The National Hurricane Center has predicted there will be four to six major hurricanes and up to 16 named storms in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico this season. As the June 1 start of the hurricane season approaches, it is important to ensure your business is prepared.

This is the second installment of a five-part series offering answers from Tom Serio, director of business continuity management for Office Depot, and Jon Toigo, CEO and managing partner of Toigo Partners International, on the following topics: Disaster Recovery Planning, Protecting Your People, Protecting Your Data, Investing in Disaster Planning and How to Create a Disaster Recovery Plan for Your Business.

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Part 2: Protecting Your People

Q. What are the most important things you should do to protect your staff?

Tom SERIO: Employees are a company's most important resource.

The most critical aspect of emergency planning is getting employees to think ahead. To protect them in a disaster, take these four steps:

1. Build solid contact lists and keep the information updated and accessible for your employees. Include key vendors and suppliers, and emergency service organizations like the local fire and police departments, hospital and ambulance services, building services and government relief agencies. Make sure your contact lists include alternate phone numbers in case one is not accessible.

2. Establish a clear process for communications and a plan, and practice how you will contact one another in different scenarios.

3. Organize supplies: Make sure your business has access to cash, generators, batteries and supplies such as first aid kits, water, food and personal care items.

4. Provide employee assistance by training staff in CPR and first aid. We've also created family disaster kits for Office Depot employees, which provide the essential resources for employees to help them through the event.

Q. What are some examples of things you've done to protect your staff in the past?

SERIO: Having weathered four major hurricanes last year in South Florida and throughout the Gulf States, Office Depot supported its employees in the following ways:

  • Established "one-stop disaster relief centers" at seven stores throughout the impacted areas where our employees could collect supplies and services

  • Arranged for 1,200 meals and personal-care boxes to be distributed to Office Depot's displaced employees

  • Granted loans to displaced employees as part of the Office Depot Disaster Relief Fund

  • Created newspaper advertisements with Office Depot's toll-free number for impacted employees to call, and provided information on the Company's internal Web site

This year, we've also enhanced our associate support functions to include additional contact information (e.g. relatives' phone numbers and alternative communication devices), reserved housing, relief locations and relief goods. We're also reinforcing communications to associates through e-mail information bulletins and improved Hurricane Hotline features.

Q. What's the most important thing a company should do to help its staff following a disaster?

SERIO: Remember, in times of disaster it's not business as usual. The focus must be on helping employees navigate personal issues, from damaged homes to personal injury. Time and again, I've seen employees choose to prioritize work over reassembling disruptive lives because it's the only remnant of normalcy they have left. As an employer, you want to make this difficult period as easy as possible. One of the best means of supporting them is through your preparation – developing contact lists, clear communications plans and organizing supplies.

Q. What are some outside resources your staff can use to help them through a disaster?

SERIO: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Web site is a common sense framework for disaster preparedness and offers great tips for individuals and businesses.

Q. What preparations can be made by your staff on their own?

SERIO: Routinely backing up files and preparing disaster kits are simple actions that individuals should be taking. All employees can store and backup data on a regular schedule. Items like contact information and address databases can seem small, but can assist in a speedy recovery.

Q. How can you teach your staff about protecting their homes and families during a disaster?

SERIO: There are a number of similarities between disaster preparedness at home and at the office. Employees should start by developing a plan, creating contact lists for family members and establishing a communications plan and assembling an emergency kit. I also recommend that staff visit Ready.gov for additional information and resources.

Q. How can your staff actively contribute to the planning process?

SERIO: Your employees are often your front line of defense in disaster recovery and planning. Involve them in every step of the way – in development, review and testing. Just as your day-to-day business processes adapt to changing environments, so too should your disaster recovery plan.

Employees also can participate and take part in disaster planning teams. The teams should consist of two or more people – a primary person and a backup – who handle key functions in an emergency. Team members should be fully empowered to make decisions in their areas, and trained to think and behave rationally in the face of a disaster.

Q. How can you help to minimize the stressful impact a hurricane can have on your staff?

SERIO: Following the impact of a hurricane or any natural or even daily disaster, it's important to remember that it's not a normal situation. Employees may have suffered the loss of their home or family members, but the return to work can often be therapeutic and provide a sense or normalcy.

Q. What are some other concerns a business might face with regards to their staff?

SERIO: Following a major disaster, employees, vendors and supplies may scatter throughout the region. Many staff members and contacts may work from home or remotely at temporary offices. Through well-tested communication protocols businesses and employees can stay in touch throughout an interruption event.

Q. What is the most crucial element to consider when preparing your staff?

SERIO: The most critical aspect of emergency planning is getting employees to think ahead.

Disaster planning is a flexible process that requires frequent fine tuning and regular testing. Employees should take an active role in developing the plan with management. They should provide in-depth contact information and updates, and participate in rehearsals.

Tip From the Expert:

SERIO: "Build comprehensive employee contact lists, establish a clear process for communications and plan how you will contact one another in different scenarios, such as when employees are scattered in different locations. Make sure your contact lists include names and numbers of employees' relatives in other states."

Check back Wednesday for Hurricane Preparedness for Businesses Part Three: Protecting Your Data.

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