More than 1,200 businesses were located in and around the World Trade Center when terrorists turned two passenger planes into flying bombs and destroyed the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Some of the companies affected by the disaster were able to resume critical management operations within hours -- or even minutes -- using emergency contingency plans. Other businesses never reopened. While the terrorist attacks were extraordinary, there are other calamities that can befall your company, including theft, floods, earthquakes, fires, mudslides, tornadoes and hurricanes.

Good Reasons to Plan

    • Two out of five unprepared enterprises hit by a disaster fail within five years.
    • 40 percent of businesses hit by a natural disaster don't reopen and 25 percent that reopen close within a year.
    • The single largest cause of workplace emergencies? Human error.

-- Federal Emergency Management Agency

Crisis Management

It can be a daunting proposition to keep employees motivated after a disaster. Here are a few tips:

Be visible. Key managers should be out on the floor and available. Pat employees on the back often for achievements and let staff members know you care about their feelings.

Listen and help with coping. Let employees know about any local crisis centers that offer counseling. Defray the cost to them or consider paying the full amount. Bring counselors in for group sessions. Watch for sleeplessness, anger, crying, loss of focus, loss of appetite, and other signs that indicate someone may need help.

Contribute. Let your staff turn their feelings into something constructive. Set up blood drives or supply collections or support a charitable organization. This helps everyone focus on the positive.

Be patient. Employees may suddenly feel their jobs lack meaning. Ask them to wait a week before making any final decisions about their positions. You'll be buying time until emotions get back to normal.

The fact that your firm could be subject to these disasters makes it critical to spend the time devising a solid contingency plan and to review it often.

Pay attention to the smallest details: Not only will they help your business survive a disaster, they can make large customers want to do business with you because they'll know your company is capable of getting back on its feet quickly.

Begin by setting up a small emergency task force and support the members as they work up procedures to save lives and your business. Let them assume the worst disaster and assess what effect it would have on your employees, customers, suppliers and distributors. Check to see if your key suppliers have their own recovery plans and, whenever possible, have alternatives on stand-by. You don't want your operations brought to a standstill if a supplier is knocked out.

Make a list of critical issues involved in reopening your doors for business including:

Evacuation. Have a plan and practice. Determine who can close the business and set up a procedure for sending employees home. For example, one company formed a map with concentric circles around headquarters. Those who live the farthest leave first.

Essential staff. Decide which employees are critical and have a back up for each of them. These individuals should have copies of the emergency plan at their homes. Make sure they are familiar with their responsibilities. You can have separate plans for different catastrophes such as fire, chemical spills, terrorism, kidnapping and explosions. Cross-train people so they can fill in if you lose someone in a disaster.

Communication. You need backup systems and alternative means of communicating if the phones go down. Consider signing up with more than one telephone carrier so if one fails, the other can handle your traffic. But make sure the two carriers don't share infrastructure. Another method, offered by many carriers, is dual-path telecommunications. That means separate cables come into your building at different points.

Cell phone networks overload in a crisis, but should be considered an alternative. And wireless paging technology can let people send e-mails and access software applications remotely. Even if your company phones are fine, key customers or suppliers might not have service so get and keep essential home phone numbers.

Remote operations. What if you're unable to get back into the building? A branch office is one alternative that might be worth the money in an emergency. Split key functions so they aren't in one location. If accounts receivables, payroll, and accounts payable are all hit by disaster, you're out of luck. Of course, in an age of telecommuting, it's possible to have staff members work from home or a remote spot if the office closes. Consider rewiring key employees' homes to accommodate the necessary technical equipment or rewire someone's home to put in enough computers to set up a temporary office.

Large companies often rely on outside specialists to maintain a backup office with servers and work stations. A low-cost alternative is to forge an accord with another company to maintain reciprocal "hot sites". Each company keeps a separate server at the other office to cover essential functions such as payroll or accounting, and can count on borrowing some workspace if necessary. Keep the hot sites far enough away from the main office so that both won't be wiped out simultaneously, but close enough (say, 30 miles) to reach relatively easily and without air travel. You can't always count on air traffic during an emergency.

Back up. In offsite locations, keep duplicate records and back ups for any critical documents and equipment. Use a storage facility, a bank vault or someone's home. If your computers are destroyed, it is difficult to restore data if your backup tapes are also in the office. Web-based applications also make a good backup system - they can be accessed from any PC located anywhere by any employee who has the proper passwords.

Insurance. There are many factors to consider here. Make sure your property and casualty insurance is up to date and reflects any building improvements or additional property. Does your coverage rebuild or repair property to any higher building codes and does it cover replacement at current costs? Earthquakes and floods require special insurance.

Ask your insurance agent about specialized disaster coverage, such as business interruption and inventory insurance. Check for special riders and compare policies for your special needs.

There is also a coverage called "valuable papers" which reimburses a stated amount to reconstruct records in case of a fire or flood. It can be useful for documents like blue prints and engineering drafts.

Emergency contact information. Compile a list of all employees and the names and phone numbers of people that your company should contact in an emergency. Make sure the list is readily accessible and up to date.

Get to know local heroes. Learn how fire, police and ambulance teams respond to disasters in your area. This can help in reporting missing people and arranging to get back into your building, if possible, to retrieve vital records.