Natural Disasters on the Rise: Does Your Company Have a Plan?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 14 natural disasters in 2018, costing the country $91 billion; 80% of those losses stemmed from hurricanes Florence and Michael, along with wildfires in the West.

When a natural disaster of any kind approaches, it is imperative that corporate leaders ask, “Are our people OK?” and “How can we make their lives easier once it’s done?” according to Marie MacDonald of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Every company should have a disaster management plan in place. Organizations need to prepare now for the possibility of being impacted regardless of where they are located or the type of disaster they might face. Advance planning is key in any disaster or situation that impacts your employees. Practice drills and a systematic approach that says “we know what to do” will make everyone’s role in a disaster go more smoothly.

At grocery store chain Publix, which operates in seven Southern states in the U.S., a cross-functional emergency response team prepares for hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms. If
a hurricane is threatening, for example, team members track the storm’s path, collaborate with suppliers to adequately stock shelves and work with employees so they’re prepared for the storm.
Before hurricane season begins each June 1, the Lakeland, FL-based grocer e-mails its employees to remind them to stock up on essential supplies, such as cash, medications and pet food, and to create their own emergency plans.

The actions taken in the initial minutes of an emergency are critical. A prompt warning to employees to evacuate, shelter or lockdown can save lives. A call for help to public emergency services that provides full and accurate information will help the dispatcher send the right responders and equipment. An employee trained to administer first aid or perform CPR can be lifesaving. Action
by employees with knowledge of building and process systems can help control a leak and minimize damage to the facility and the environment.

The first step when developing an emergency response plan is to conduct a risk assessment to identify potential emergency scenarios. An understanding of what can happen will enable you to determine resource requirements and to develop plans and procedures to prepare your business. The emergency plan should be consistent with your performance objectives.

At the very least, every dealership or facility should develop and implement an emergency plan for protecting employees, visitors, contractors and anyone else in the facility. This part of the emergency plan is called “protective actions for life safety” and includes building evacuation (“fire drills”), sheltering from severe weather such as tornadoes, “shelter-in-place” from an exterior airborne hazard such as a chemical release and lockdown.

A lockdown is protective action when faced with an act of violence. When an emergency occurs, the priority is always life safety. The second priority is stabilization of the incident. There are many actions that can be taken to stabilize an incident and minimize potential damage. First aid and CPR by trained employees can save lives. Use of fire extinguishers by trained employees can extinguish a small fire.

Containment of a small chemical spill and supervision of building utilities and systems can minimize damage to a building and help prevent environmental damage. Some severe weather events can be forecast hours before they arrive, providing valuable time to protect a facility. A plan should be established and resources should be on hand, or quickly, available to prepare a facility. The plan should also include a process for damage assessment, salvage, protection of undamaged property and cleanup following an incident. These actions to minimize further damage and
business disruption are examples of property conservation.

Protective actions for life safety include:
• Evacuation
• Sheltering
• Shelter-In-Place
• Lockdown.


Prompt evacuation of employees requires a warning system that can be heard throughout the building. Test your fire alarm system to determine if it can be heard by all employees. If there is no fire alarm system, use a public address system, air horns or other means to warn everyone to evacuate. Sound the evacuation signal during planned drills so employees are familiar with the sound.
Make sure that there are always enough exits available.

Walk around the building and verify that exits are marked with exit signs and there is enough lighting so people can safely travel to an exit. If you find anything that blocks
an exit, have it removed.

Enter every stairwell, walk down the stairs, and open the exit door to the outside. Continue walking until you reach a safe place away from the building. Consider using this safe area as an assembly area for evacuees.

Appoint an evacuation team leader and assign employees to direct evacuation of the building. Assign at least one person to each floor to act as a “floor warden” to direct employees to the nearest safe exit. Assign a backup in case the floor warden is not available or if the size of the floor is very large.

Ask employees if they would need any special assistance evacuating or moving to shelter. Assign a “buddy” or aide to assist persons with disabilities during an emergency. Contact the fire department to develop a plan to evacuate persons with disabilities.

Have a list of employees and maintain a visitor log at the front desk, reception area or main office area. Assign someone to take the lists to the assembly area when the building is evacuated. Use the lists to account for everyone and inform the fire department whether everyone has been accounted for. When employees are evacuated from a building, OSHA regulations require an accounting to ensure that everyone has gotten out safely.


If a tornado warning is broadcast a distinct warning signal should be sounded, and everyone should move to shelter in the strongest part of the building. Shelters may include basements or interior rooms with reinforced masonry construction. Evaluate potential shelters and conduct a drill to see whether shelter space can hold all employees. Since there may be little time to shelter when a tornado is approaching, early warning is important.

If there is a severe thunderstorm, monitor news sources in case a tornado warning is broadcast. Consider purchasing an Emergency Alert System radio. Tune in to weather warnings broadcast by local radio and television stations. Subscribe to free text and e-mail warnings available from multiple news and weather resources on the Internet.


You should develop a shelter-in-place plan. The plan should include a means to warn everyone to move away from windows and move to the core of the building. Warn anyone working outside to enter the building immediately. Move everyone to the second and higher floors in a multistory building. Avoid occupying the basement. Close exterior doors and windows and shut down the building’s air handling system. Have everyone remain sheltered until public officials broadcast that it is safe to evacuate the building.


An act of violence in the workplace could occur without warning. If loud “pops” are heard and gunfire is suspected, every employee should know to hide and remain silent. They should seek refuge in a room, close and lock the door, and barricade the door if it can be done quickly. They should be trained to hide under a desk, in the corner of a room and away from the door or windows. Multiple people should be trained to broadcast a lockdown warning from a safe location.

Incident Stabilization

Stabilizing an emergency may involve many different actions including firefighting, administering medical treatment, rescue, containing a spill of hazardous chemicals or handling a threat or act of violence. When you dial 9-1-1 you expect professionals to respond to your facility. Depending upon the response time and capabilities of public emergency services and the hazards and resources within your facility, you may choose to do more to prepare for these incidents. Regulations may require you to act before emergency services arrive.

If you choose to do nothing more than call for help and evacuate, you should still prepare an emergency plan that includes prompt notification of emergency services, protective actions for life safety and accounting of all employees.

Developing the Emergency Plan

Developing an emergency plan begins with an understanding of what can happen. Review your risk assessment. Consider the performance objectives that you established for your program and decide how much you want to invest in planning beyond what is required by regulations.

Assess what resources are available for incident stabilization. Consider internal resources and external resources including public emergency services and contractors. Public emergency services include fire departments that may also provide rescue, hazardous materials and emergency medical services. If not provided by your local fire department, these services may be provided by another department, agency or even a private contractor. Reach out to local law enforcement to coordinate planning for security related threats.

Training and Exercises

Train personnel so they are familiar with detection, alarm, communications, warning and protection systems. Review plans with staff to ensure they are familiar with their role and can carry out assigned responsibilities.

Conduct evacuation, sheltering, sheltering-in-place and lockdown drills so employees will recognize the sound used to warn them and they will know what to do. Facilitate exercises to practice the plan, familiarize personnel with the plan and identify any gaps or deficiencies in the plan.

10 Steps for Developing the Emergency Response Plan

1. Review performance objectives for the program.
2. Review hazard or threat scenarios identified during the risk assessment.
3. Assess the availability and capabilities of resources for incident stabilization including people, systems and equipment available within your business and from external sources.
4. Talk with public emergency services (e.g., fire, police and emergency medical services) to determine their response time to your facility, knowledge of your facility and its hazards and their capabilities to stabilize an emergency at your facility.
5. Determine if there are any regulations pertaining to emergency planning at your facility; address applicable regulations in the plan.
6. Develop protective actions for life safety (evacuation, shelter, shelter-in-place, lockdown).
7. Develop hazard and threat-specific emergency procedures using guidance from the resource links on this page.
8. Coordinate emergency planning with public emergency services to stabilize incidents involving the hazards at your facility.
9. Train personnel so they can fulfill their roles and responsibilities.
10. Facilitate exercises to practice your plan