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When Disaster Strikes, Don't Be Caught Unprepared

Effective emergency management requires preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery to protect personnel, samples, records and operations.

by Glenn Ketcham,
Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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The graphic stories of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, wildfires in California and flooding in the Midwest provide images not soon forgotten. As of the writing this article, there have been 74 federally declared disasters in the United States in 2008. Earthquakes can strike in many areas of the country without warning, and increased tropical storm activity is forecast for the next couple of decades. Floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms, fire, heat waves, loss of utilities, and terrorist or activist activities can all have major effects on laboratory operations.

While it is the catastrophic disasters with their alarming headlines that grab everyone’s attention, professional emergency managers have long recognized that, regardless of their size or cause, the impacts at a local level are often similar. Because of this, emergency managers have long emphasized adopting an “all-hazards” approach to emergency planning and recovery. An all-hazards approach focuses on preventing the likely detrimental effects of any type of disaster and reducing the consequences of these effects. Emergency plans should use function-based planning and not incident-based planning. Power loss, for example, may be the result of many potential incidents (a windstorm, a downed tree, an ice storm or even a car hitting a power pole). Regardless of the cause, there are actions that must be taken to ensure the protection of employees, samples, records and operations within the facility.


One can think of emergency management as having four primary phases:
Preparedness - The planning and preparations required to handle an emergency or disaster
Mitigation - The steps and activities related to preventing future emergencies or minimizing their effects
Response - The actual activation of the emergency plan when the need arises
Recovery - The actions needed to restore normal operations

Let’s briefly touch on each of the four phases of emergency management. It should be pointed out that each approach, as described, is scalable from the operation of an entire research campus to the management of a small biotech company or a large clinical facility down to an individual research laboratory.


This is perhaps what is traditionally thought of as emergency planning. It includes developing written plans and procedures to ensure that critical operations are maintained. One recognized approach is to develop an emergency management structure that has elements common to all emergencies (e.g., a command structure, defined critical operations, operations) and then develop a set of specific annexes to deal with unique problems. Preparedness includes identifying essential supplies and actions, critical positions and specific roles and responsibilities; determining orders of succession (who’s in charge when the boss is away?); delegating specific authorities; communicating; and, of course, ensuring the safety of staff. Facilities should be assessed for potential vulnerabilities and strengths. Issues as mundane as elevator or loading dock access can become very important when use of these elements is denied.

One plan does not fit all, and plans should be customized to your operations, region and potential hazards. In other words, don’t just pencil-whip a plan from some template you find on the web (though these can serve as a good starting point), but really consider your specific circumstances. In areas that can be struck by catastrophic hazards without any warning, such as earthquakes in the West or along the New Madrid fault, it may be necessary to store a supply of drinking water and food if personnel could become stranded. In other areas where events can be reasonably foreseen, such as blizzards in the North or hurricanes along the Gulf and East coasts; where storms can sometimes be tracked for days before impact, fewer reserves may need to be kept on hand but different preparations may need to be made.

The most important aspect of emergency planning is to ensure the safety of the staff during an emergency and afterward. Most organizations will not want people staying in the facility unless they are tied to some essential function. However, if there are critical operations that require staffing, one or more secure locations should be identified for personnel who must work during an emergency. In some circumstances it may be advisable to offer refuge for the families of essential staff. Workers are often more apt to volunteer for extended work or to work during an emergency if they are not worried by thoughts of their families’ safety.

Mutual aid agreements with other labs or institutions and emergency aspects of vendor contracts should also be reviewed as part of this process. This action might be required at an institutional level, but it is also necessary to know that those empowered to take action have reviewed the agreements and contracts. It is also very important to exercise all sections of your plan. This can be accomplished through a variety of approaches—from tabletop drills to full-scale exercises. One word of caution: Limit the scope of each exercise so meaningful information can be learned. If the exercise is too ambitious and too many failures occur too early in the process, valuable lessons may be lost.


This key aspect helps keep problems from occurring in the first place or limits their severity. These are typically engineering-type solutions to address vulnerabilities identified in the planning process. Examples might include an emergency generator to power critical equipment, earthquake strips for shelving, portable heaters or air conditioners, flood control and even protection of computer-based information by using frequent backup and off-site storage of data and records. Once vulnerabilities are identified, it is important for organizations to budget toward solutions. In some cases grant monies from state or federal sources are available for certain types of hazard mitigation.


First and foremost during a disaster is the safety of personnel, followed by the protection of the science. The staff should be in secure quarters and not take action until they can do so safely. In some instances this means not entering damaged structures until they are assessed by engineers or emergency personnel. Lines of communication must be maintained throughout the event.


One will generally want to restore normal routines as soon as possible after the event. However, it is likely that not all issues can receive equal attention, especially following a major event. This may be a time of competing needs. Staffing shortages are likely, and those who are able to work may be overwhelmed by the tasks they must complete. As in the old sports adage, “you play like you practice,” the same holds true in incident response. It is imperative to have developed and exercised a plan in which position assignments were made in advance and a clear command structure exists. This allows for the most effective use of resources and reduces wasted time and effort when it can least be afforded. Actions such as assessing damage, making emergency repairs, clearing immediate hazards and contracting with vendors for assistance may all be required following a major event. In certain circumstances, especially for public institutions, some costs may be recoverable from FEMA. The rule here is document, document, document! If you cannot prove that a cost was incurred, FEMA will probably not pay. Insurances, including business interruption insurance, if applicable, should be reviewed for adequacy.

An important related consideration that is often included as a separate plan is called a “business continuity plan” (BCP) or “continuity of operations plan” (COOP).

A COOP address those critical functions that must be carried out in the short term should the normal business location become unusable. The foundation of this plan relies on identifying the critical “business” functions that must be sustained and selecting potential alternate facilities in advance. Associated with identifying the alternate facility is developing a system to move critical operations, tasking and training of essential staff for plan activation, and securing the equipment and supplies needed to accomplish this effort. Using the power loss example above, if a major transformer is damaged and power is unavailable for a particular facility for several days to weeks, lab operations and samples may need to be quickly relocated or otherwise protected.

This discussion just scratches the surface of emergency and disaster planning. Adequate planning and practice can make even a large-scale event more manageable and help speed recovery efforts. There is a wealth of information available from federal and state resources. Local emergency planning officials are often happy to lend assistance and review plans. The return on investment will more than pay for this effort should a disaster ever hit your facility.