By Peter Picarillo, President & Chief Executive Officer, Business Network of Emergency Resources, Inc (BNET).
(Published Jan 2024 IAEM Bulletin)
Connecting and maintaining partnership with the private sector business community can be challenging for emergency managers. Though we’ve seen great strides in recent years, more needs to be done to sustain this vital partnership.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic, it was difficult to conceive of managing a population sheltering in place. Previously, when we spoke of sheltering in place, we thought of hazmat plumes or dirty bombs. Most of us could not foresee a fight against an invisible enemy and the need to take drastic executive and social measures to contain a spreading pandemic.
Emergency managers are trained to be “worst-case scenario” thinkers and work tirelessly to plan and prepare against hazards to the community. But who would have envisioned five years ago that the local pizzeria, corner grocery, or liquor store would become an essential business with essential workers? Businesses, especially small and medium ones, can often be shortsighted when it comes to crisis management and the continuity of their business, which can have a profound negative impact on their viability when disaster strikes.
Most large organizations invest in crisis management and business continuity as a part of their business models. This doesn’t add to their bottom line but creates something invaluable: resilience and sustainability. Unfortunately, businesses without the wherewithal of large firms can be disproportionately impacted in a crisis. If fortunate enough to survive, these businesses typically revert to “reacting” once the threat has passed. The challenge we face is how to keep our businesses engaged after the dust settles and business as usual resumes.
Critical Infrastructure, Community Lifelines, and the Resilient Community
Much focus and attention are given to maintaining and protecting our critical infrastructure, which provides a broad base of essential services both nationally and locally. It is easy, however, to overlook the hardships we face when we lose access to the basic locally supplied staples of life, like food, prescription drugs, or even toilet paper. We often refer to these as lifeline commodities or services, which are typically provided by local private-sector businesses. Therefore, along with our critical infrastructure, it should be equally vital to increase the resiliency of our small and medium business community.
When emergency managers think about their relationships with the private sector, there is a tendency to compartmentalize businesses into “essential” and “non-essential” boxes. Instead, we should be taking a closer look at the critical interdependencies between businesses and the communities they serve and gear our programs to preserve those synergies. When we do this, we create communities that are more resilient, self-sustaining, and less dependent on government support and intervention during a crisis. Some simple measures can be taken to improve community resilience by bolstering the readiness of the local business community.
One answer lies in public-private partnerships that engage and include the private sector. Engagement and inclusion in the emergency management process can include many aspects, including, but not limited to, regular direct communication about events or potential threats. Conducting seminars on business preparedness and continuity as well as developing programs like an essential employee identification program. But the single most important aspect of maintaining a healthy public-private partnership is that there must exist tangible, actionable benefits to all participants.
Information, Participation, and Engagement
Information sharing is also a vital aspect of engagement and inclusion. Information sharing, however, is still an obstacle for many governments that sometimes view it as a liability and fear overreaction. This is simply unfounded. Instead, it should be viewed as an effective tool to keep your business community informed and ready. This is something easily accomplished using today’s multimedia tools.
Another simple tool is having a business representative in the emergency operations center (EOC), which can be a valuable tool for both gathering information and disseminating it. Information typically flows in one direction, outbound, but an EOC presence can be an important way to achieve bi-lateral information flow to increase situational awareness and effectiveness. Regardless of what solutions you employ, emergency managers must treat their business community as a trusted partner not just another member of the public.
We generally go through continuous cycles of awareness from high vigilance to near apathy, a veritable sine wave of peaks and valleys that never seems to level out despite our best efforts to maintain a state of vigilance and preparedness. With the pandemic in our collective rearview mirrors, we are in a period of apathy, particularly for businesses. Businesses should use this opportunity to find ways to increase their resilience. Emergency managers should endeavor to make a consistent effort to engage with their business communities and do everything in their power to increase their resiliency and enhance their sustainability.
Transparency and Trust Are Keys to a Healthy Partnership
Creating a healthy business/emergency management partnership is something both should aspire to. In the past, the focus was mostly on post-disaster recovery and reducing economic losses. That equation has now changed. If we try to keep businesses functioning during a crisis (without placing people in harm’s way of course) by providing actionable information, active participation, and unimpeded access to their business, they can support their community both during and immediately following a crisis. All of this may require higher degrees of transparency, trust, and persistent interactions.
Emergency managers should know the answers to these questions:
- What businesses are in your jurisdiction?
- What are the prominent, influential businesses in your community, and how can they help your initiative?
- What business associations or organizations are prominent and can be leveraged to increase the scope of communication and participation?
- What are the critical interdependencies between your community’s lifeline needs and businesses?
- How can businesses participate in your processes?
- Enhance communication (beyond general announcements to the public).
- Include the business sector as part of your EOC (through business organizations).
- Provide basic business continuity training and resources.
- Identify your essential workforce (public and private).
Businesses should actively participate in the following:
- Join your local Chamber of Commerce or business organization.
- Take advantage of free resources to create a basic business continuity plan.
- Be proactive. Contact your emergency management office to find out:
- Are there any emergency communication programs you can enroll in?
- What tools and education are available to build your basic business continuity plan?
- What programs are available to private sector businesses?
- Are there any essential employee identification/access programs available?
BNET is a 501-C nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve community resiliency through the sustainability of businesses following a disaster. To this end, BNET partners with governments, public agencies, and private sector organizations to aid in disaster response and recovery. BNET’s essential employee credentialing program helps communities and businesses overcome obstacles to recovery and ensures the delivery of vital goods and services to impacted communities.
The CEAS program is available for local governments at no cost. Businesses in locales where CEAS has been adapted can enroll online at ceas.com/enrollment. Find out more about Essential Employee Identification Solutions for Crisis Response and Recovery at CEAS.com
Pete Picarillo can be reached at [email protected] for reentry access program questions.