Haiti Earthquake: Revisit Your Disaster-Preparedness Plans

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When a catastrophic disaster happens like the one in Haiti, it should serve as a reminder to look at our own disaster-preparedness plans. This is so we can test them against the event we are observing and assure they will stand should such an event happen to any of our central or branch offices. Realize that even in California where we build under strict earthquake rules, an earthquake of this magnitude would undoubtedly damage a lot of infrastructure, collapse older buildings and disconnect or overwhelm communications services.


At the core of any program is employee preparedness. I'll focus on that, because even if your company does not let you know what you should do, you should take the time to find out and create have your own preparedness plan. The life you save might be your own.


Communication is First

There should always be a line employees can call and a record of emergency numbers kept up to date for employees. One of the biggest initial problems is people who don't know where to go or what to do and who compromise their own safety as they run around looking for help. Generally advice is to stay put and let help come to you, but there could be fires, aftershocks and spreading diseases that can make that strategy unadvisable.


Having a ready hotline number that can be used in a disaster and making sure people can be contacted -- assuming communications services are working -- are critical to assuring people's safety.


Rally Points and Local Shelters

If communications are down, employees should know where to go to gather if the company is going to send help or critical services. These areas for smaller companies might be community gathering areas that have been set up during regional disaster-preparedness drills. If employees can't reach anyone and feel it is unsafe to remain where they are, knowing where to go can help prevent panic and give them a goal to accomplish. That alone can often reduce the chance of further danger or mistakes. Know where your local shelters are and alternative routes to them in case primary routes are compromised.


Disaster-Preparedness Kits

You can buy or prepare these, but generally the thing you want to realize is the rule of threes. You can live three minutes without air, need to find shelter or safety in three hours, clean water whithin three days, and food in three weeks. Keeping air isn't practical and if you can't find help in three weeks, you are pretty much living in an end-of-the-world scenario, but water is critical. Unless you want to drink out of toilets or put your face under water heaters, it would be wise to have several gallons of water kept fresh for family members and a water reserve for employees.


First aid is also critical, as infection or bleeding to death can be a common initial problem. It's not just having a good first aid kit, though, but also making sure there are people trained in first aid and that management knows who they are.


Given the amount of conflict the United States has been in over the past decade, a lot of folks have military-level first-aid training. It can be a a huge help in a disaster to know who they are and who has kept up to date.


Earthquake Drill and Safe Locations

The advice during an earthquake used to be, "Don't run outside, but stand in a door frame to be safe." That was back when doors were generally placed in load-bearing walls. In many newer buildings with suspended ceilings, door frames might be better than nothing, but probably not much better. Even fortified panic rooms might not be safe in an earthquake unless they are on ground floors and properly braced. The extra weight coupled with excessive building movement could cause them to drop through the floor or collapse given that they generally are designed more to protect against attackers, not natural disasters.


This suggests that you should know where you need to go quickly. (LA County Fire has a nice handbook that could get you started.) Typically, this is away from windows or potential falling objects such as heavy artwork. Running outside actually seemed to be the smartest thing to do in Haiti, where the buildings, which appeared to be designed more able to withstand hurricanes than earthquakes, lost integrity and collapsed. On the other hand, a steel-framed building with a tile roof probably will remain standing, but the falling tile outside could be deadly.


Generally, it's prudent to stay out of elevators, regardless of building type. In any case, knowing the risks associated with each building type and communicating them to affected employees could save a lot of lives and be critical to the company's ability to recover from a disaster.


Wrapping Up

Even the best resource, like this CDC document, is worthless if you can't get to it and don't know what it advises. Whenever there is a major disaster like the one in Haiti, it is a good idea to make sure you know what to do should something like this happen to your company. Even if your executives don't explain what you should do, finding out yourself could save the lives of your loved ones and coworkers. Disaster preparedness is everyone's responsibility.