How Worried Are You?

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Recent events in Japan have caused some businesses to worry about whether they are prepared to keep operating after a major earthquake, especially since the greater Seattle area is situated on the Cascadia fault.

Given the economic climate, disaster preparedness is often the last thing on an executive’s mind these days, but creating a plan can save your business. It cuts the number of decisions you have to make during the disaster, reduces your legal liability and can safeguard your business brand and reputation. Absence of a plan could include your business among the 25 percent of companies that fail after a disaster, usually because they had no plans.

Having worked through these issues at Washington Mutual by managing problems caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and winter storms, I’ve devised some questions you might use to test your preparedness strategy.

1. Which of your business functions are most critical and which can be suspended during a disaster?

2. Do you have streamlined emergency response plans that can be activated?

3. Which of your critical business functions are handled for you by vendors? What types of backup plans do those vendors have to keep your business up and running? At WaMu, we made sure that our third-party courier companies had good backup plans, since we depended upon them to move our cash around the country. Our branches could not operate without cash, and we knew that dispensing cash was a critical business function.

4. Once you have such business priorities identified, which parts of your business can be run manually, without technology’s assistance, if power is not available? Can you invoice customers? Can you pay bills? Can you supplement your existing inventory? Can you deliver goods to customers? Have employees been trained to step in and do more than one job?

5. Does your business already have phone trees with employee contact information so you can pass along vital information and ascertain employees’ safety?

6. Assuming that power is available outside the affected area, do you have alternate data centers from which you can operate in case your primary data center was damaged in the earthquake? If not, have you considered storing data in an internet cloud so it is available from your home or office via a secure internet connection?

7. Have you identified and rehearsed employees on locations in your buildings where they can “duck/cover/hold” while an earthquake is taking place?

8. If you are a larger company, do you have sufficient diesel fuel to power the generators you will use to keep on working?

From this list you can see there are a number of ways to anticipate issues and not all of them are expensive. Sharing your plans with employees is vital so they know what their roles will be in an emergency. And communicating with both customers and employees becomes even more important in the midst of an earthquake. In this situation, both email and social media tools come in handy. There is no way to communicate too much in a disaster, especially to lead your people and reinforce key points for your company.

Finally, if you’re the CEO, be prepared to be vilified in the press if you don’t move quickly enough and if you don’t communicate clearly. You’re paid to do everything possible and to think outside the box so that your company does not end up with a black eye. Given the lives and resources at stake, having a plan is the least you can do now to reduce your risk after a natural disaster ... or two or three disasters, as we have just seen in Japan.

Annie Searle is founder of Annie Searle & Associates, a consulting firm that helps clients identify program gaps and manage risks. A former executive at Washington Mutual, Searle served for seven years as chair of the bank’s crisis management team.

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

If nothing else, significant anniversaries give us reason to pause and ponder.
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Round-number-anniversary stories are an overused tool in the journalism workshop, maybe because they’re still helpful in pausing to assess where we are, how we got here and where we’re going.

In the case of two such round-number anniversaries being marked this year, those questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going have literal application because they pertain to two hugely significant developments in transportation, both important to this region, although only one is closely identified with it.

This year, Boeing celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding and the interstate highway system marks 60 years since its official launch.

It is possible to overstate the significance to Seattle of Bill Boeing’s venture into aviation. It’s not true that without Boeing there wouldn’t be a Seattle, at least one that anyone would have heard of. Seattle was already someplace by 1916, thanks to the port and the railroads — the earlier contributions of two other modes of transport to Seattle’s creation — and events like the Klondike gold rush. Boeing didn’t emerge as the world’s preeminent commercial-aerospace company until well into its middle age.

But would the Seattle region have grown to the size it is and the importance it claims without being one of the world’s centers of aerospace design and production? Would it have developed the tech industries it thrives upon today without the foundation Boeing laid? Would it be a home to a thick portfolio of nationally significant companies? That’s highly debatable and quite doubtful.

As for where we’re going, wherever it is, we’ll likely get there by plane for a long time hence. For all the talk of hyperloops and other technologies, the airplane is still a remarkably efficient, productive and safe method of getting people and stuff from one place to another. There may be revolutions in design, materials and propulsion to rival the transition from propeller to jet, but short of teleportation, the airplane’s place in transportation is secure.

Much less secure are Boeing’s and Seattle’s places in that future. A lot of airplane-building rivals have come and gone in 100 years, and more are coming. It would be nice for both if Boeing and Seattle were still relevant to the discussion of the aerospace industry when the 200th anniversary of Boeing’s founding occurs. 

Meanwhile, the interstate highway system gets little love and a lot of abuse these days, credited with urban demolition, suburban sprawl and desecration of the countryside, not to mention the intangible crime of encouraging Americans to race to their destinations while ignoring the joys and sights of the journey.

Some of the blame is earned; much of it is silly. For people and things, the destination usually matters more than the journey. The interstates rendered the destination possible by making the journey faster and safer, even more enjoyable. And lamentations about not seeing or appreciating the country when viewed from the interstate are sometimes wrong. Take the drive on I-82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, or on I-90 just west of Snoqualmie summit, and try not to be impressed by either the scenery or the engineering feats.

Your cargo, however, is not on a sightseeing trip. It has places to be and work to do, which underscores the massive contribution the interstate system has made as an incredibly powerful economic engine. The modern American supply chain is a wondrous thing; it doesn’t happen without a network of limited-access divided highways, which, by the way, took a lot of traffic off city streets and rural roads, improving life for many.

Unloved as Interstates 5, 90 and 405 are for their congestion, noise, unsightliness, etc., and as expensive as it’s going to be to expand, rebuild and maintain them, give them credit for making urban life possible.  

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.