Is There a Practical Way to Write an Emergency Action Plan for a Natural Disaster?

A plan is not a plan until it is in written form. And a written plan is not a plan until your team feels ownership and is trained in how to use it.

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“What would you do to continue practicing veterinary medicine, to continue paying your staff, and to communicate with your clients?" asks the "Disaster Preparedness for Veterinary Practices,"  an AVMA Publication. "If you do not prepare now for what you will do in a disaster, then the disaster will dictate the outcome of your business — possibly the outcome of your life.”  

The image of Noah’s Ark is often used by veterinary and other animal-based businesses. It makes a good analogy for the value of a written natural disaster plan. A good plan definitely has the potential to save a business when faced with a natural event of disastrous proportions. Understandably, the thought of crafting a written emergency action plan to cover potential challenges caused by a natural disaster might seem as unnerving as manually building a huge boat.

Think of the plan as an addition to the line of defensive measures you already use to protect your practice from all sorts of threats.

The good news is there are numerous resources online to help you develop a plan that uniquely fits your circumstances.

Before looking at some of those resources, imagine landmarks on a map. Each landmark can help you make the journey to completing a workable emergency action plan.

The Landmarks of the Map

  • Involve Your Team
  • Research the Resources
  • Reach Out to Local Authorities and a “Sister Clinic”
  • Review and Update Insurance Coverage
  • Write Your Plan
  • Train Your Team

Your map might look a little different, but having one before you jump into the process will definitely help move things along. Plus, it will help you to know where you are during the process and serve as a visual guide for everyone involved.

Involve Your Team

 Anytime you change or add something new to a business policy, you need your team to take ownership of those changes. And, the best way to get that level of acceptance is to involve team members in writing your emergency action plan from the beginning.

Also, never underestimate the power of delegation. Dividing the task by assigning responsibilities to various team members shrinks a really big job into smaller bite-size pieces. The first step logically leads to the next landmark on our map.

Research the Resources

For whatever reason, the number and intensity of natural disasters seems to be on the rise with every passing year. With that increase has come greater awareness of the need to take precautions to deal with events like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes.

As a result, a surplus of information is available on the web. Elective courses on disaster management are now offered to senior veterinary students. Training is showing up at continuing education meetings. State associations are adding committees to assist veterinary practices in dealing with threatening events, including natural disasters. 

When looking for a list of resources, you may find all you need on the AVMA web page, Emergency Planning Resources for Veterinary Practices-Disaster Preparedness.

Reach Out to Local Authorities and a “Sister Clinic”

A simple list of phone numbers for the local police and sheriff departments, fire department and EMA office is a good thing to have on hand. However, developing a working relationship with those folks ahead of time will pay great dividends in the event of a natural disaster. Let them know of your emergency action plan and learn where they best fit into your protocol. They'll benefit as well by knowing of your willingness to assist pet owners with their injured or displaced pets during a crisis.

Take the time to form an agreement with another veterinary practice to give or receive assistance in the event either one sustains losses which temporarily prevent provision of services. Ideally, the distance between the two would be enough to decrease the likelihood of both being affected by an event, yet near enough to make assistance practical.

Review and Update Insurance Coverage

Begin with a review of current insurance policies with the help of your insurance agent. Make sure you understand deductibles, coverage limits and any exclusions within each policy.

Keep policies, contact names and numbers in a safe place that will be easily accessible in an emergency.

Obviously, everyone needs coverage for property losses. The need for flood insurance varies, but you can assess your particular needs at the National Flood Insurance Program website.

Business Interruption Insurance policies cover actual loss of income a business may experience after a natural disaster. This type of coverage is different from property loss coverage, so you’ll need help from your insurance agent to ensure this type of protection is in place.

The AVMA-PLIT website is a rich resource for general information on business insurance options as well as business continuity planning.

Write the Plan

Now it’s time to bring your team back together with all the results from their research. Organize what you have and brainstorm any ideas that may not have been covered.

Dr. John Scott of Galveston, Texas wrote a good outline to follow for an emergency action plan. Although it focuses on preparations for hurricanes, much of the checklist would be useful for any type of potential natural disaster. You can access his document and use it as a guide to write your own plan.

More of us live and practice in areas susceptible to earthquakes than we might think. A lot of information concerning earthquake preparedness is available at this website.  

Train Your Team

In early November 2014, an online article written by Kate Sheppard appeared in the Huffington Post with this headline, “2 Years After Sandy, U.S. Disaster Policy Is Still A Disaster.”

The problem was (is) lack of implementation of policies. Private veterinary practices can avoid the same “disaster” by taking the final step in the process of training team members to react confidently in the event of a natural disaster. Take these steps to finish the job.

  1. Provide each team member with their own personal copy of the finished document and allow a week or two to read it.
  2. Conduct a team meeting and allow time for Q&A.
  3. Run through a mock disaster. 

Dr. Barry Kellogg wrote an article for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) in September of 2012, highlighting the value of emergency preparedness. In that article, he says, 

“The most important thing to remember is that it is not just the obvious that we need to be prepared for, but a long list of potential disasters; whether in-house such as a fire, geographically-local such as an extended power outage, or even nationally such as a major health or disease crisis. It is also important to accept that a plan is not a plan unless it is written. Thoughts about ‘what you would do if…’ are lost in the aftermath and emotional crisis of a disaster.”

He goes on to say, “Animal care facilities do not run without a dedicated staff. Therefore, be sure each staff member has her own personal disaster plan so you will have a staff when they are needed most!”

In a recent phone interview, Kellogg expressed his concern that so few veterinary practices have written emergency plans.

In the Edge Business article "Will Your Business Survive the Next Disaster," Mike Brogan writes, “According to a recent National Federation of Independent Business small business poll, man-made disasters affect 10 percent of small businesses, whereas natural disasters have impacted 30 percent of all small businesses in the United States."

Some time within the months ahead, several veterinary practices in the United States will sustain significant damage from a natural disaster. It would be difficult to calculate the losses that could be avoided or at least minimized by the availability of a workable emergency action plan in those practices.

“Forty percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster and another 25 percent fail within one year according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Similar statistics from the United States Small Business Administration indicate that over 90 percent of businesses fail within two years after being struck by a disaster,” writes Corina Mullen, in an article "Business Planning for Disaster Survival" for Chamber 101. 

Obviously, finding time to create an emergency action plan is the tallest barrier to overcome. However, if you are part of a very busy veterinary practice, that practice represents great value to many people and their animals. It just makes sense to do all we can to protect such an asset.

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