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Don't Let the Plan Be the Disaster

WHEN SURVIVORS of Hurricane Katrina began arriving at the Houston Astrodome in September 2005, they were met by a contingent of local and state government employees, contractors, and charity workers charged with helping get food and blankets to the refugees there. However, other help was also in evidence. For example, one group held a sign that towered over the crowd. The sign read, “Starbucks partners report here.”

Every company employee who reported to the group was given a job at another Starbucks in the area until the stores at which they worked, which had been damaged by the hurricane, were again operational. They also received cash stipends in addition to their salaries to help them with expenses. (If the employees wanted to relocate, Starbucks worked to find them a permanent position in the new location.) The company also assisted the displaced in finding a place to stay.

Not far away was a station set up by employees of CVS drug stores. The employees were accessing the company’s national database to research and fill prescriptions for customers, free of charge.

Both companies had flexible disaster management plans that allowed room for improvisational problem solving and empowered employees to act.

Other companies didn’t plan ahead. Back in Louisiana, for example, a major company had petitioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide housing for its employees who had arrived from out of state to help fix damaged facilities and equipment. This was initially denied because, by law, FEMA may only provide housing for disaster victims. It took a great deal of time to work out an arrangement for the company to rent temporary housing; such considerations should have been covered in the corporate disaster management plan.

Why were some companies unprepared to provide the most basic necessities for their employees while others not only survived the catastrophe but also excelled at helping others? There’s a simple answer: Some companies devote resources to planning, training, and conducting disaster response and recovery drills—and some do not.

At the most basic level, businesses should follow the laws and regulations that govern disaster preparedness in their industry. However, compliance with these laws and regulations will not, by itself, ensure that a company is prepared.

After-action reports from disasters and my personal experience with emergencies around the United States have indicated that there are five major operational issues that merit special attention in a disaster response: communication, chain of command, use of volunteer resources, establishment of priorities, and media relationships. By identifying and focusing additional disaster planning and exercises around these particular issues, I believe communities and companies will be better prepared to handle any type of emergency.


During a disaster, the center for communications is the emergency operations center (EOC). This location is known by many different terms, but the concept is the same. The EOC is a facility for information gathering, disaster analysis, damage assessment, resource coordination, and policy development. It should serve as a central repository of information. In business terms, the EOC is the community or organizational boardroom designed to support and coordinate field operations.

Communications must, of course, be addressed well ahead of the activation of the EOC. Communications must be established from the beginning of the planning process. Unfortunately, companies often fail to reach out to other organizations in their community who will be involved in emergency response. Even within companies, department heads are often unaware of what other departments will do in a disaster.

A major component of planning and carrying out disaster drills should be for disaster managers to get to know their counterparts in other organizations, and they should become acquainted with everyone within their own companies who may have a role to play when a disaster occurs. Additionally, they should learn how each department will function during a disaster.

Initiating the planning process can be as simple as a meeting. This meeting of leaders from companies, emergency management groups, and government agencies can be facilitated by the local authorities or can be led by a company.

After everyone is introduced and each person has explained how his or her organization fits into the community, the group should discuss basic management principles, such as who is in charge, where the command center will be located, what information leaders need, and where they can find this information.

Companies should follow this same outline in conducting internal disaster planning. Department heads should meet to discuss what they do, what aspects of the business they would be in charge of during an emergency, what information they need, and how they will get it. This interdepartmental communication helps ensure that, for example, the business manufacturing unit will have a plan that is in concert with senior management’s plan and that corresponds with the needs of security, safety, and public affairs.

I learned about this critical aspect of disaster planning in 1989 when I visited the San Francisco area after the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Oakland (California) Fire Department had learned some hard lessons in that disaster. They were open and honest about the problems they had encountered, and this learning experience changed my disaster-planning philosophy.

The leadership of the Oakland Fire Department could see on CNN that Oakland firefighters were providing a heroic response. They did not, however, have basic information on the status of the stations, what apparatus was available, or how many firefighters had come to work. Thus, it was difficult to make management decisions about what additional resources were needed. After the event, the department revised their emergency procedures to ensure that status information was provided directly to management as soon as possible after an incident.

Chain of Command

Ambiguity of authority during an emergency is a frequent problem in the private sector. The problem arises because many companies lack a standard chain of command. Resolving this issue is not as simple as putting names on a chart, however. Once authority has been established, all employees must be trained to respond appropriately to that authority during a crisis.

Establishing a basic chain of command is critical because most disaster problems are management related, not skill related. The mistake is that corporate disaster training is usually focused on improving the skills of employees who respond to a disaster. But because the problem is rooted in chain-of-command issues and not in people failing to do their jobs or forgetting how to operate a fire extinguisher, the training never gets at the crux of the matter. This paradox can cause seemingly well-practiced and comprehensive plans to fail when a disaster occurs.

To reduce confusion over chain-of-command issues at the scene during an incident, the plan should not only clearly spell out who has authority in these situations, but it should also clarify the extent to which employees can act autonomously. Additionally, chain of command and the use of initiative should be a part of training exercises.

Improvisation. The training should stress that the person in charge is not operating as an omnipotent chess master who moves all the pieces. Instead, he or she should be viewed as the coach who has trained the team and then lets them play the game, responding to the changing environment as best they can with occasional guidance from the coach. Command can come from the coach, but control comes from feedback from the players.

Because problems can arise in endless and unpredictable ways during a disaster, disaster response plans must encourage improvisational problem solving. Exercises should emphasize how to quickly get the necessary information after a disaster occurs and then how to use that information to solve problems creatively. This component of a disaster exercise should involve role playing and scenario training.

Instead of telling employees what to do in an emergency, companies should tell employees what needs to be done. The employees must then determine how that goal will be accomplished.

For example, the program Starbucks offered to its employees displaced by Hurricane Katrina was a local effort, according to Rick Gipson, director of the global partner and asset protection division at Starbucks. “The partners in Houston decided to act because people needed help,” says Gipson. “And the structure at Starbucks gave them the power to do this on their own.”


During a disaster, it is usually the proper management of resources, not the lack of them, that is the problem. This is especially true for human resources. One problem is that leaders in a major event are usually surprised at the number and diversity of citizens who show up at the scene wanting to help. At smaller incidents, law enforcement usually secures the scene and keeps volunteers away. However, at larger events, the spontaneous response is more difficult to contain.

I had the opportunity to speak afterwards with many of the first responders to the Cypress Freeway collapse in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. One consistent comment was that they wished they had training in dealing with all of the people who showed up and wanted to help. This same issue was repeated at the 9-11 attacks and in rescue efforts after the recent hurricanes.

Leaders should anticipate this and, if appropriate, plan for it. One approach is to organize the volunteers into smaller groups. To that end, designated employees could be trained to form volunteers into teams of five to seven people. These teams should then be assigned to a trained responder such as a member of a company’s crisis management team, if appropriate, or to a firefighter or police officer when they arrive on the scene. Such strategies should be part of the disaster management plan and included in training exercises.

Related to this issue is the fact that friends, family, coworkers, and people who just happen to be around when a disaster occurs are the ones who provide help to most people when a major disaster occurs. The highly trained responders rescue only a small percentage of victims.

In light of this reality, some training for a lot of people is better than a lot of training for some people. Providing basic information and safety equipment to a large number of employees, instead of to just a few employees on a disaster response team, is the best approach.

Safety meetings, which many companies must hold under federal and state safety and health regulations, can serve as a forum for educating employees about corporate emergency plans and management issues. One approach might be to have an employee, such as the safety officer or security director, develop a quiz about the company disaster plan for employees to take at periodic safety meetings.

The quiz should contain simple questions to elicit information from the plan, such as, “Who is in charge during an emergency?” and “Where will the command post be located?”

Employees should be asked during the meeting to write down the answers, and everyone should then discuss the exam as a group. They can be allowed to use the plan as a reference for an open book test. This simple drill can serve as a first step, as a refresher about the plan, and as an opportunity to solicit suggestions to make the plan better.


Another consideration is to ensure that everyone involved understands what the priorities will be in a disaster. As part of a safety meeting or at a gathering specifically designed to address disaster-planning issues, managers and employees should be asked to develop a list of tasks. For example, a list could include treating the injured, putting out a fire, reestablishing utilities, reopening the business, communicating with employees, contacting customers, and collecting documentation for insurance claims.

Managers and employees should be asked to rank those issues. For example, is treating the injured more important than making an insurance claim? The important point is to establish a process for getting information and using it to set correct priorities.

This type of drill is designed for managers but can and should involve employees. It is designed to exercise the decision-making process in a community or company. It forces management to examine certain issues such as who sets priorities, how to ensure that the right types of information are available, and which employees should be involved.

In many instances, confusion is a result of poor information sharing. What one department views as a priority might already be dealt with by another group, for example. It does not matter how the issues are cleared up, so long as it is clear who will set the priorities and employees are informed of the decisions.


Media relationships can sour quickly in a disaster. The problem is that few companies are prepared for the around-the-clock media coverage of disasters. To address this issue, a media relations component should be part of the overall disaster management plan. The objective is to make sure that accurate information gets released in a timely manner.

The plan should indicate where the media relations department will be located during a disaster and how often press conferences should be held. The company should designate a spokesperson, with alternates designated as well. Only these employees should speak to the press. The primary spokesperson should become the calm face of the company during a crisis.

Making sure that the spokespeople are well informed is critical. The company plan should include what information might be needed and how the spokespeople will get this data. It might come from the company public relations department or from the employees themselves.

For large companies, putting out a consistent message is easier, because they have strong ongoing media relations operations. But even large companies may reach outside for assistance with this task. For example, at Starbucks, all media responses come from corporate headquarters. Under its disaster management plan, however, the company has contract public relations firms on standby to help out if company employees are overwhelmed.

Few small companies have a media department large enough to support the type of information processing that must occur during an emergency. In those cases, a critical part of the emergency plan is to assign employees from other parts of the company to help with media relations should a disaster occur.

Companies can learn from local emergency management organizations and other public agencies on this issue. These groups usually have designated emergency public information officers who are in charge of getting important information to the public during emergencies. These officers ensure that messages coming from the agency are consistent with other federal and state officials.

Not only must the message be consistent, the messenger must instill confidence both in internal workers and external listeners, including the local community and reporters, and project a sense that everything is under control. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s response to the 9-11 attacks serves as a model of that principle. Victims, as well as the public at large, took comfort from his calm demeanor.

A disaster plan is a set of promises that a company makes. They spell out how a company intends to behave when tragedy strikes. More than a document, a disaster plan is a process that is designed to evoke appropriate actions by anticipating problems and creating possible solutions. By being aware of common problems from past incidents, companies can help to ensure that staff will be ready to meet those promises and, in the process, to give aid and comfort to the affected community.

William M. Lokey is a program director for James Lee Witt Associates, headquartered in Washington, D.C.