Opinion: Preparing for Potential Disasters

How to increase the resiliency of biotechnology organizations in the face of emergency risks

By | January 25, 2017

PIXABAY, FELIXIONCOOLHurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, fires, steam explosions, chemical spills, terrorism—all are threats biotechnology facilities face. These hazards can lead to extensive damage and large-scale business interruption. Most biotech firms are familiar with business continuity planning. However, many organizations develop business continuity recovery plans that rely on the belief that first responders will reach them in time. Planning to protect against greater physical and financial loss by recovering their vital research, documents, and technology, these firms may be forgetting about their most important asset: their people.

Company-based emergency response teams (ERTs) are now beginning to take root in the private sector. These are based on community emergency response teams (CERTs), which are sponsored by city and state governments and populated by volunteers. Organizations often mistakenly assume that, in times of disaster, first responders will be there to help. But when the “big one” strikes, first responders may not be able to assist right away. Emergencies can happen suddenly, overwhelming traditional staff support services. It is imperative that biotech organizations are able to self-sufficiently respond to emergency conditions so as to quickly and effectively stabilize safety issues. 

See “Weathering the Storm

Before disaster strikes, biotech organizations can take steps to not only make their businesses more resilient to emergency risk, but also develop response operations that can support first responders in times of crisis.

Developing an ERT

ERTs enable organizations to respond to on-site emergencies—as well as those in neighbouring sites and communities—before first responders arrive. By being able to initiate response procedures, ERTs likewise permit an organization transition to the recovery and resumption of business phase sooner.

In developing ERTs, there are four main teams you will want to include: evacuation coordinators, plus medical response, search and rescue, structural specialists, and hazardous materials (hazmat) teams. These are comprised of staff member–volunteers.

Evacuation coordinators are employees on each floor of a given building, informing personnel in their direct area to immediately evacuate the work area and/or building when an evacuation notification is received or in progress. They conduct floor sweeps, checking normally unoccupied rooms (storerooms, training areas, meeting rooms, and restrooms) adjacent to their departments, ensuring everyone has evacuated when necessary. Evacuation coordinators also enlist the help of other personnel to assist in the evacuation of handicapped staff or visitors.

The medical team provides on-site evaluation and treatment—within the scope of its training, qualifications, and available resources. Medical team members are accountable for all field medical emergency response, including setting up a treatment area, plus fielding emergency triage, medical transportation, first aid, mortality management, and casualty counts.

The search and rescue team is responsible for locating for people reported as missing, triaging victims, providing rapid lifesaving treatment, and transporting wounded and injured persons.

In earthquake-prone areas, establishing a structural assessment team is just good business. This crew, comprised of facilities and structural experts, will usually be the first to conduct a hot lap of the structure after a catastrophic event that has the potential to impact a building and its contents. This team is in charge for conducting a rapid safety evaluation of the building, determining whether it is safe to enter, shutting off utilities as needed, and, if safe, allowing other emergency response groups to enter.

During on-site hazmat releases, the hazmat team is tasked with ensuring the safety of staff, facilities, and the surrounding community. Hazmat team members contain and clean spills. During incidents in which where person is injured and/or trapped near a spill, this team is critical in isolating and containing the spill before search and rescue and medical team members can enter.

Practice makes prepared

Holding exercises is essential after establishing ERTs. Without testing the team, an organization cannot assess its ERT’s capabilities or shortcomings. Practice runs provide team members with the experience required to respond to a real emergencies down the line.

Of course, developing an ERT will require buy-in from the top of an organization, down. Selling the program to staff in order to generate interest in volunteering is the most important step in the process. 

At the end of the day, an organization has to determine the potential value of implementing any business continuity programs. In the biotech industry, where chemical spills and explosions are only too likely, implementing an ERT program shows employees that the company cares about their well-being, and is an act of goodwill to the local community. ERTs create a resilient community and a culture of preparedness within an organization, which will not only boost its ability to recover after a disaster, but strengthens customer confidence. 

Larissa Paschyn is a certified emergency manager in San Francisco.. Previously, she was the external affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 9 Incident Management Assistance Team.

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