To Hell & Back – Disaster Lessons from Risk Managers
There can be numerous challenges faced during the emergency phase and into the recovery phase of a disaster. At the PARMA 46th Conference and Expo, a panel of County Risk Managers discussed what worked and what failed in their disaster planning, and how a community can survive and bounce back from the unthinkable.
- Kerry John Whitney, Risk and Emergency Services, County of Napa
- Janell Crane, Risk Manager, County of Sonoma
- Julia Ogonowski, Risk Manager, County of Butte
Every disaster is different. From earthquakes to wildfires, these panelists experienced disasters with multiple fatalities and significant damages to infrastructure. Their counties were devastated.
When there is a disaster, where do you start? Panelists recommended leveraging relationships, whether that be your excess carrier to understand the insurance issues, other entities who have experienced similar disasters for advice, and county/city leadership that can help avoid red tape. Often you cannot even get to your building and the resources you need to start addressing the situation. This support system can prove to be critical. In addition, your JPA typically can provide a variety of helpful resources.
When you are in a disaster, there is a tremendous amount of anxiety. It is important to take time to establish priorities and build your immediate team. Delegate individual responsibilities to your team members to divide and conquer.
Keep in mind that most of your larger employee base is often working during the disaster. It is important to bring in employee assistance programs for these workers and remember that cheaper is not always better. For instance, you will need psychological counseling with first-responder experience, which not all counselors have. You simply cannot send your first responders to counselors that have no experience with their often devastating work experiences. Peer support groups can also be tremendously effective.
Restoration is also very important. When there is a wildfire, for instance, smoke and debris issues come into play. Often the smoke sits and settles over the area and in the buildings. Before you can bring your employees back to work, you have to make sure it is a safe environment. This can include bringing in industrial hygienists for air testing in your buildings, installing high-efficiency air filters to improve indoor air quality, and contracting with a disaster cleaning company to take care of debris and ash. Communicate to ensure that your employees are aware of your efforts to help them feel safe and secure about returning to the workplace.
Public entities often have juvenile homes and jails. It is important to make sure that the air quality is taken care of at these facilities as well.
You will also need to manage your losses. Assign a project manager, schedule regular check ins with adjusters, double check authorization prior to each phase and track the time for all aspects of your project. It is important to develop a comprehensive property listing that provides for use and occupancy and identifies owned and leased details. If FEMA is involved, you may receive a whole other set of challenges. They do not move nearly as quickly on claims as the insurance companies, due to a lengthy approval process. It can be a huge, time-consuming struggle.
Talk to your insurance company. Often you do not have the staff to handle these large restorations projects, but your insurance company will reimburse you for contractors you hire to do the work.
Finally, the only way you can provide services to the community is if you have an effective business continuity plan. Your organization must essentially put on its oxygen mask first before it can help others. It is important to create emergency action plans for these scenarios, identifying where people can physically work if there has been damage to your buildings, who is essential to be there and how computer systems will get up and running. There is valuable information and plan templates offered through UASI at https://www.bayareauasi.org/coopcog.