Guest Column: Emergency preparedness: A company that understands and acts

Hooray for Publix!

Florida’s Supermarket is going to spend $100 million on generators. That’s right, generators—400 of them in all of its stores in high-risk parts of the country, plus portable units at many other stores in lower risk areas.

Yes, it’s all about money, but it’s also about being a good corporate citizen as well satisfying the needs of the communities that this business serves. But more importantly, it is about the realization that the primary responsibility for preparedness rests on the private sector and the family unit, not government.

We have been promoting the notion that “your family’s safety is your responsibility” and that each of us is our own “first responder” while the public servants, such as police, fire, EMS, public health, public works or military personnel, etc. are “official responders.”

The Tuesday after Hurricane Wilma, I walked into a Publix in Boynton Beach, Fla., with my adult son and observed store employees dumping huge, that’s right, huge quantities of fresh and frozen food in the garbage, food that was no longer fit for sale. I said to him, “I didn’t know how many stores that Publix has in the affected area, but the cost of this waste has got to be millions of dollars.”

It would be cheaper to buy generators and keep the refrigeration going, keep the stores open, and provide a real public service to the community by being able to use this food where it can do the most good. It would help the people who live there and need it.

But, more importantly, the lesson learned is that it is estimated that 43 percent of businesses that are damaged by a catastrophe never re-open. I’m not suggesting that Publix stores will never re-open. But this use of generators is one of the many economic decisions a business must make to have a preparedness and business continuity and disaster recovery plan to ensure its continued success and ability to continue to serve its customers.

Business executives should embrace a culture of preparedness and safety, and a detailed written plan to be able to recover from a crisis or catastrophe, natural or manmade. This is one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Businesses need to be prepared to protect their interests, their customers, their employees and the national security interests of America.

In the context of scarce resources and budgetary constraints, balancing and challenging these types of preparedness investment decisions are required from management and need to move up on the CEO’s agenda. A shareholder value framework should guide these thought processes.

Finally, don’t forget the most important factor that makes it all happen—the employees. We recently learned of a major company operating in south Florida that felt its disaster readiness was well in hand until they heard me on a radio talk show talk about “personal responsibility” for disaster preparedness and the fact that right after Wilma, they experienced 50 percent absenteeism over the week after the storm.

Businesses that spend millions for preparedness strategies but who do not have employees on the job after a disaster might as well not spend the money, if they can’t operate their businesses.

People who can’t work, or get to work, and don’t receive a paycheck after a major event, are increasing their family’s risk of a disaster of a different kind. This points out the urgency of businesses training their employees to be able to be on the job immediately after a disaster. We teach people that “disaster-ready people” mean a “disaster-ready business” and a disaster-ready America.”

Training and generators, that’s what preparedness is all about.

Norris L. Beren is the author of When Disaster Strikes Home and the executive director of the Emergency Preparedness Educational Institute. He may be contacted at

From the April 5-11, 2006, issue

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