By Rich Cooper, Vice President, Research & Emerging Issues
Credit: Sean Hackbarth
I’m back in my office building after the great DC Shake of 2011. The earthquake that struck Virginia and surrounding areas was a surreal experience, one I’ve never had and don’t care to repeat any time soon. I was escorting a guest to the fifth-floor elevators in U.S. Chamber of Commerce building when I felt a slight shake. “Well, that’s weird,” I said.
Then the shaking picked up dramatically, and I thought, “Car bomb.” Working a block from the White House will give you thoughts like that, but when I didn’t hear an explosion or a glass-shattering concussion, I knew something else was amiss. I thought for a moment I heard a black swan flapping its proverbial wings.
Three people ran by me heading for the stairwell, one saying, “Get the hell out of here!” In our post-9/11 world, when the building starts shaking and people are running for the stairwell, you move and fast.
Outside, there was an eerie calm. The day was one of those rare DC summer days when the sky was blue, it was not humid, and the air was not choked with smog and stink – it was gorgeous. One colleague remarked as we walked towards our pre-determined rendezvous point, “Kinda reminds you of September 11, doesn’t it?”
Everyone was reaching for their cell phones to see what was happening. Someone finally said, “It was an earthquake! It was 5.8!”
With that announcement, we all tried to reach loved ones via phone and text to let them know that we were OK and to make sure others were too. Not surprisingly, calls could not get out. The phone system was overrun as millions of East Coast residents called family and friends after such an unexpected event.
Another colleague said, “This is just like 9/11 when the phones didn’t work.”
Fortunately for me, texts to my wife and parents did get out, but in the midst of discovering which communication methods did and did not work came the discovery that the one platform that had no problem getting and receiving information was Facebook. It lit up like a Christmas tree with news bulletins and messages from friends checking in on me and reporting what they experienced. Where phones failed social media thrived, and therein lies the lesson.
Social media is evolving and improving at a breakneck pace. Emerging technologies, like social media, offer advantages we would do well to incorporate into our emergency preparedness planning. Naturally, that means businesses and organizations must have an emergency plan to begin with. Too many of us do not. Fortunately, the plans and the tools to execute response efforts in an emergency are readily available, if we will but use them.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) produced a series of recommendations that improve America’s security posture, resilience and preparedness. In the commission’s report to Congress, it recommended the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 1600 as the standard for private sector preparedness. NFPA 1600 is one of many valuable tools that can help businesses and organizations prepare for the unexpected and develop an emergency response strategy that addresses the potential emergencies we can see coming, as well as those we cannot.
Social media has immense value in situations where other communication channels are interrupted. As many of us in DC and elsewhere on the East Coast recognized after the earthquake, while absent phone connection hindered information gathering, social media enhanced it.
Say what you will about the medium of Facebook and social media, it worked in this environment. It gave people a security blanket of sorts that they could “post” what was happening with them and around them. Had the earthquake caused more damage and devastation (recall Japan’s powerful earthquake and tsunami earlier this year), social media could have been a lifeline to people trapped in buildings, a platform for rallying or dispersing employees and colleagues, or any number of other advantages that can mean the difference between life and death, between ruin and resilience.
While I know a lot of emergency managers who swear by it, swear at it, and swear they will never use it, when it mattered, social media worked. In an emergency, that is all that matters.
I have to say I’m proud of the people in my building for knowing what to do and doing it without panic. That kind of response is not inherent. It is learned. Emergency planning is something every business should be pursuing. Certainly the larger companies – like Wal-Mart, Target and others – have plans in place, but America’s smaller businesses remain vulnerable.
The bottom line is that there are templates businesses can turn to, such as the NFPA 1600, the tool kits at Ready Business, the Red Cross’ Ready Rating Program, and others to build an emergency response strategy. There are other recommendations and plans available as well, and as we found after the earthquake, social media can be a huge asset. Many of these plans and the tools that support them are free. No matter the economy, that’s something everyone’s budget can afford. The question is, Can your business afford not to prepare?