Multi-Site Disaster Response and Coordination Best Practices

Avalution Team Avalution Team | Feb 12, 2013

Most organizations that have experienced a crisis would likely agree that advance planning is critical to enabling an effective response. When a disaster impacts several sites simultaneously, it makes coordination even more chaotic, so the importance of a defined structure increases. Organizations with multiple facilities or sites, especially those within “at-risk” regions, should take proactive steps to prepare their organization for events that require a widespread and coordinated response. Specifically, these preparedness steps include enabling coordination, communication, and adherence to organizational policies in advance of a disaster to ensure all sites implement appropriate response procedures. This article summarizes best practices that help enable sites to work together and execute common, approved response strategies to minimize impact and reduce confusion.

Define Authorities and Expectations
In organizations with centralized policies effective across several sites or facilities, it is important to define specific response authorities and performance expectations within human resources or business continuity policies. Specific policy changes include defining which individuals have authority to close a site as well as closure critieria, such as a public authority emergency declaration. Organizations should define criteria by which individual site leaders can act independently, such as in situations where employees are at risk for an immediate threat, and when additional approval and oversight is necessary from an executive leadership team, such as in advance-warning events.

The policy should also define employee paid time off (PTO) expectations, specifically when employees must use personal time versus when the company will grant personnel the time off.  At a minimum, it’s important to define that human resources will make such decisions at the time of an event on a case-by-case basis.  In addition, the policy or personnel job descriptions should define “on-call” expectations and “immediate response” expectations for key personnel responsible during or immediately following the crisis.  Formally defining expectations is critical to ensure personnel are available following an incident to assess damages, make decisions, and communicate expectations and instructions throughout the organization.

Use Common Response Roles, Authorities, Procedures and Guidance
It is important to define a common set of roles, authorities, responsibilities, and expectations for each site’s response team.  Defining specific roles ensures adequate representation from subject matter experts at each site during the response, as well as enables site counterparts to communicate and work together effectively.  Assigning individuals to each role enables your organization to train all responsible personnel on their specific roles, outline available resources, and communicate how personnel may be asked to respond during a crisis.  In addition, to make sure personnel perform the appropriate actions, it is important to define and communicate site response procedures, including threat-specific and threat-independent advance warning activities (when appropriate), evacuation and other personnel protective measures, and response activities following the onset of an event.  By defining common approaches, leadership can more quickly and effectively understand site activities, assure appropriate actions are taken, and provide authorizations and guidance (when necessary).

Once teams are defined, create a matrix of roles, responsibilities, assigned individuals, and contact information to enable quick identification and communication with appropriate site contacts.  As an additional way to quickly communicate with appropriate personnel, create an email disaster alias that includes a defined crisis list but also allows for at-time-of-disaster updates to enable efficient mass communications with the right individuals.  Creating a threat-independent, generic crisis email address allows advance publication of the email address to all employees for use in reporting crisis situations, which helps ensure all appropriate leadership and site personnel receive crisis messaging (rather than just one executive receiving the email, which could delay response).

Hold Site and Organization-wide Status Updates and Reporting
Either in advance of an incident or immediately following the onset of the event, organizational leadership should identify which sites may be or are affected, determine site meeting attendance, instruct sites to begin response activities, and confirm which site representative(s) will communicate site activities at the organization-wide status call, all of which contributes to minimizing confusion and increasing efficiency.  Leadership should also issue meeting reminders and status/reporting expectations periodically, and request that each site provide a situation status update, evaluating site decisions to ensure adherence to protocols.

Organizations should utilize all-site status calls to frequently communicate expectations, understand impacts, share response activities and lessons learned, and ensure awareness among organization-wide and site-specific leadership.  If possible, organizations should also post relevant information to an internal, secure website to assure awareness among “need to know” individuals, as well as ensure personnel are communicating a common message with accurate information.

Ensure Effective Organization-Wide Communications
One of the most critical activities during a crisis event is continuous, effective communications with all affected stakeholders to ensure they receive timely, adequate, and accurate information.  Prior to any event, leadership should define authorities, responsibilities, and proper procedures for issuing organization-wide and external communications.  To ensure personnel remain aware of and comfortable receiving crisis messaging, organizations should perform periodic test communications, utilizing as many forms as possible to communicate information.  This is especially important for any communication methods that differ from normal mediums (such as utilizing SMS messaging).

During a disaster, the designated communications lead should determine which stakeholders require updates and assess what information needs to be communicated.  In addition, they should determine the frequency of status updates and communicate the schedule to employees and stakeholders, making sure to adhere to the update schedule, even if the status is to say “no change”.  Also, the communications lead should monitor and validate that personnel at all sites receive the message as expected, particularly any that may be affected by the event and have lost some or all communications tools and resources.

Perform Performance Measurement and Identify Lessons Learned
It is always important for organizations to assess performance and impacts following events, utilizing quantitative (when possible) and qualitative metrics to drive continuous improvement.  In addition, business continuity personnel should assess the effectiveness of strategies used at each facility, capturing each site’s lessons learned.  Based on these findings, leadership should determine what facility/site/organizational improvements are necessary to address findings, and oversee roll-out across the organization.

As disasters force personnel to respond in ways that are different from “business as normal”, it is important that both responding team members and general employees understand expectations and receive clear, concise, and consistent communication from leadership.  Developing documented policies and strategies enable awareness and preparedness, which enables each site’s response to be more effective.  Regional events could require that personnel who don’t frequently communicate or work together collaborate as a common team when responding to the event, so a common structure and training makes this process work more smoothly.  Overall, defined expectations and boundaries, advanced strategic planning, and proper training can enable an effective response in the midst of chaos, even across geographically disperse sites.

If your organization could benefit from some of these coordination activities and you require assistance in planning and execution, please reach out to us to discuss coordinating disaster response activities across multiple sites in your organization.

Additional Resources:
Crisis Communications: An Organizational Balancing Act
Business Continuity Metrics


Stacy Gardner
Avalution Consulting