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Lessons Learned from Chile's Earthquake

WHEN MEDIA REPORTED on the aftermath of the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that shook Chile in late February, they noted that though it was hundreds of times more powerful than the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the death toll was far lower—about 500 compared to 230,000. The difference was attributed to Chile’s preparation and planning. But many organizations based in Chile or with operations in the country were not adequately prepared to respond to and recover from such a disaster, and the problems that arose are now being assessed.

One of the most significant of these was communication, says César Sarria Moller, the head of protection and services at the private hospital Clínica Las Condes in the capital city of Santiago. Cellular phone service as well as land-line telephone service was unavailable in Santiago, which is 270 miles north of the hardest hit city of Concepcion. E-mail and SMS worked well, however.

While Clínica Las Condes had a good response to the crisis, the security department is strengthening plans and procedures based on other organizations’ shortcomings. For example, one early observation is that the hospital benefitted from having VHF and two-way radios, Sarria says. Other organizations did not have a variety of devices and had more communications challenges. Sarria says the clinic will invest in even more communications devices going forward to minimize future concerns.

For companies with employees who were either on travel to the region or based in Chile, the main problems were locating personnel. “Quite a lot of companies found actually that they couldn’t communicate with their personnel, because a lot of the cell phone systems were down, land lines down, power, that kind of thing, especially down in Concepcion,” says Edward Dean, who oversees Control Risks’ security consulting in the Andean region. Control Risks was involved in helping organizations with immediate crisis management. The companies wanted to know, “Who have we got there, where are they, are they okay, can we communicate with them?” he says.

The earthquake highlighted the need for better tracking of employees. Companies should know which employees are in the country and where they are based. Just as important is establishing effective internal communications systems and ensuring that they are clear, “especially in big, multinational companies that have many different divisions and departments and reporting structures and systems that don’t necessarily talk to each other that well,” Dean says.

“I think a lot of companies were given a very speedy wake up as to the fact that their crisis management system either was not sufficient or was not sufficiently well rehearsed or developed for them to be able to respond effectively,” he adds.

Organizations should also put in place better evacuation and response plans, Dean says. Some questions companies should ask are: Do all employees know where to go? Do they have a single collection point? Is there somewhere to go that will have power, if they are going to be without power for a long period of time? Does the company have at least one satellite phone in the location? “If you look at something like those companies in Concepcion or Santiago even initially, it could have been extremely useful for someone to have a satellite phone at that stage to be able to report back,” Dean says.

Giving employees practical tips might be useful. Dean says some people were smart enough to charge mobile phones using car batteries.

Many Chilean organizations need better business continuity planning as well, Sarria says. After the earthquake, they did not know how to reestablish basic functions such as gas, electricity, and water. “They don’t have a chain of command; they don’t have a plan to establish communications with critical employees; they don’t have critical functions in a written continuity plan established,” he says.