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The Emergency Response Team of Your Business - What You Need to Know

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A robust business continuity plan can take months, even years, to construct. If your business already has an emergency and continuity plan, you should familiarize yourself with it and become an active member of the planning process.

However, if your business doesn't already have an emergency response plan, it is not alone. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that 20% of companies spent no time maintaining emergency plans, and that 40% to 60% of small businesses never reopen their doors following a disaster.

While you may be reading this with a particular crisis in mind, it's essential to recognize the full array of emergencies that require careful preplanning. Most don't get the same media attention as catastrophes like terrorism, pandemics, and hurricanes, but everyday emergencies such as fires, a stomach bug, and burst pipes can be just as devastating to your business.

This is a quick and dirty tactical guide to crafting an emergency response team in the face of an impending disaster, should your organization not already have one.

What Is An Emergency Response Team?

Emergency response teams (ERT), also called incident response teams, are groups of people who prepare for and respond to emergency incidents such as natural disasters, security threats, public health crises, or other potential business disruptions. The goal of an ERT is to restore or maintain operations and minimize losses during an emergency incident.

ERTs may take many forms and have many purposes. For instance, many companies have groups of volunteer employees whose job is to ensure buildings are fully evacuated if there is a fire or that everyone takes shelter in severe weather. They might have been trained in CPR or the use of AEDs. Many companies with specific risks that warrant a professional response even have their own fire departments, paramedics, and law enforcement personnel complete with fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars.

While businesses need first responders to restore the immediate health, safety, and security of workers, they also need a team of professionals who can keep the business operating through emergencies. Orders need to be shipped, employees paid, and telephones answered no matter what or when disaster strikes.

These tasks may seem mundane in the face of crisis, but they are, in fact, vital. Companies must work as normally as possible, because otherwise disruptions can compound the severity of an incident. For instance, if payroll is disrupted, it becomes even more difficult for employees to recover personally and take care of themselves and their families, which in turn creates more significant disruption for the business. Your business’ ERT will react quickly to business disruptions minimize these aggregate effects.

Who Should Be On The ERT?

The first step in assembling your ERT is to determine who should be involved. Emergencies often require quick, coordinated action by units across the enterprise, so your ERT should reflect the various functions of your organization. You'll want to make sure these following groups are represented in your ERT. Still, this list is not exhaustive, so you should consult an organizational chart to ensure everyone is adequately represented.

  • Executive Leadership
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Public Relations
  • Risk Management, Security, Environmental Health & Safety Operations
  • Customer Relations/Contact Center
  • Facilities or Property Management
  • Engineering
  • Medical
  • Information Technology
  • Purchasing
  • Supply Chain and Distribution
  • Quality

Where Will the ERT Meet? 

Once you've assembled a group of domain experts to join your ERT, you must be able to communicate new developments rapidly throughout the entire organization. While regularly scheduled meetings are useful in advance of an incident, constant communication is essential while emergencies are ongoing.

A common practice is to designate a space as the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where members of the ERT work side-by-side to quickly share knowledge and make decisions that are communicated back to their respective teams. Be deliberate in selecting the right facility for your EOC. FEMA has a comprehensive EOC assessment checklist, but here are some quick things to consider at first glance:

  • Survivability: Can your EOC survive the relevant risks? For example, if you're preparing for severe weather, your EOC should be in an interior room without windows. If flooding is a possibility, the EOC should be above grade and perhaps on a higher floor. Does the EOC have dedicated emergency power from a generator and uninterruptible power supplies?
  • Workspace: Does the EOC have adequate room for all members of the ERT to work side-by-side? Are there sufficient power outlets? Can communications and power cables be run without creating an additional hazard? Be careful not to exceed the occupancy authorized by your fire marshal. You don't want the EOC to become a danger to its occupants in an emergency.
  • Communications: Does the EOC have ample connections to the corporate network for every ERT member to connect their computer and VOIP phone? Does it have direct outside communications in the event the corporate network is disrupted, including non-internet channels of communication?
  • Alternate EOC: Your primary EOC will likely be on-site at your facility, but it is critical to have an alternate EOC that your ERT can migrate to and begin working immediately. These are called cold sites. If your primary facility is located in a known high-risk area (floods, earthquakes, nuclear power plant, HAZMAT sites), you should establish an alternate EOC in an area that is not prone to the same risks.

Additional Steps the ERT Should Take to Prepare

Establish Communications

After establishing a meeting location and alternates, the ERT should determine how they will communicate outside of the EOC. While technology is helpful during regular operations, ensure that your team has a backup plan in case that technology becomes unavailable. An excellent place to start is by collecting the team members' direct mobile and home telephone numbers. FEMA has a worksheet to facilitate this process, and a copy of this worksheet should be given to every ERT member.

Determine Succession

If you're preparing to respond to a community-wide or regional disaster, you must consider that some members of your team may be unreachable or incapacitated. Every ERT member needs to know their scope of authority and responsibility, as well as the second and third alternates who can make decisions if the ERT member is unavailable. Communication plans for reaching these alternate contacts should also be distributed to the ERT.

Assess and Mitigate Risks

Given the risk that your team is preparing for, every ERT member should consider how this risk might impact their area of responsibility and develop a plan to mitigate the risk. For example, if an emergency disrupted production, the contact center may need to prepare its communication plan with customers.

Find Support

Communities need to work collaboratively to recover from emergencies. Make an effort to meet with your local emergency management agencies, and document your points of contact in the contact worksheet. Building a network of mutual support with businesses in your area, especially those in similar industries, is also a great strategy to manage crises.

Learn

While you may have been forced to take a reactive approach to the incidents you're experiencing, it's still wise to learn as much as possible about best practices for managing these emergencies. Referring to government websites, such as ready.gov, can provide additional insights to consider while you respond to incidents.


No one likes to think about the worst-case scenario, but it pays to be prepared should the worst happen. The more effort you put into preparing your Emergency Response Team, the more likely it will prove to be effective during a disaster.