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Recently there were as many as 60 major wildfires burning in the United States, primarily in western states, and more than 200 wildfires burning in Canada’s western provinces.

Ahead of the wildfire season, many communities in the United States and Canada were forced to deal with floodwaters as warm spring weather thawed the winter’s heavy snow accumulations. As the built environment increasingly expands into the wildland urban interface, onto floodplains, coastal surge areas and earthquake zones, the frequency and financial impact of large-scale natural disasters continues to rise.
How can this Affect the commercial construction industry?

Although extreme weather events and natural disasters are an inescapable part of life, their impact on a construction project can be mitigated by planning ahead. When disaster strikes, every business needs to be concerned for the safety of their employees, but construction companies often face the added challenge of protecting and accounting for a workforce spread across multiple worksites in diverse geographic locations.
Disaster management planning is vital
Not all natural disasters can be prevented or anticipated, which is why planning is crucial. Being ready is half the battle. That means identifying which organizational processes would be most impacted by disasters, anticipating the types of disasters that pose the greatest risk and proactively implementing policies and procedures to mitigate their effects.

The goal of disaster management planning is to get the jobsite back on track when disaster strikes. But the planning has to be thorough. Leave out one or two critical elements, and the best laid plans quickly unravel. The smartest move an employer can make is to go through a formal disaster management planning process to ensure all the bases are covered.

There are four key steps required in crisis preparation for construction sites:

  • Identify the risks. Understand what events could arise and imagine the worst-case implications of those events.
  • Develop a plan for rare events and worst-case scenarios that may never happen and develop effective and adaptable response protocols for managing through the crisis. This includes a communications plan.
  • Communicate and implement the plan across the organization. Identify key actions and responsibilities and identify and train the people who will carry them out.
  • Test and evaluate the plan frequently. The midst of a crisis is not the time to discover the plan’s weaknesses. Crisis plans should be evaluated against and adapted for changing circumstances.
Just because an event has not occurred yet does not mean it will not occur in the future. Effective risk analysis and crisis preparation is an essential business strategy. Every commercial construction contractor has unique circumstances that must be addressed in a disaster management plan, but five main areas represent the greatest risks in any disaster scenario:

  1. From email to project management to ordering and inventory control systems, most businesses cannot run without basic technologies such as the internet, computers, home and accounting/financial systems—and the technology systems that back them up. Whether as the result of physical damage or power outages, loss must be anticipated.
  2. Primary operating centers and worksites may be heavily damaged or even destroyed, resulting in the loss of records, materials and operational facilities. Access to facilities may be lost as a result of an extreme event.
  3. Key staff members may be unable to get to work and may be unreachable. The workforce must know what to do in an emergency.
  4. Most businesses have key suppliers. If they are crippled by disaster, entire supply chains can break down.
  5. Managing client expectation and keeping them informed through a disaster event should be a top priority in disaster planning.
In addition, the three main goals of disaster management planning for a construction company are:

1. Manage the business during the crisis
Employees should be the first priority when it comes to disaster management planning. Their safety, as well as their ability to manage the crisis and return to work quickly, is of paramount importance.

This means defining their roles and responsibilities to be assumed during and after a disaster. The clearer the plan, the more effective it will be. Communications are most important, because managing a business during a disaster can be difficult. Facilities may not be accessible and critical systems may be down. Coordinating staff (often at makeshift locations or at home) is impossible without a well-coordinated emergency communications plan.

Beyond good communications, organizations also must make sure employees get paid, work only in safe environments and, in extreme situations, get access to crisis counseling.

2. Resume normal operations quickly
The ultimate goal of disaster management planning is to resume normal operations as quickly as possible. To facilitate a quick recovery, organizations must develop detailed plans. Specific individuals must be identified who will be responsible for restoring IT and facilities. If damage is severe that can take time and, in many cases, organizations must deal with local or regional government agencies before facilities can be reopened. The right contacts should be part of the pre-disaster plan.

3. Recover losses quickly
The midst of a crisis is no time to be documenting property—and if property is destroyed it can easily be forgotten and never claimed.

The key to quickly recovering losses is to document property as a matter of course and update the record regularly. If property is documented, photographed and videotaped beforehand, insurance claims can be processed quickly and efficiently.

It is also important to carefully record all extraordinary expenses during and after a disaster. Proper documentation can speed up the claim process. Insurance brokers, agents and claims professionals should be contacted before hiring any outside agencies and businesses should not sign contracts for non-emergency services before speaking with their insurance representative to make sure the cost is covered and under what circumstances.

While it’s impossible to foresee every commercial construction disaster event, it’s not only possible but also critical for businesses to prepare for the possibility of disasters. This is doubly true for small and mid-size companies that may have limited resources to recover after a devastating event.

The frequency and cost of disasters is increasing, and businesses that do not plan ahead risk losing everything. The best chance of weathering the storm is proper disaster management planning.

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