HR Administration

When a Disaster Strikes, Will You Be Able to Staff It?

By Catherine Johnson

Jun. 2, 2006

We’re constantly bombarded with reports of natural and man-made disasters, so it’s not surprising that the results of a survey run through Business & Legal Reports Inc.’s website revealed that the most important challenge to HR professionals is “planning for disasters.”

In the first installment of this two-part series, This Is Not a Drill–An Emergency Staffing Plan in Action, I described how writing an emergency staffing plan will help you keep your cool during the “confusion and chaos common at the onset of a disaster.” You know you need to write an emergency-staffing plan, but you have no idea how to get started. Like any complex problem, if you imagine where you need to be at the end, you can identify the steps needed to get there.

The goal of any emergency staffing plan is to reassign workers to areas of greatest need during a disaster. You will want requests for help coming to you at a central point so chaos and confusion surrounding the staffing function can be kept to a minimum. You will need a process to quickly identify workers, to contact them, and to send them wherever they can help. Human resources’ primary role will be to take and fill requests for staff.

When I wrote Mayo Clinic’s emergency staffing plan, I kept in mind that, in a disaster, there is no “business as usual.” I realized that nonessential work units might shut down because of the emergency situation, or because leaders would decide to deploy employees to support vital operations. I would need to be aware of closures and consider them a labor pool source.

Your emergency plan will help your facility stay open in the event of a disaster and promote quick restoration of day-to-day functions. With proper preparation, you will be able to fill every demand for workers, using the tools in your emergency staffing plan. Based on my experience, you can use the following components to create a plan that fits your own industry.

Define your mission, being careful to keep the scope manageable. Example: To collect available staff and volunteers at a central point, to receive requests and to assign available staff as needed. Maintain adequate numbers of key types of personnel.

Collect the names and contact numbers of every person in human resources. You’ll need this to call in enough help to carry out your plan in the event of an emergency. Set up a mechanism for keeping that list current.

Identify a location for your emergency staffing operations. You’ll need plenty of phones, computers and workspace. Is there already a good location, like a call-in center with equipment to handle multiple ingoing and outgoing calls? If not, is there a spot that has extra phone and data jacks, or wireless computer connections?

Identify a location where available staff and volunteers can report to work. Consider space, comfort, security and emergency power. Will it be near or in the same location as your emergency staffing operation, or is there some other key location it should be near?

Identify potential external staffing resources and compile a list of contacts. Does your company have branches in other locations? Are there schools that train for key skills whose students might be tapped for temporary help? Are there temporary staffing agencies you could call upon?

Create an emergency HR management structure and write role descriptions for each position. Keep your emergency organization chart simple, and write the “job action sheets” with the intention that they will be used in a highly stressful situation. The Hospital Emergency Incident Command System (HEICS) from which I based my plan, describes job action sheets as “position job descriptions which have a prioritized list of emergency response tasks. [They] also serve as reminders of the lines of reporting and promote the documentation of the incident.”

Critical situations may call for an individual to perform multiple tasks until additional support arrives. Any HR professional can do that with the use of position checklists. The roles in our plan included:

Labor Pool Unit leader: Establishes the Labor Pool Unit and assigns all other roles. Functions as the primary HR contact and reports staffing progress to organizational leaders.

Physical environment coordinator: Assists with computer setups (including printers) and helps troubleshoot everything for HR staff. Secures office supplies as needed, arranges physical space and posts signs to help workflow. Provides copies of campus or building maps to help individuals find their way to their assigned work area (or to indicate places to avoid).

Workforce coordinator: Fills requests for staff. It’s best to split this up into two roles: One receives requests while the other identifies individuals to fill needs. Come up with key categories of employees that make sense for your business. Doing so allows you to more easily sort employees with common skills, divide the work of the HR staff into limited groups on which they can concentrate, and report on progress toward filling staffing needs more logically to leadership.

Credentialing staff: Carries out emergency credentialing processes.

Support service assistants: Assign as many as you need to carry out work delegated from the other roles. The number needed will vary during different phases of the disaster. They might make calls to employees’ homes (off hours), contact supervisors to reassign nonessential staff and process “walk-ins” at the central staffing location.

Create a system to manage and report data. Use software you already have to build a database loaded with names, contact information and job titles of all your employees. Create data screens to enter volunteer (nonemployee) information and to update availability status when you contact each person or assign them to a work area.

We wrote a variety of reports and created a menu so we could access and run them easily to pull up employees by job type, supervisor, etc. Leaders will want updates from you on staff availability and progress on filling requests, so there should also be reports to meet those needs.

Consider what you will need if your network is down (copy the database onto CDs) or if you have no electricity (store printouts of comprehensive reports to work from just in case).

Review your current labor contracts and policies. Plan now for communicating which work rules are suspended in an emergency and how to communicate all of that information to supervisors and employees. Do you have a payroll backup plan in case your normal systems go down?

Set up a system to accept temporary help from people who have skills that will help you carry out your business during an emergency. They could be nonemployees, or employees who don’t typically carry out these essential roles but are capable of doing so if you need them. If credentials are required, set up a way to verify those in an emergency.

Create forms to help HR staff to document their activities during the emergency. HEICS suggests that “comprehensive documentation may improve recovery of financial expenditures, while it decreases liabilities.

Create forms for HR staff to record staffing requests, and to note when those are filled.

Create forms to help HR staff communicate problems to their leaders, including space to record how those problems were resolved.

Identify communication and training needs. We trained HR staff to understand the purpose of the Labor Pool Unit. They don’t need to memorize job roles because the checklists we’ll give them when they get assigned to an emergency role will tell them what to do. Your communication plan should answer the following questions: What is the mission? How will the emergency staffing function be activated, and by whom? What can employees expect when they report to help out in an emergency?

All of these steps can be assigned to different HR colleagues so you don’t have to write the whole plan yourself.

When you think you have a good plan, share an overview (one-page summary) and details of each component with a group of HR staff representing all areas that might be called in to help. Ask them, “What would you want to have handed to you to tell you what to do in an emergency?” Their responses will give you useful feedback.

Don’t get bogged down imagining all types of disaster scenarios and planning to deal with each one. As long as you have built in all the components I’ve listed, your emergency staffing plan will have a strong base.

During the crisis, you can adjust one or more component to meet any circumstance. When the call comes in asking you to find staff during a disaster, you will be ready to respond.

Part 1 — This is Not a Drill — An Emergency Staffing Plan in Action

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