September 2010 Perspectives: Interview with Linda McClure of the Institute for Business and Home Safety

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Diana McClure is the Business Resiliency Program Manager for the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). She was responsible for development of the Open for Business® program at IBHS, a business continuity and property protection planning tool for small to mid-sized businesses. Recently, she was featured in a Citizen Corps community preparedness webinar “Resources for Business Preparedness.”

Interview with Diana McClure

Can you tell us a little about IBHS?

IBHS is a national, non-profit scientific research organization supported by the property casualty insurance industry—about 90% of the homeowner’s insurance market, and approximately 60% of the commercial property market covering small to medium-sized businesses. Our purpose is to reduce the social and economic effects of natural disasters and other property losses by conducting research and advocating improved construction, maintenance and preparation practices.

What is your role there?

I’ve been with IBHS for 13 years and have had many different responsibilities. They have ranged from 1) development of a community resiliency program to 2) creation of an annual update on the extent to which state land use planning laws require or help communities to incorporate natural hazards into land use planning, and 3) development and distribution of IBHS’ Open for Business® program.

Open for Business® has been my primary responsibility since 2002. Most recently I have overseen the development of a multi-media trainer series to help users walk through the Open for Business® property protection and business continuity planning process, as well as the addition of some advanced track pieces into the trainer sessions, in order to further align the program with business continuity planning best practices (see explanation and Crosswalk to Standards).  

Through these years, I have worked with IBHS member insurance companies and many public and private sector groups across the country to facilitate usage of Open for Business®. A major challenge has been to find ways to motivate small and medium-sized businesses to take the time to develop a business continuity plan. That includes explaining the benefits of planning, not only to survive and thrive following a business interruption, but also to improve their daily business operations. Utilizing trusted and credible sources to convey the messages to their membership or constituent base has been an effective way to spread that message. 

I have given many presentations around the country to IBHS member insurers; business groups such as chambers of commerce, non-profits and the public sector; and interviews for stories by a variety of media groups. These experiences help me and IBHS to keep focused on what small businesses, non-profits and other organizations need, want and will respond to in order to be better prepared for business interruption.

How do you see location-based information fitting into the kind of preparedness you are helping businesses acquire?

Exactly what you did on the “Helping Businesses Prepare” webinar, which I thought was excellent. As businesses are doing their risk and vulnerability assessment, they need to know to which natural hazards they are exposed. If they’re in a coastal area, understanding wind speeds or storm surges; if they’re in an earthquake-prone area, understanding not just the shaking but the liquefaction. And it’s important to get them to start thinking beyond natural disasters. What else could happen, e.g. intentional or unintentional human-caused incidents or technological failure . . . the “What if?”

Even in a building-specific disaster like a fire, which does not affect the availability of critical infrastructure, employees, suppliers, etc., it is important to have planned ahead about where to relocate. That could include employees working from home or working from a branch office. For example, I learned of a florist who had a building fire right before Mother’s Day, and another florist opened their doors and let her fulfill her orders from their shop. That kind of mutual aid agreement can be very valuable, helping a business to maintain its reputation, keep its customer base and preserve its competitive edge.

Mapping and simulation of risks and events is a great way to start the thinking process.  With Open for Business®, we’ve had to keep it user friendly. That means making it basic enough that it is not overwhelming; using plain English rather than industry jargon; and breaking the planning process into manageable pieces so that people can fit it into their busy schedules.  We assume that once the people responsible for developing their business continuity plan understand what the planning entails and the steps of planning, they will then be creative, apply the principles to their own setting, and take off from there. It’s sort of like cleaning your house – hard to get motivated, to figure out where to start, but once into it there is momentum and the job gets done.

One of the key trends that we’re watching here at Depiction, and are hopefully a part of, is how technology is allowing regular individuals—small business owners, for example—to do things that previously only trained experts or large organizations could do. How are you seeing that trend influence preparedness?

IBHS has two versions of Open for Business®. One is an interactive, web-based version available to IBHS member insurance company agents and policyholders; the other is the print version available to the general public. Both have a trainer series to help users get through the process, and the advanced track sessions are integrated into each of those trainers.  It is not so long ago that there was no such thing as a downloadable PDF, forms that could be filled out online, or web-based training that anyone could view who has Internet access. What this means is that the potential to reach people anywhere, at any time, is greatly expanded. In addition, the trainer series was intentionally developed to serve as a consultant and hand holder, to address the needs of those who do not have the in-house expertise or the money to hire a consultant to do the plan for them.  That greatly increases the potential user base, and for the plan to actually get started, worked on and completed.

The issue remains, though - how are we going to motivate these small and medium-sized businesses to take advantage of this planning tool? There’s so much information available through the Internet, social media, and a myriad of sources. The danger is there can be information overload. Sometimes we make a lot of assumptions about what people understand, but frequently they understand much less than we think they do.

How do you think technology can assist in avoiding or overcoming that information overload?

It’s like anything—I can bounce around Open for Business® online and make it look so easy. But for the person who is seeing it for the first time, there is a learning curve. Even if it’s user friendly, the logistics of any website or tool have to be mastered. That takes time and a basic understanding of how to navigate on a computer. I would imagine the same could hold true for the tools made available by Depiction. Everybody is so busy, with multiple demands on their time and an endless amount of information available. People have to pick and choose what they will look at; even when something is made as simple as possible, they still have to prioritize. So I think the more user friendly things can be made, the more likely people will use them.

Many of our users are volunteers—members of groups like the Red Cross or CERT teams. How can businesses and disaster volunteers be of use to each other in preparedness?

Business preparedness planning starts within the four walls of the business. But once the planning starts, people quickly realize how interdependent their survival and recovery are with community-wide recovery.

We have to realize that the major focus and responsibility of the public sector is public safety. That includes emergency management, fire and police departments, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and even non-profits such as the Red Cross. Businesses are not on their agenda, or at least are not their primary responsibility. Hurricane Katrina showed us that businesses need to be prepared, to be able to take care of themselves for a quite a while before professional help arrives.  And, it is up to business, not the government, to have plans in place for resumption of their business operations. I can’t tell you how many workshops I’ve given where businesses in the audience did not know the roles of emergency management agencies or volunteer groups.  So, one way to bridge that gap is to open dialogue with these groups. For instance, the American Red Cross could come to a business and provide first aid, CPR and AED training for employees. In addition, a business could decide to periodically invite some public agencies (e.g. the fire department or local emergency management agency) or a public or private utility to speak at a staff meeting about their role in disaster and what their expectations are of businesses. This could stimulate thinking and planning. For example, the fire department might need to know what hazardous materials are on site should there be a fire, or the location of electric, gas or water shut-off.

Another possibility is to start a business CERT team, which is trained to perform some of the initial emergency response functions. Also, coordinating ahead of time with other businesses in a large building, or with other businesses on the block, could make a big difference when disaster strikes. One example is to be sure that the evacuation plan for each business does not result in employees all ending up in the same place.  CERT teams are in a good position to help provide that kind of coordination.

Some challenges to this public/private/non-profit coordination are to learn how to speak “the same language.” Assumptions can differ, often based on the bottom line or the purpose of the organization. Also, jargon and acronyms can get in the way. Building bridges, getting to know each other, and understanding different roles and functions ahead of time can help with preparedness planning and facilitate emergency response and recovery.  

To learn more about Open for Business® and IBHS, visit www.DisasterSafety.org.  To learn more about how businesses can use Depiction in their preparedness click here to view the recent “Prepare Your Business for Disaster” webinar. To receive Depiction Perspectives by email every month, sign up for the Depiction Newsletter.

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