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date: 22 February 2024

Disaster Preparedness for Organizationsfree

Disaster Preparedness for Organizationsfree

  • Becky S. CorbettBecky S. CorbettBSCorbett Consulting


Social workers are well trained to respond to natural and human-caused disasters. They use their strength-based perspectives to assist individuals, families, organizations, and communities after a disaster. They are called on to assess the situation, provide counseling and support, and link affected individuals to resources. However, they may not think about preparing for disasters in their own organization or practice, including workplace safety. Social workers need to create organizational disaster preparedness plans that follow workplace safety guidelines and patient and client safety standards, address business continuity and self-care during and after a disaster, and are ethically responsible.


  • Administration and Management
  • Macro Practice
  • Social Work Profession

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Why Create an Organizational Disaster Preparedness Plan?

In 2010, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Deans and Directors of the Schools of Social Work, and the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors convened 350 leaders in the social work profession to create a plan to develop the next generation of social workers and address issues that challenge the profession (NASW, 2010a). The outcome included a report titled Social Work Imperatives for the Next Decade. One among the 10 imperatives adopted by the 2010 Social Work Congress was the “Business of Social Work.” It included infusing models of sustainable business and management practice in social work education and practice (NASW, 2010b).

A key sustainable organizational practice involves both short- and long-term emergency preparedness and establishing a business continuity plan. This planning is an essential management function. Social workers are in key positions to assist their organization or agency in preparing their practice for a disaster. The organization’s leadership, beginning with the chief executive officer or executive director and board chairperson, need to be sure their organization can continue to operate during and after a disaster. The purpose of an emergency plan is to outline procedures and expectations for potential workplace crises: to ensure both the health and safety of all personnel and the continuity of core business functions. The continuity plan contains all pertinent information needed to survive and recover from an emergency. Not having a plan or designing a poorly thought-out plan will lead to a disorganized evacuation or crisis response, which may result in confusion, injury, or property damage (OSHA, n.d.). A well-developed plan assists in reestablishing operations and allows the organization to quickly continue running after a disaster.

In Social Work Matters, Clark (2012) wrote,

Social workers work with individuals, families, communities, and systems and can be found in almost every corner of our lives, including schools, prisons, hospitals, mental health clinics, addiction recovery centers, skilled nursing facilities, hospices, private practice, and state and deferral government, to name but a few. They form the front line and make up the threads of society’s safety net. Social workers are first responders to natural disasters, are officers in the military, and are members of the U.S. Congress. They own their own businesses and work in and run foundations, nonprofits, and corporate organizations and companies throughout the country. (p. 1)

Because social workers work in all of these settings, they have a responsibility to practice the business of social work wherever they are employed.

The Joint Commission (formerly Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations; TJC, 2003) noted, “It is no longer sufficient to develop disaster plans and dust them off if a threat appears imminent. Rather, a system of preparedness across communities must be in place every day” (p. 5). This responsibility highlights social workers’ compliance to the mission of the organization and its employees, contractors, and clients. They are a part of the community and play a key role in taking care of the systems. To effectively take care of systems, “it is vital that social workers deal with their own personal experience before they actively engage in this work” (Weisner, 2012, p. 95).

This article primarily addresses social work practice in the United States. However, as an interconnected, international community, one can anticipate global, regional, and cross-country disasters that include disparities in resilience, response, and recovery based on class, race, and political influence. Executive leadership has the responsibility to outline procedures and expectations during potential workplace disasters to ensure the health and safety of all personnel and continuity of its core administrative, management, and business functions. Having a plan gives the organization a road map to survive and recover from any emergency. Not having a plan or designing a poorly prepared plan could lead to a disorganized evacuation or crisis response, resulting in confusion, injury, or property damage. Designing and implementing a well-developed plan will assist the social workers within their organization in reestablishing operations and allow management to continue effectively running the organization.

Leaders within U.S. organizations have a variety of federal and national resources to help guide their organizational disaster preparedness. These include the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Identification of Types of Disasters: Natural, Technological, and Human-Caused

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) stresses that disasters include not only natural hazards but also technological or human-made hazards. Natural hazards are naturally occurring physical phenomena caused either by rapid or slow onset events, which can be geophysical (earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, and volcanic activity), hydrological (avalanches and floods), climatological (extreme temperatures, drought, and wildfires), meteorological (cyclones, tornadoes, and storms or wave surges), or biological (disease epidemics and insect or animal plagues; IFRC, n.d.).

Technological or human-made hazards (complex emergencies or conflicts, famine, displaced populations, industrial accidents, and transport accidents) are events that are caused by humans and occur in or close to human settlements. This can include environmental degradation, pollution, and accidents (IFRC, n.d.).

The IFRC website warns,

There are a range of challenges, such as climate change, unplanned-urbanization, under-development/poverty as well as the threat of pandemics, that will shape humanitarian assistance in the future. These aggravating factors will result in increased frequency, complexity and severity of disasters.

(IFRC, n.d., para. 4)

According to SAMHSA, there are two types of disasters: natural and human-caused. Natural disasters are large-scale geological or meteorological events that have the potential to cause loss of life or property. Human-caused disasters include industrial accidents, shootings, acts of terrorism, and incidents of mass violence (infectious disease outbreaks, incidents of community unrest, and other types of traumatic events can also bring out strong emotions in people; SAMHSA, 2020).

Steps in an Organizational Disaster Preparedness Plan

Executive leadership within an organization, including social workers at the managerial and supervisory levels, are responsible for designing and implementing a disaster preparedness plan. A comprehensive disaster preparedness plan will increase the organization’s continuity capability—that is, its ability to perform essential functions (FEMA, 2013b). There are 10 steps for creating and establishing a successful plan.

Step 1: Explain the Why and Obtain Buy-In

The first step is to identify the key stakeholders within the organization who need to understand why the organization is embarking on business disaster preparedness. This includes, but is not limited to, members of the board of directors, funders, employees, contractors, tenants, vendors, and building personnel. Remind these stakeholders of the organization’s responsibility to protect staff and visitors, pay payroll, invoices, and contracts, and continue to focus on the organization’s mission even during a disaster (FEMA, 2013b).

Emphasize that the organization can no longer afford not to be prepared when it comes to a potential disaster in the workplace that affects day-to-day operations. There is no such thing as over planning. The more social workers plan together and work collaboratively with colleagues, the more they increase the probability that their organization can effectively and efficiently be up and running so they can turn around and quickly assist the community after a disaster.

Explain to stakeholders that disaster preparedness must become part of the organization’s culture, not just at designated “drill” times. Best practices include involving staff at all levels in disaster preparedness.

Social work agency administrators and social workers in private practice should adhere to three basic principles when creating their plan:


Be proactive. Edwards and Yankey (2006) noted that successful nonprofit managers must be prepared to be interactive, adaptive, and able to formulate contingency plans that take into account the operational characteristics of the particular organization and its environmental context” (p. 4).


Ensure continuity. A Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) was first implemented by the U.S. federal government after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Although a similar initiative has been around since the beginning of the Cold War, the initiative now ensures that federal government departments and agencies are able to continue operations of their essential functions under a broad range of circumstances including all-hazard emergencies as well as natural, human-made, and technological threats and national security emergencies (U.S. Government Printing Office, n.d.).


Manage risk. The Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) is an initiative that provides thought leadership through the development of frameworks and guidance on enterprise risk management, internal control, and fraud. It is driven by the need for companies to manage risks effectively in order to sustain operations and achieve their business objectives (COSO, 2012).

According to FEMA, 40–60% of all businesses affected by a natural or human-made disasters never reopen. Additionally, organization liability insurance is only a partial solution to mitigating risk because insurance does not cover all losses and it cannot replace loss of clients, patients, members, or funders. Some risks can be reduced by investing in loss prevention programs, protection systems, and equipment. An understanding of the likelihood and severity of risk and the costs to reduce risk is needed to develop a disaster preparedness plan (FEMA, n.d.).

Step 2: Establish the Disaster Preparedness Team and Safety Team

There are two types of teams that need to include social workers: the disaster preparedness and safety teams. Some individuals may serve on both teams. The disaster preparedness team consists of members of the executive management team and staff who are knowledgeable about all aspects of the business (, n.d.). These knowledgeable team members focus on collecting the detailed information necessary for business continuity, including, but not limited to, facility information and the location of critical business documents. They have the ability to think through all of the business intellect needed to function during a disaster and all of the “what if” scenarios for the impact on the organization during a disaster.

The safety team serves as first responders for the organization during a disaster. These team members should understand that they have specific responsibilities during a disaster, particularly assisting with evacuations and responding if the organization has to reestablish business in another location after a disaster. Well-intentioned people may volunteer for this role; remember, however, that many people do not really know how they will react in a particular situation. These individuals are responsible for helping with an orderly evacuation or coordination with personnel when the organization’s personnel has to shelter in place.

Step 3: Conduct Workplace and Threat Assessments and Identify Critical Business Functions, Including Agency Services and Administrative Tasks

The best way to protect the organization is to prepare for a disaster before it happens. Start with identifying all potential emergency, crisis, and disaster situations that may occur. Evaluate natural and human-caused disasters’ incident probability or frequency specific to the organization’s geographical location. FEMA (2013a) defines disasters as follows:

Natural disasters: meteorological disasters, topological disasters, disasters that originate underground, and biological disasters.

Human-caused disasters: warfare and nonconventional warfare, civil disasters, criminal or terrorist action, active shooter, and accidents (in categories including transportation, structural collapse, explosions, fires, chemical or gas attack, and biological).

Consider previous natural disasters in the geographical area and, when available, consult with the organization’s insurance broker and insurance agency. They can provide a list of areas of risk and give a past history of disasters that affected the area. FEMA created a matrix that can be used as a guide to identify the type of emergency and probability, human impact, property impact, business impact, and internal and external resources (FEMA, 2018). The human, property, and business impacts are potential losses associated with the threat. Property damage may include direct damage—for example, a fire—or indirect damage—for example, from the smoke.

Evaluate the physical workplace to determine if the organization is sufficiently prepared. Identify floor plans with exits, fire extinguishers, pull stations, first aid stations, shelter-in-place locations, and other important features.

The disaster preparedness team needs to work with the leadership team and senior-level staff to identify critical business functions. Functions should include critical documents, processes, information technology, and personnel that are needed by the organization to continue running the business in the event of a disaster. Creating a checklist for senior staff, managers, and supervisors will help them think through what is required to continue functioning in a disaster, including personnel, systems and software, and specific information and files. Holding face-to-face meetings gives the preparedness team the opportunity to brainstorm with personnel to ensure they have not forgotten any critical business functions. This is the perfect time to identify critical business vendors and partners and place their contact information in a central location. Ask key personnel, “Which vendors that you work with will be needed?” Examples include financial institutions, auditors, fulfillment houses, insurance brokers, payroll providers, membership call centers, community agencies, and other outsourced vendors.

Step 4: Write a Disaster Response Plan

Once the disaster preparedness team completes the assessment and identifies critical business functions, they need to develop a plan for each identified type of potential disaster, starting with the highest threat area. A disaster response plan, also known as an emergency preparedness and business continuity plan, is a road map for continuing operations under adverse conditions, such as a destructive storm or a critical incident. Personnel prepare for any event that could impact operations, resulting in a loss of or damage to critical infrastructure. It should detail how employees, tenants, contractors, vendors, board members, clients, and guests will stay in touch and continue doing their jobs in the event of a disaster or crisis. Creating a mechanism to obtain input from all stakeholders gives everyone a sense of security.

The disaster response plan must address the following components:

Key functional areas or departments that can be affected by the disaster.

Evacuation procedures (written protocols and procedures) that account for all personnel (employees, tenants, contractors, vendors, clients, and guests).

Shelter-in-place locations (written protocols and procedures) that account for all personnel (employees, tenants, contractors, vendors, clients, and guests).

Emergency supplies needed, taking into consideration the number of employees, tenants, contractors, vendors, patients and clients, members, and guests that will be using the supplies and how many days the supplies will last.

Key personnel or positions and their roles and responsibilities (when positions are vacant, identification of who ensures the assigned role or task is covered) and how these functions will continue during a disaster.

Critical business documents (i.e., incorporation papers, bylaws, legal documents, financial institution information, building ownership or lease agreements, Form 990 tax information, audits).

Key business processes and procedures (i.e., payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, membership engagement) and how these functions will continue during a disaster.

Identification of who has remote access to office systems and information technology and how the systems and technology are accessed.

Collection of contact information for employees, tenants, vendors, and contractors.

Documentation of essential equipment.

Confirmation of the organization’s employees, consultants, and tenants.

Ethical responsibilities to clients and patients, members, and other stakeholders.

Step 5: Design a 24/7, Secure, Electronically Accessible System

Whether the organization is faced with a natural or human-made disaster, it is vital to remember that critical business information and systems are at great risk, specifically those functions that require paper. Moving to a paperless environment and implementing cloud computing provides the social work administrator with the ability to continue to function in a disaster. Conducting major business functions online, such as banking, payroll processing, product fulfillment, and communication with clients, members, and other stakeholders allows the organization to continue operating during and after a disaster.

Administrators need to understand the risk and potential cost (financial and human resources) to the organization if it remains in a paper environment. Consider these resources when designing a 24/7, secure electronically accessible system:

Talk to other chief officers who have implemented electronic systems.

Assess the organization’s capability and capacity to maintain and update an electronic system.

Identify potential technology to be used prior to establishing a system, and if necessary, obtain bids from qualified vendors.

Engage a knowledgeable information technology consultant along with an internal project team.

Once the organization has an electronically accessible system, the risk of a technological failure or utility outage in the building should be assessed and a back-up plan established for the information stored on the electronic system. With an online data and file storage system in place, the organization must take the time to develop and implement a comprehensive data backup and disaster recovery plan. This will ensure that the appropriate safeguards are in place to protect and recover the organization’s data during a crisis and beyond. Creating electronic systems that are shared between the auditors of the organization would provide another layer of support. The COSO would be an excellent resource to access for guidance (COSO, 2012).

Step 6: Distribute and Communicate the Plan

Distributing and communicating the plan involves all management personnel and the community. Organizations need to communicate with their community in order to develop a thorough plan. At an Institute of Medicine forum on medical and public health preparedness for catastrophic events, the attorney for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health emphasized, “Another challenge for the public engagement process is securing support from leadership . . . A well-planned and well-executed public engagement will result in better policy, with greater public buy-in, and will reflect well on leadership” (National Research Council, 2013, p. 2).

Management’s role is to support the plan. Social work supervisors must adhere to, comply with, and fully participate in communicating the plan. They need to provide the disaster preparedness team and safety team with feedback in their areas. For instance, when critical business information changes, is added, or is removed, they need to inform the identified staff. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to hold staff accountable for taking the plan and drills seriously.

Once the plan is distributed and communicated to all personnel, management needs to train personnel on established protocols and procedures. Training, running evacuation drills and shelter-in-place drills, and retraining become part of the organization’s culture. Conducting a full test of the entire plan annually is highly recommended.

Step 7: Evaluate the Plan

Every incident is unique and different, and should be reviewed to strengthen the organization’s preparedness. Plan evaluation includes assessing the effectiveness of the plan and the readiness of the individuals involved. Debriefing after trainings, drills, incidents, and disasters guarantees that practices and protocols remain relevant. Members of the disaster preparedness and safety teams are responsible for reviewing the plan with the leadership team and senior management. The evaluation includes discussing what went well, hearing what could be improved, and identifying lessons learned (OSHA, n.d.). This process gives the organization the opportunity to revise, adjust, and update the plan. For certain types of disasters, it may also mean replenishing emergency supplies, such as, food, water, first aid kits, flashlight, radio, batteries, and other materials.

Evaluation of the plan also includes making sure the plan complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and takes into account language access needs of staff, clients, and visitors with limited English proficiency. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s (n.d.) publication An ADA Guide for Local Governments, issues that have the greatest impact on people with disabilities include notification; evacuation; emergency transportation; sheltering; access to medications, refrigeration, and backup power; access to mobility devices or service animals while in transit or at shelters; and access to information.

If the organization needs financial relief from the federal government, a resource they can refer to is the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Public Law 100-707), signed into law on November 23, 1988. The Stafford Act amended the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-288) and constitutes the statutory authority for most federal disaster response activities, especially as they pertain to FEMA and FEMA programs (FEMA, 2013a).

Step 8: Establish a Communications and Public Relations Plan

When an organization is going through an evacuation, crisis, or disaster, the process needs to include a communications component. Communicating with stakeholders is key to successfully weathering a disaster and its aftermath. Communication and public relations plan elements include the following:

Naming the organization’s public spokesperson.

Outlining how stakeholders (clients and patients, members, vendors) will be notified if the organization needs to close, delay opening, or close the office early.

Defining the critical business operations (banking, payroll) and making sure the information on how to access it is in the plan.

Working with vendors and outsourced staff if applicable to identify their roles and responsibilities during a crisis or disaster.

Identifying who has access to critical executive and management systems (human resource files, client and patient records, login and password information for computer systems).

Step 9: Outline an Executive Management Crisis Response Plan

In the event that executives (e.g., the president or board chair, the chief executive director, or the executive vice president or chief operating officer) are unavailable, it is imperative the organization identifies emergency succession protocols. Stakeholders need to know who to contact and who will be running the organization in the event of sudden death, nonavailability during a disaster, or serious accident. Outlining these procedures on an agency’s website and through their social media will give stakeholders the reassurance that the organization had planned for every contingency.

Step 10: Incorporate the Practice of Self-Care

Social workers are exposed to stressful situations and tragic circumstances in their efforts to help an organization plan for and overcome a disaster. Organizations need to recognize that stress prevention and management is critical for staff to remain emotionally, psychologically, and physically healthy in order to continue to help in the situation. An organization’s disaster preparedness plan needs to include self-care tips for all workers and a plan for how the organization will check in with its employees, volunteers, clients and patients, and constituents during and after a disaster.

According to their research on disaster worker stress, Michael S. Cronin et al. (2007) found that “one out of every three disaster workers at some point experiences severe stress symptoms” (Cronin et al, 2007, p. 371.). Given this, it is extremely important for employers to recognize the importance of self-care and encourage employees to establish a self-care plan. “Healing begins with taking care of yourself and connects mind, body, and spirit to feel whole” (Corbett, 2019, p. 53).

SAMHSA (2014a) produced a fact sheet to help disaster response workers prevent and manage stress while on assignment. It includes strategies to help responders prepare for their assignments, take stress-reducing precautions, and manage stress in the recovery phase. Some self-care suggestions include:

Know the signs of stress

Identify major stressors

Create a team culture and “buddy” system

Take time for yourself and for reaching out to others

Identify and practice constructive ways to release stress

Practice healthy sleep behaviors

Additionally, SAMHSA (2014b) offered tips that supervisors can use to help ease the transition and manage stress for disaster response workers returning to work and clients or constituents returning for service. This helps people recognize and reduce potential difficulties in the workplace and enhances positive consequences for all staff. Suggested tips include:

Create an atmosphere where people can be open with supervisors about their experiences, feelings, and concerns.

Create structured forums for responders to present their lessons learned or recommendations for organization-wide preparedness activities.

Optimize liberal or flexible leave policies for returning employees.

In 2020, the National Association of Social Workers revised The NASW Code of Ethics. “Professional self-care is paramount for competent and ethical social work practice. Professional demands, challenging workplace climates, and exposure to trauma warrant that social workers maintain personal and professional health, safety, and integrity. Social work orgniazations, agencies, and educational institutions are encouraged to promote organizational policies, practices, and materials to support social workers’ self-care (NASW, 2020m, p. 4).

Social Work Safety in the Workplace

Disaster preparedness includes identifying social work safety concerns in the workplace, along with patient, client and constituent safety protocols. Social work administrators need to focus on these areas when running an organization to alleviate potential crises. Best practices include protecting the staff, clients and patients, and other groups.

NASW partnered with the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the State University of New York at Albany in 2004 to conduct a benchmark national study of 10,000 licensed social workers (Whitaker et al., 2006). The study found that

42% of the respondents answered affirmatively that they

were faced with personal safety issues in their primary employment practices,

30% of these social workers did not think that their employers adequately addressed the safety issues,

26% of social workers facing safety issues were more likely to be in the first 5 years of their social work practice, and

35% of social workers facing safety issues described their primary area of practice as mental health.

Based on these findings, the NASW established guidelines in the following categories regarding social work safety in the workplace: Organizational culture of safety and security; prevention; office safety; use of safety technology; use of mobile phones; risk assessment for field visits; transporting clients; comprehensive reporting practices; post-incident reporting and response; safety training; and student safety (NASW, 2013).

Patient and Client Safety

Another area of focus for social workers preparing for a disaster is patient and client safety for organizations that are directly providing services in-person or in the community. The Joint Commission accredits and certifies more than 20,000 health-care organizations and programs in the United States and has been a champion of patient safety by helping health-care organizations improve the quality and safety of the care they provide (TJC, 2014). The Joint Commission's National Patient Safety Goals address nine areas, focusing on problems in health-care safety and how to solve them: (a) ambulatory health care, (b) behavioral health care, (c) critical access hospital, (d) home care, (e) hospital, (f) laboratory service, (g) nursing care center, (h) long-term care (Medicare and Medicaid), and (i) office-based surgery (TJC, 2014). Organizations must be aware of patient safety protocols in order to protect their clients in the event of a disaster.

Ethical Responsibility

As a best practice, social workers who work for organizations or have an individual social work practice have an ethical responsibility to be prepared for a variety of potential disasters and crises at the micro and macro levels. Sections of the NASW Code of Ethics (NASW, 2017) highlight why it is imperative for social workers to create a disaster preparedness plan:

Section 1.15, Interruption of Services, “Social workers should make reasonable efforts to ensure continuity in the event that services are interrupted by factors, such as unavailability, relocation, illness, disability, or death” (p. 17).

Section 3.04(b), Client Records, “Social workers should include sufficient and timely documentation in records to facilitate the delivery of services and to ensure continuity of services provided to clients in the future” (p. 22).

Section 3.04(d), Client Records, "Social workers should store records following the termination of services to ensure reasonable future access” (p. 22).

Section 5.01(a), Integrity of the Profession, “Social workers should work toward the maintenance and promotion of high standards of practice” (p. 27).

Section 6.03, Public Emergencies, “Social workers should provide appropriate professional services in public emergencies to the greatest extent possible” (p. 29).

Future and Long-Term Responsibilities

Disaster preparedness for organizations can be an overwhelming task, even when people are working in concert and are well prepared. Next steps after those already outlined here include the following:

Assess. If the organization or social work practice already has a disaster preparedness plan, begin by reviewing and updating it for new personnel, volunteers, and circumstances. If the organization or social work practice does not have a plan, identify persons who can conduct the workplace and threat assessment.

Ask for assistance. Reach out to another community organization or social work practice, contact building personnel or local authorities, or ask a consultant to help the organization or social work practice get started.

Establish culture. Have the disaster preparedness process become part of the organization or social work practice’s culture

When applicable, ask a consultant to help the organization or social work practice get started.

Further Reading