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When disaster strikes: How businesses can prepare for the worst

Water, wind, fire: The elements can pose significant threats to businesses. How can companies prepare, and handle, the worst?

This week’s Inside Business explores some of the ways businesses can prevent, cope with and recover from disasters.

How can businesses find temporary space in a pinch?

Company leaders generally decide when and where to relocate their businesses as part of long-range plans.

But sometimes disaster strikes in the form of water, wind or fire damage — maybe mold or a gas leak is discovered — and leaders are forced to find temporary space to conduct operations until the main office is safe.

The question is more than an academic exercise. Mold displaced middle school and high school students in the East Pennsboro Area School District at the start of the school year. And a recent lumberyard fire in Lemoyne has caused some disruption to neighboring businesses.  

Can your company sustain normal business operations without a physical location? Some can by relying on technology and remote capabilities. Others cannot.

A backup location, even for a few weeks or months, may be critical to a manufacturer’s long-term survival, said Anthony Worrall, president of Reynolds Restoration Services in Harrisburg. “If you’re supplying one part and you’re integral to the process, you can’t go six months (without a location). You would lose customers and it’s extremely hard to get that back.”

So, how do you find short-term space when you need it? There isn’t one answer.

But here’s a short list of suggestions for those first few phone calls:
• Call your real estate agent.
• Call your insurance company.
• Call a few restoration contractors.

Companies with an emergency plan in place likely have a list of restoration contractors in mind in the event of a short-term building repair.

Many insurance providers reduce premiums for companies with detailed emergency response plans. And many insurance policies provide business interruption coverage and help with temporary rental situations.

While short-term leases are pretty hard to find, they may not be necessary, restoration experts and commercial real estate agents said.

As long as information and phone systems are backed up in remote locations and business records can still be accessed, most companies can work around any disruptions, said Dan Alderman, a longtime commercial real estate agent with NAI CIR.

He rarely has to find temporary office space for clients, he said. When he does, there is usually enough available space in the market, and landlords are willing to help out.

Needs for temporary space don’t arise very often, Worrall added, because more people have remote access to work and construction can be done at night or on weekends to minimize daytime disruptions.

However, depending on what the employee does and on what the employer does, not everyone can work from home. A kitchen worker at a restaurant, for example, may be forced to find other employment if their employer has to shut down for an extended period of time.

– by Jason Scott

Fire: Take the time to plan for the worst

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When it comes to fires — or, indeed, almost any event disruptive enough to force a business out of its premises — the old Scout adage still holds true: Be prepared.

Not just for the flames, but for how to prevent them (as much as possible), and what to do if the unthinkable actually happens and your building becomes uninhabitable or worse.

“Obviously, having the proper insurance” is key, said Katie Gouldner, a corporate communications specialist with Millers Mutual Group in Harrisburg.
Hand-in-hand with having insurance is understanding your policy and what it covers, she added.

But Millers Mutual also offers clients advice on “risk avoidance,” or how to prevent tragedies in the first place. For fires, that can include commonsense basics, such as keeping smoke detectors and fire alarms in working order, making sure your electrical outlets and wiring are in good condition.

But it also includes having a plan. Do you know how your business would continue to function after a fire or other disaster? It may sound basic, but Gouldner said not all businesses take the time to plan ahead.

General continuity tips
The U.S. Small Business Administration offers tips for businesses looking to do just that. Spokeswoman Carol Chastang said the agency has advice for businesses preparing to survive the worst, including these seven ideas for business continuity planning:


1. Determine your greatest risk potential.
It might come from loss of heat, frozen pipes (that can burst, causing water damage), or loss of access caused by icy conditions or flooding. What would happen if you had to shut down your business for several days? The agency suggests looking at the building where you do business to assess the property damage risks.

“If you do this early enough, you’ll have time to make structural upgrades that can prevent possible future storm, wind or water damage,” the SBA says.

2. Establish your power needs.
Have an electrician determine your power needs, the agency advises. Also know what kind of back-up generator will work for you, but first find out if you have the landlord’s permission to bring in a generator.

3. Create a communications plan.
Companies should establish an email alert system to keep employees and key stakeholders in the loop, SBA advises. Use phones, texting and social media to provide updates on your recovery process and to let everyone know you’re still in business. Also, the agency says, make sure you can access your business website and social media accounts remotely or by mobile device so you can post your operating status.

4. Prepare your supply chain.
This can include developing relationships with alternative vendors, in case your primary contractor isn’t available, SBA says. It’s also a good idea to find out if your key suppliers have a recovery plan in place. Create a contact list for important business contractors and vendors you plan to use in an emergency.

5. Make sure you have enough insurance to recover.
As Gouldner suggested, SBA advises contacting your insurance agent to find out if your policy is adequate. Also consider business interruption insurance, which compensates you for lost income if you have to close your doors when disaster strikes.

6. Protect your critical data in the Cloud.
A good cloud backup provider (some are Dropbox for Business, Google Drive, MozyPro) routinely copies, compresses and encrypts your company’s vital information before sending it to a secure off-site data center, SBA says. That way, all your electronic records and invoices are safe and available, even if a disaster wipes out your own data center.

7. Test the plan.  
“Doing annual drills with your staff will show you what’s effective and where your preparedness plans need fine-tuning,” the SBA advises.

Fire safety

SBA also offers advice on wildfire preparedness, for people in parts of the country where wildfires are an issue, typically in the West. But some of the agency’s advice holds true for any business:

• Train your employees in general fire safety, especially for tasks with a high fire risk, such as welding and cutting, fueling vehicles, working with flammable liquids, etc. 
• Teach employees about the importance of good housekeeping and grounds maintenance in preventing and controlling fires. 
• Have an adequate number of appropriate fire extinguishers and maintain them properly. 
• Train key employees in when and how to use fire extinguishers. 
• Consider when and how to evacuate employees if a wildfire threatens. 
• Establish an evacuation plan and keep it up to date.

by Roger DuPuis

Weather: When moving is not an option

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What do you do when bad weather strikes, closing schools and businesses ­— but your operation simply cannot close or even move someplace else temporarily?

For Matthew Carey, Tiffany Glatfelter and other leaders of the York Rescue Mission, which will be changing its name to LifePath Christian Ministries in October, the real work comes long before the snow starts falling or the mercury falls or rises.

The mission operates around the clock as emergency shelter, so it must remain open, said Carey. It has plans in place for weather emergencies.

“Because the individuals that we serve have to face the elements that are out there, we have to be prepared internally to be able to help them do that,” he said.

Among the rescue mission’s plans: having some of its 47 employees living in apartments at the mission’s West Market Street offices or agreeing to stay over; having agreements in place with nearby churches to provide overnight accommodations when the mission has an overflow; and having staff people check things like plumbing during extreme weather.

“We take a pretty good, hard look at everything that needs to be looked at,” said Carey, who said much of the work is up to Glatfelter, mission operations manager, plus other staffers like life-skills director Scott Beattie, food-services director Teresa Rufo and Jan Wilson, director of the mission’s women’s shelter on York’s Jefferson Avenue.

The mission on a cold night can house as many as 150 people.

For this coming winter it plans for the first time to use medical professionals from York’s Katallasso Family Health Center to assist those having weather-related health issues.

Another bad-weather issue applicable to any business is raised by Chris Krichten, WellSpan York Hospital’s operations director for emergency management and pre-hospital services: Make sure your home and family are safe, so you can work effectively.

Otherwise, a health care provider might be “physically here (at work), but you’re not mentally here, and that’s not good for you or your patients,” he said.

Krichten said staffers are instructed to bring extra clothes and be prepared to stay over if they’re working when it could be bad. “It doesn’t matter how bad the roads are. People are still going to come to the hospital, which is what we’re here for,” Krichten said.

– by David O’Connor

Mold: How to keep your business mold free

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Several schools in East Pennsboro Area School District recently closed temporarily after mold developed in the buildings’ insulation.

The problems stemmed from lower temperatures in the buildings when they were not being used. Condensation formed on pipes and then leaked into the insulation, feeding mold and prompting district officials to keep students away until the problem could be fixed.

Mold isn’t as likely to be found in active businesses that are open year round, according to Richard Rousch, owner of Cumberland Analytical Laboratories Inc., an industrial hygiene company that was involved in mold remediation for East Pennsboro. The company is based in Upper Frankford Township, Cumberland County.

However, that doesn’t mean businesses can relax entirely.

In July, Adams County-based IFCO Services was ordered by the U.S. Department of Labor to pay $105,000 to an employee who raised concerns about mold in a building and was then fired. IFCO didn’t take immediate action to remove the mold, which posed a health hazard, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which noted a serious mold hazard that left employees at risk of developing chronic health conditions.

To avoid mold in a building, Rousch recommends that businesses keep their heating and air conditioning units at a consistent temperature year round. And if they notice any water leaking, they should take care of it right away, he said.

Mold needs humidity. In fact, it can’t grow in climates with under 60 percent humidity, Rousch said.

“Humidity is the key factor, and figuring out what’s feeding it,” Rousch said.

Mold poses the biggest concern when it becomes airborne: It can create health risks for people in a building.

There are no federal standards for mold, because different mold species affect people differently.

“Mold is kind of its own little animal,” Rousch said.

– by Lenay Ruhl

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