Are you and your business prepared for an earthquake? At the end of every October, the Emergency Preparedness for Industry & Commerce Council (EPICC) hosts a conference for emergency management professionals across Canada. It’s an amazing event for industry pros to learn the latest and greatest research and theories. The best part? The food is incredible.
I thought I would share some of their knowledge and enthusiasm here. Generally speaking, we’ll be going over the highlights and key points of this document, published by EPICC and the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR). However, If you’re up to absorbing 29 pages, it’s worth the time to read in full.
The EPICC guide is designed to minimize losses in the event of a major earthquake. These losses include loss of life, property, and resources. The guide is also designed for any size business. This makes it perfect for business owners, managers and supervisors. In addition, it’s suitable for anyone else with the power to develop and implement emergency preparedness and response plans.
Earthquake Risks and Impacts
BC is an earthquake zone but it’s not the only one in Canada. Indeed, the most deadly recorded Canadian earthquake happened in Newfoundland. The resulting tsunami killed 27 people in 1927.
Then there are the unrecorded earthquakes to consider. One example is the last mega-thrust earthquake to hit BC in 1700. According to the oral histories of the First Peoples, the resulting wave and landslides wiped entire villages off the map. The quake also sunk forests up and down the west coast of North America. Even Quebec gets its fair share of quakes. The province receives a 5-6 magnitude shake every 25 years or so. In addition, they receive a 6+ magnitude shake about once a century.
What to Expect
So what, as business planners, should we expect when a major earthquake hits? For west-coasters, I highly recommend the CBC’s podcast Fault Lines to get a really in-depth picture. But, in general, we should expect:
- Power outages – lasting days to weeks (even months, if you’re rural and there’s a lot of damage.)
- An earthquake may result in pipes being damaged. The damage may cause taps to run dry or continue flowing with unsafe water. This can last until a professional can be booked to fix things and they’ll be in high demand.
- Roads will be damaged. In Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake, sinkholes large enough to swallow cars opened in roadways. Liquification made areas impassable. In other examples, bridges, overpasses, tunnels, and off-ramps become unsafe to use.
- Roads will be clogged. People will be trying to get to their families. Emergency vehicles will be trying to get where they’re most needed. People will also be trying to evacuate (even if they don’t need to.)
- Fires are a major danger after an earthquake. Gas leaks are common and people are lighting candles. Damaged water systems and roads make fighting them difficult.
- Buildings may be unsound and shelter needed outdoors.
- If your building is coastal, there may be a tsunami coming in. In that case, full evacuation might be necessary.
- Depending on the nature of your business, the severity of the quake, and dumb luck, you may have injured staff.
Why Prepare the Workplace?
The Legal Aspect
You might have legal responsibility. Responsibility may depend on the nature of your organization. An example is the continued care and well-being of your staff and guests. Government mandates that care homes, for example, have supplies and a comprehensive emergency plan. The government does not require this mandate for all industries and tourism and general business are two such examples. However, the government highly recommends that they have 72 hours of supplies on hand for staff and guests.
We get a lot of business customers who are skeptical about needing a full 3 day supply for their staff and guests. Often we hear people in this mindset leaning towards 24 hours or less. Their reasoning is that everyone will go home. But what if they can’t get home due to road closures or injury? What if they don’t have supplies or family at home? You may find they simply feel safer staying at work. You may also have to consider that your customers are from out of town and have nowhere to go. Or staff that commute who need supplies to make the long hike home.
A Bigger Picture
All of your staff may be able to make it to where they need to go. In this instance, I encourage you to look at ‘extra’ supplies as an opportunity for good public relations. No, your staff might not need it. However, imagine how grateful others would be for your organization’s generosity. In all honesty, the staff will probably need it. We cover the usefulness of emergency preparedness for business continuity at length here.
Think of emergency planning for your business this way. It’s an opportunity to ensure your assets (employees, facilities, and your building) are prepared to meet emergency conditions. These things are tied to your economic interests and ultimately factor into business continuity. Most businesses, especially small ones, won’t survive a disaster they aren’t prepared for.
Earthquake Planning is Everything Planning
As a rule of thumb, human beings have one set of basic needs: water, food, and shelter. More is ideal, but these things will keep us alive. When you ready yourself and those around you for an earthquake, you’re readying them for other emergencies too. There are some specialty items for each type of disaster such as sandbags for flooding and jumper-cables for the car. However, the essentials will always be the same.
By preparing for an earthquake, you’re most of the way to being prepared for everything else. From solar flares to extreme weather, to the more exotic emergencies we hear about, you’ll be covered. Everyone gains in being prepared for any situation where regular access to everyday luxuries is cut off.
The Emergency Plan
Creating an emergency plan can be overwhelming. There’s a lot to assess, analyze, and solve in every area of the business. The document provided at the beginning of this article by EPICC and ICLR contains a really great checklist to break the job into manageable pieces.
Generally speaking, creating an emergency plan comes down to examining what risks your organization faces. Once that’s done, precautions then need to be put in place to mitigate them. Ideally, your plan will also include how your business will recover from emergency impacts.
A few examples of how the pieces fit together:
- Our office has a lot of heavy furniture. This could be a falling hazard. We will secure it to the wall so it cannot topple. No recovery action required.
- Our assembly line works with delicate, finely calibrated equipment. It could be a danger to workers in an earthquake and also become imprecise, damaging our ability to continue work. We will put emergency shut-off procedures and training in place to protect workers. In addition, we will create an agreement with the machine technician that they are to send a tech after an earthquake. Lastly, we’ll also put the technician’s contact information on the machine, instead of relying on digital copies.
The Emergency People
Creating an emergency management and/or business continuity team will be an important part of preparing your organization. These people create, maintain, and update the plan. They are in charge of coordinating the execution of the plan in an emergency. Have people from different areas of the business on the team. It’s a good idea to include different levels of the hierarchy as well. The more perspectives at the table, the more risks you’re likely to spot.
For small businesses, the owner is likely in charge of emergency planning. However, they should still consult with their team. Consider what risks are around and what impact these risks could have.
No matter the size of your business, encourage your team to prepare at home too. Staff must feel that their family/home is taken care of in an emergency. If not, they won’t be coming back to work until things have settled.
In previous articles, we’ve discussed general emergency planning for businesses at length. We have yet to go into detail on a few key areas. One of these areas is the business’s utilities. In an earthquake, there is a very good chance that the building’s utilities will have problems or fail entirely. As always, there are things you can do to minimize risk before an event occurs.
Natural gas lines can be turned off if there is a suspicion of a leak. We recommend that a professional service person be consulted to turn it back on.* Staff must know when, and when not to, turn the gas off. All employees should also know where the shutoff valve is, and not to turn it back on without qualified help. Keep an adjustable wrench or 4-in-1 emergency tool with your emergency supplies to help with shutoff.
*Technically, there’s nothing stopping you from turning your own gas back on. However, a qualified person can check the system for leaks and ensure everything is in good working order. Nobody wants to see what happens if it’s not in good working order. Boom!
Gas and water piping, electric conduits, and sewage lines can also be secured against excessive movement. This will help them survive an earthquake intact. Check if these crucial fixtures are also safe from falling objects.
Most businesses rely on power. Do you have a backup generator or other alternate power source? Depending on your area and the severity of an earthquake, power could be out for weeks after an event. Test any of these systems monthly and set up emergency lighting to aid with evacuation. You should ensure all of your breaker switches are clearly identified, labeling which rooms/outlets they go to.
If a quake is large it can damage cell towers and even hardy landlines. If either of these communication tools are still working for you, use them sparingly in the first few hours. This frees up space in the telecommunications network so that critical calls can get through. If possible, use social media, text, or email to communicate. But avoid unnecessary use of the internet if you have it.
Ensure your organization has an out of town contact they can use as an emergency communications hub. For large organizations, this is likely another branch or head office. For smaller businesses, it might be a family member or a vendor/client with whom you have a good relationship. Be sure your team leaders know who to contact and let your key clients know too.
Anticipate that there will be no telecommunications networks or limited access. Then have a plan for the dispersal of information. Think about how you’ll inform your team, your staff, and how they can get word to their families.
Fire management is an important piece of earthquake preparedness. Broken gas lines, non-functioning fire hydrants, and damaged emergency routes combine to make a perfect storm for fires on the loose. They are one of the biggest dangers after the shaking has stopped.
Ensure your workplace has working fire alarms and sprinkler systems. A staff member can be made responsible for performing periodic checks to confirm they are working correctly. All staff should know where to find the office (or building’s) fire extinguishers – these should be installed throughout the organization. Ensure all exits are equipped with battery-powered auxiliary lights.
Calling in the Pros
Specialists need to look for fire hazards in the workplace. An Inspector should conduct regular inspections. A member of the local fire department or a trained staff member can do the necessary inspections. Have your extinguishers regularly inspected as well. If possible, install a smoke control system inside the building – especially for larger facilities.
Earthquakes happen here. They’re not something that only happen to other people. They cause devastating economic loss and loss of life. Many businesses unfortunate enough to be in their paths never recover. Set up strong plans to prepare, mitigate, respond, and recover. It’s also important to have the supplies and knowledge on-hand to support staff.
Thank you for reading.
This article was written by Zenia Platten – Author of Tethered and Emergency Preparedness Professional
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