BML Consulting Limited, Animal Welfare Emergency Management, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Disasters can strike anywhere, at any time, and without warning. Recent events have highlighted how devastating disasters can be on communities, businesses and how local resources can become quickly overwhelmed. Additionally, climate change makes extreme weather events more likely than before with increased frequency and intensity. Albeit with this evidence, people are still complacent about personal emergency preparedness, which is then reflected equally inadequately in business.
The stark reality of disasters is that it is not a matter of if it will happen; it is a matter of when. The number of people affected by disasters and the costs associated with these events is increasing. Hence, there is a requirement to have practice and personal emergency plans in place to mitigate the effects of such disasters, particularly to veterinary business. There are consultants who can help businesses develop emergency and business continuity plans, but the aim of this paper is to give a basic outline of how veterinary businesses can prepare for disasters.
Emergency Management Plans
As veterinary professionals you have a responsibility to your family, clients, their animals, and your communities to be prepared. They will look to you for guidance, therefore you have to be prepared to help. Plans are necessary for different scenarios, well in advance of a disaster occurring. These scenarios include, but are not limited to:
- Occurring during the working day when you, your staff and clients are at clinic
- Some staff may be out at lunch or on house calls
- Occurring out of business hours, everyone is away from the clinic with in-house patients
- Slow onset: Such as predicted strong winds, heavy rainfall
- Fast onset: Such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption
Veterinary businesses need to work together with local communities to be incorporated into the disaster management framework. Clients and the community are vital to the survival of your business during the post-disaster economic period. If your community is prepared and resilient, your clientele will still be present.
Standards New Zealand states that “Business continuity management provides the availability of processes and resources in order to ensure the continued achievement of critical objectives.” Hence a disaster management plan needs to incorporate all phases (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery) instead of just being a response plan.
A disaster management plan is:
- About managing risk
- A powerful force for business sustainability and resilience
- Provides for business success.
A risk and hazard assessment of your facilities, business and staff is the first step of developing a plan. When risks are known, steps should be put in place to mitigate the risks and move onto preparedness, response and recovery. The disaster plan should cover three core elements (financial, logistics and operational) to ensure all components of the business are incorporated.
Recent work completed by the UN and the World Bank shows that, while specific cases may vary, for every dollar invested in minimising risk, about seven dollars will be saved in economic losses from disasters. Planning for every conceivable disaster is important, although not directly being affected by the event should equally be considered together with its potential negative impacts on business and staff. The true extent of these consequences is often unrecognised and commonly unaccounted for during development of business continuity plans. For example, a business could suffer from severe disruption to their operations and financial hardship as a result of collateral effects such as continuity of supply or retraction of a traditional customer base.
A lack of understanding insurance policies, particularly business interruption insurance and property damage, has caught many businesses. Some business owners are unaware that insurance companies may not cover further damage to a property and equipment if it is considered secondary to the primary event. For example, if you do not fix a damaged roof due to initial event (such as a wind storm), i.e., you fail to action covering the damaged roof when it is safe enough to do so and it rains 24 hours later, the additional water damage may not be covered, as it is not considered the primary event.
Clients are vital for your business to survive the post-disaster economic period. You must find a communication medium (newspaper, radio, newsletters, mail outs, welfare centres, medical centres, churches, cultural groups, fed farmers) that will provide contact for the vast majority of your client base to inform them of clinic plans and where you will be seeing patients until full functionality is restored.
In your plan you need to address access to essential services (known as lifelines in disaster management), such as utilities power, water, sewage, gas and medical oxygen. Do you have a backup generator and do you know where to order drinking water or do you have a reserve rainwater tank that could supply you for up to five days? Is your data backed up regularly and stored off site? What is your accessibility like during a disaster? Many large businesses now store data off site at several places regionally and internationally. This gives them the ability to continue with their business if the premises are not accessible.
Businesses need to identify alternative premises where they could continue to run their practice. Start conversations with other practices in your area or you may have to look further afield if your community is severally affected. There are many examples where veterinary practice has shared premises after disasters. What arrangements can you make with fellow colleagues? If you have to evacuate your premises, how are you going to transport your patients and where are you going to take them? If it is a slow-onset event, then you could contact owners to collect their pets or you could offer to shelter in place. If you do offer the latter, you must ensure you can guarantee the safety of your patients. There are examples where veterinarians have kept the patients on site but failed to secure the building, which has resulted in death of the patients.
Organisation (Management & Staff)
What roles will staff play during a response in your clinic? What training do they need to fulfil this role and when are you going to exercise a scenario to ensure your plan works? It is important to get everyone involved in writing the plan to ensure all staff understand what you are trying to achieve and they understand the importance of this process.
How are you going to contact your staff after an event? You need to know they are safe and they need to know you are safe. Prior to the event, they should be aware of the triggers in your plan to initiate clean-up efforts and they will want to know their employment status post-disaster period. All staff members should be given contact phone tree indicating who to contact after an event via various means. The details should be updated regularly and staff given a copy to have on them at all times. A great way to do this is to make a laminate credit-card size copy of the contact details, so they can put in their wallet.
The veterinary clinic should have contact details of the local representative for the national veterinary association, as they will no doubt have an animal welfare support role to fulfil during and after an event. They will be wanting to know your business functional status. This information can be passed on to the necessary agencies to assist with developing situational awareness and understand the needs of the community and your business. It is ideal to know who your contacts are before an event occurs to understand what their role is and what resources they have to offer.
The priority during any disaster should begin with you. If you are not safe, there is no way you will be of use to your whānau (Maori word for extended family), business and community. Everything needs to be kept in perspective when dealing with a disaster. Human life is addressed first as it should be. This does not rule out preparing for an animal emergency response or for it to occur at the same time as human emergency response.
Well-prepared countries are not immune to the destructive impact of the forces of nature. Therefore, there is a need to plan for many different events. As a profession we must always maintain an inherent flexibility to rapidly respond to changing circumstances. Sharing knowledge and experience is an essential element of prevention and preparedness. A resilient community has the ability to return to normality faster than an ill-prepared community. To be able to respond to a disaster you have to be prepared. To be prepared you have to have a plan. Now is the time to put a plan in place or revise your current plan.