they want to get things fixed and done. So, what is the plan
for getting employees’ children picked up from day care when a snow
storm locks all 500 workers in the plant? When news comes that a bomb
has exploded in the city block where our sales convention is being
held, how does the crisis management team get all the facts? Who tells
whom what first? What’s a crisis management team? Questions. Omissions.
To help close these windows of confusion and vulnerability, a network
of local businesses has turned for answers to the world’s prime crisis
consultants — The American Red Cross. On the morning of March
20th, representatives of dozen firms gathered in the conference room
of the Central New Jersey Red Cross chapter conference room to experience
"A Disaster Simulation" and to take back some strategies to
their own firms.
The first surprise of the morning comes from the chapter CEO Kevin
Sullivan, who announces that this partnership is not just a one way
street. In return for tapping into the Red Cross information pipeline,
Sullivan expects businesses to join as middle links in the preparedness
chain reaching into the community. He points out that most of the
businesses before him have access to building space, transportation,
and above all, have the ability to funnel information through their
employees. "Part of any effective crisis response," he notes,
"must come from this mutual interdependence of information and
Launching quickly into the simulation, Paul Carden, director of the
Central Jersey chapter’s emergency services unit, steps forward and
forms Corporation X. He appoints Gordon McDonough as CEO. In real
life, McDonough manages health, environmental safety, and security
for Siemens. Rose Marie Delaplain, in reality the office manager for
the Archer & Greiner law firm, takes the CFO chair.
All the slots get filled for this fictitious corporation. Mathematica’s
director of facilities, Patty Fenner, becomes communications officer.
Karen Stutts, an ITXC Corporation human resource generalist, takes
on the role of "rank and file employee" and Chris Ulriksen,
who actually coordinates health and safety for LaureatePharma, is
shipped across the Pacific to direct Corporation X’s Asian office.
All participants are given roles outside of their own specialties.
Poised in their new assignments, they sit, waiting for
Carden to lay out the full scope of Corporation X’s disaster. It doesn’t
come. Instead, like a detective in a television drama, he provides
incomplete pieces of information — which may or may not be reliable.
"You have an office in Washington D.C. with 50 employees,"
says Carden. "News broadcasts say that an explosion appears to
have taken place in the area where your D.C. branch is located."
A thousand considerations flood the team at once. How do we communicate
with the Washington office if the area phones are down? How do we
confirm information? What is our role as head office? Do we keep the
business open? Who has that list of all the Washington D.C. employees
and their home contacts? What is the CEO’s role, and should he take
charge of this problem?
The benefits of preparedness strike home hard. The Corporation X team
begins to list all those ahead-of-time items which should have been
set in place.
"This is exactly what hit me on September 11th," says Mary
Evslin. "I was sitting there and realized I have employees traveling
in over 200 countries throughout the world, and I have no idea of
where any of them is at any given moment." Setting up a simple
E-mail check-in of flight schedules and hotel contacts would solve
that problem at no cost. On the homefront, Evslin saw the need for
neighborliness. "I kept thinking," she recalls, "I don’t
know any of the people or company resources next to me along College
Road. What if my employees had to evacuate? To whom would we turn?"
Mary Evslin and her husband Tom are scarcely the types to let post-crisis
helplessness wash over them. After leaving AT&T in l997, Tom returned
to his Library Place home in Princeton bearing a neon "open"
sign. Enlisting the aid of seven employees, the Evslins launched International
Internet Telephony Service Carriers (ITXC). Today, the 275-person
ITXC team is the world’s largest wholesaler of call completion services
in the telecommunications industry.
Through her life, Mary Evslin has launched several businesses and
moved frequently. "But throughout it all," she says, "the
Red Cross has always been my personal support system." While living
in Vermont, she served as chapter director. Volunteering for the Central
Jersey Red Cross chapter, she spent one week in Perth Amboy helping
to establish shelters and to provide necessities for victims of gas
main fires. Last New Year’s, she spent a week in Edison aiding immigrants
left homeless after fire destroyed their homes.
"September 11th showed us how definitely we businesses needed
a disaster network," Evslin says. Last June, she gathered seven
corporate neighbors along College Road to form the Business Disaster
Resilient Community. Evslin was not sure what the response would be.
Recently, safety has taken a bad rap as tales of duct
tape and plastic sheeting purchased with welfare families’ meager
grocery funds have spread. Fears have been fueled — and countless
jokes told — about the government’s seemingly meaningless color
code schemes. There is some worry that the warnings are, at least
in part, a ploy, part of some political agenda. The accompanying worry,
always with us, is that 9/11 will happen again. None of us wants to
be suckers or lemmings. But we don’t want to be unprepared either.
The goal is to separate common sense from hysteria and politics in
order to safely prepare and to get on with business.
Such a common sense approach is what Bob Morgan, Laureate-Pharma’s
director of facilities engineering, noted right from the start of
the disaster exercise. "All of us had pieces of disaster plans
in place, but we desperately needed to share each others ideas,"
he says. Morgan, himself a long time American Red Cross volunteer,
saw the business link with the Red Cross as a natural.
Back at the New Jersey headquarters of Corporation X, more news filters
through about the Washington, D.C. incident. After an hour of uncertainty,
it is confirmed. An explosion in the corporations’s Washington office
has taken place. National news is covering the story. Police presence
in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia has been increased, but
news is limited. Somewhere in the United States a plane has crashed.
The disaster simulators have differing suggestions, but all agree
that action is needed here at this office. We are now beyond the rumor
mill and into real concern. Karen Stutts, our rank and file employee,
states emphatically that she wants honest assurance and leadership.
Interestingly, CFO Delaplain, speaking for financial upper management,
says he wants exactly the same thing as Stutts. She is happy to let
the financial damage numbers drop to a less pressing priority.
Everyone agrees, now is the time for CEO McDonough to personally take
the helm. They do not want to hear his voice in the intercom. They
want to see him walking the floor and talking one-on-one his staff.
Everyone is hungry for news.
Communications officer Fenner and the team decides that the latest
solid facts should be announced, along with the promise of hourly
updates and more frequent bulletins as vital information becomes known.
The regular updates are chosen as a way of quashing rumor and showing
corporate concern. Even though it is 3 a.m. across the world, there
is a decision to wake up Asian director Ulriksen and keep him abreast.
"This is my company," Ulriksen states. "I want to know
every concern of the firm, not just the daily business."
It may seem a bit alarmist to spread the bad news to corporate outpost,
but someday business as usual will resume. Imagine how the Asian director
will view his value if he has been left out of the loop.
The final news bulletin for Corporation X flashes an hour and a quarter
later. Ten people are confirmed dead in Washington, D.C., 100 are
wounded. Corporation X employees have been moved to a shelter one
half mile away. Forty-five out of the 50 are accounted for. The plane
crash proved to be a small commuter plane with no connection to the
Washington, D.C. disaster.
Vital questions still remain. Decisions must be made
on best available information. The team wrestles with choices. Should
they address clients and vendors? How can they craft press statements?
What information should be released to families? No matter how thorough
the preparation, disasters bring the unforeseen. Manuals and checklists
help, but in the end, as always in business, it is clever management
flexibility that will see you through.
In rugby, when the opposition gets really thick, players find that
the best way to move forward is to lock arms and advance through a
mutually dependent line called a scrum. Evslin and her College Road
Business Disaster Resilient Community has enlisted a scrum of more
than 50 Mercer and Middlesex businesses. Only two other similar disaster-readiness
networks exist in the country, both smaller.
Playing point in this scrum is the Red Cross. Within the week of the
disaster simulation for the ficticious Corporation X, the Central
Jersey Chapter of the Red Cross has answered the real needs of victims
of two house fires and has lent assistance to Pennsylvania chapters
in Newton. When the gas main explosions ripped through Perth Amboy,
the Central Jersey chapter set up a $5 million rescue corporation
involving 200 people in 72 hours. Shelter, food, clothing, medicine,
and transportation were all coordinated. The organization has a response
time most military units might envy.
But as chapter director Sullivan notes, area businesses must perform
a vital outreach link to unite the community. Inventory lists of available
supplies and human resources are necessary. But the most valuable
preparedness function business can offer is to its own people. The
workplace can be the training ground where employees learn first aid,
volunteer for crises, and learn how to protect their own households.
The business network meets bi-monthly to discuss various crisis response
systems. At the latest meeting, March 25th, Dr. William Gluckman,
clinical instructor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of
New Jersey, outlined a fascinating, if somewhat grisly, list of biological
and chemical agents terrorists might employ.
With each he detailed precautions and warning symptoms. At the end
of his talk, Sullivan thanked all the businesses attending and reminded
them that "this is the world we live in and we had best get used
Perhaps for the professionals of the American Red Cross, this is the
world. But odds of a receiving an anthrax envelope still remain right
up there with lightning and the lottery. Still, companies must prepare
to face a variety of threats squarely. Security is, after all defiance.
As the meeting ends, Dan Tumolo, head of facilities for Lenox, stands
up and says "you know, the company makes you come to these things,
and that’s why I first attended. But each time I learn some new things
— make changes in the plant. It feels good to be prepared."
— Bart Jackson
The instant any crisis, from a hurricane to an anthrax
scare, strikes the pot boils and everyone wants to scurry — not
always in helpful directions. Establishing a protocol of action calms
workers, and often keeps a business running productively. A few of
the ways to get the jump on a crisis include:
top management. But it should include a broad spectrum of company
experts on communications, facilities, human resources, and management.
a central point allows for the most enlightened decisions. If those
decisions come from a single source, conflict and wasted energy can
do we do on snow days? How do we cope with on-site fires? Which essential
personnel stay, despite weather or bomb scares? The answers should
be published throughout your business and fine-tuned in drills.
disaster site armed with records, orders, and the ability to gather
information. Supplying him with ample cash (not credit cards or travelers
checks) assures his mobility.
your employees’ families may learn of their loved one’s death via
CNN. Painting too grim a picture too early may frighten employees
and vendors unnecessarily. Yet brushing the incident aside makes you
seem callous. Along with the frequency and the content of bulletins,
the method of issuing them should be established.
lists of employees, vendors, neighbors, and helpful agencies. Such
a list should include home and non-business contact numbers. Storing
these emergency records on electrically-dependent computers or in
the closet of the office that’s on fire may not prove ideal.
time to close and let all workers out early, traffic can be avoided
by coordination with neighboring companies. If your evacuation plan
in case of fire brings everyone out of the plant into the parking
lot, where do they go when it’s five degrees and snowing? And once
you have dismissed workers, do you have a plan for getting them back?
shooting, a teacher bled to death because no one in the crowd knew
how to staunch the wound. Your staff is your strongest defense in
times of disaster. Equip them well with knowledge of first aid and
CPR and provide all the necessary tools.
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