Yes, that’s a daring headline and it’s not a statement about the quality of my writing but rather, the need for you to consider what I’m about to say and take action on it if you haven’t already. 

I’m going to make an educated guess: Your business is not ready for a disaster. Not even close.

Let me explain.

The president of the United States has someone walking near him at all times with a very heavy and very important briefcase. Inside this metal and leather-bound case is most of the information the president needs to give the orders for a nuclear strike. It’s often referred to as “the football” and its intent is to ensure the continuity of the United States government during the worst of times. With this briefcase and the capabilities and technologies packed inside Air Force One, the president can essentially run the country from anywhere. The White House is prepared for disaster.

I was thinking about the football shortly after the 9/11 attacks, which I previously wrote about in this space

Numerous media companies had been targeted using anthrax spores. The bacterium spores that cause anthrax can be found in infected meat and also can be inhaled. Without treatment, the death rate is high.

Days after 9/11, a media company in Florida (and one I had actually done work for), was one of those hit by an envelope anthrax attack. The attack killed an employee and forced the virtual cocooning of the building until all the anthrax spores could be removed. In short, no business could be conducted from the building. Everything had to be done elsewhere. 

Around that time, my bosses asked me to be on a committee to create a plan to execute if our business had to be operated remotely. We were a media company. We had certain things we needed to do on-premises, such as printing a newspaper. But at the time, the web was becoming more of a media force. Newsgathering had been done remotely for decades, going back to the days of the telegraph and well before that. 

My recommendations for my bosses included plans such as having a series of redundant laptops and communications tools, including phones and data uplinks, to operate our business remotely whenever we needed. Those devices couldn’t be kept at our offices in the event our headquarters was attacked. 

I began thinking of our company’s “footballs” — how many we needed, what it would cost and what else we needed to keep the lights on. This wasn’t about convenience. This was about survival.

Consider what has been occurring in Puerto Rico. The island has absolutely been pummeled in the past few years, ranging from hurricanes to recent earthquakes that have literally been shaking it apart. Backup generators have become a way of life. Try running a business there. My longtime friend, Mandy Aguilar, regional vice president at The Parts House, is living it first-hand.

Mandy Aguilar

On January 7, a massive 6.4-magnitude shook the island. There have been more than 1,000 aftershocks since. “The suddenness of the earthquake created a level of fear way different than Hurricane Maria. The hurricane was well announced ahead of time; the earthquake was a surprise to the whole island right after the Three Kings Day holiday,” Mandy told me.

“The entire island is in fear that the ‘big one’ is still coming. Fear has affected morale,” Mandy said. “Hurricane Maria took 12 hours to cross the island. The earthquake lasted mere seconds. But, Maria came and went, and we all rolled up our sleeves and got to rebuilding quick. The quake was a different kind of disaster. Most customers near the epicenter in the south of the island are still dealing with structural, logistical and human issues. Their hearts are not back into selling parts; not just yet. It has put a damper on tourism, distribution, retail, entertainment, as the priorities have shifted to earthquake support. Morale is low, but many citizens are helping one another in an islandwide show of support that’s very rewarding.”

People tend to underestimate the likelihood of something happening when they don’t want to believe it will happen. Dismissing negative thoughts may feel good on the front end, but I can assure you, it won’t lead anywhere good.

As Mandy and his fellow islanders can attest, their collective state of mind has quickly shifted from “it’s not going to happen” to “something will happen; we’re just not sure exactly what, when and how bad it will be.” (Those are my wordsBut I think they sum things up well.)

I liken the preparation for disaster to martial arts: you prepare repeatedly for something you hope will never happen, but your mental and muscle memory are prepped well in advance for the day it does. Think of all those times you’ve traveled to AAPEX and SEMA and all the other places you go for business: do you know where the exits on the plane are?

How has Mandy been preparing his colleagues for future disasters to keep people safe? 

“We do safety drills monthly. Months ago we actually did a couple earthquake-fire evacuation drills. Last Saturday, we had a real evacuation with one of the aftershocks,” Mandy said. “For sure, we now know the value of the safety drills. We also had posted meeting points outside of the warehouse and that also worked.”

Now, I turn to you with a few questions:

•Are you prepared for disaster? 
•Is your business prepared for disaster?
•Can you flip a switch during a disaster and keep your business rolling?
•Do you have redundant systems in place to process payroll, orders, distribution and all other areas of your daily business activities?
•If the power goes out, do you know what to do next?
•If your headquarters is demolished, are you out of business?
•Can you assist your business partners and customers in staying afloat during disaster? Your newfound expertise may help them in times of need.

If you don’t yet have a plan, it’s not too late. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a good place to start. They have a guide that can be found here.

While it may not give you answers to all your questions, it will get the ball rolling and keep you thinking about how to respond to potential disasters. You’re likely going to need an outside team to assist in preparation.

And if all this sounds a little scary… good! I hope that the topic being presented in my column is, in fact, the scariest thing you ever face in business. But with history as our guide, that probably won’t be the case.

I implore you to prepare your own “football” and plans related to using it so that in the chance something disastrous does strike, you and your people are ready for it.

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