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date: 07 July 2020

Disaster Preparedness for Organizations

Abstract and Keywords

Social workers are well trained to respond to natural and man-made disasters. They use their strengths-based perspective 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. This article discusses why social workers need to create a business disaster preparedness plan, describes potential hazards, identifies workplace safety guidelines and patient safety standards, explains how to establish a disaster preparedness plan for business continuity, and examines the idea of ethical responsibility.

Keywords: Business Continuity, Business Disaster Preparedness Plan, Disaster Preparedness Plan, Emergency Planning, Emergency Preparedness, Natural Disasters, Man-made Disasters, Workplace Safety, Patient Safety, Ethical Responsibility

Why Create a Business 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 titled 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 business practice involves 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 prepare 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 business 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 re-establishing operations and allows the organization to quickly continue running after a disaster.

In Social Work Matters, E. J. Hoffler and Clark (2012) writes, “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. Can the organization or agency where they are employed afford not to have an emergency or disaster preparedness and business continuity plan?

The Joint Commission (TJC; formerly Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) notes, “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” (TJC, 2003, p. 5). This responsibility highlights social workers’ compliance to the mission of the organization and its employees and contractors. They are a part of the community and play a key role in taking care of the systems. But in order to take care of the systems, says another of the authors in Social Work Matters, “It is vital that social workers deal with their own personal experience before they actively engage in this work” (Weisner, 2012, p. 95).

Executive leadership has the responsibility to outline procedures and expectations during potential workplace crises to ensure the health and safety of all personnel and continuity of core 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 and result in confusion, injury, or property damage. Developing and implementing a well-developed plan will assist the social worker and the organization in reestablishing operations and allow management to continue running the organization.

Identification of Types of Disasters: Natural and Technological or Man-made

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) stresses that disasters include not only natural hazards but also technological or man-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 and storms or wave surges) or biological (disease epidemics and insect or animal plagues) (IFRC, n.d.).

Technological or man-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).

Social Work Safety in the Workplace

Disaster preparedness includes identifying social work safety concerns in the workplace and patient 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 and the clients.

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

  • 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.

  • 35% of social workers facing safety issues describe 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 (NASW, 2013):

  • 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

  • Student safety

Patient Safety

Another area for social workers to focus on when preparing for a disaster is patient safety. 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 for 2014, focusing on problems in health care safety and how to solve them. The areas are (1) ambulatory health care, (2) behavioral health care, (3) critical access hospital, (4) home care, (5) hospital, (6) laboratory service, (7) nursing care center, (8) long-term care (Medicare and Medicaid), and (9) 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.

Business Disaster Preparedness Plan

Executive leadership and social workers within the organization are responsible for designing and implementing a business disaster preparedness plan. There are nine 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 responsibility to protect staff and visitors, pay payroll and contracts, and have the capability to continue to focus on the organization’s mission even during a disaster.

Emphasize that the organization can no longer afford not to be prepared when it comes to a potential disaster in the workplace. There is no such thing as overplanning. The more social workers plan, the more they increase the probability that their organization can effectively and efficiently be up and running so that they can turn around and assist the community.

Explain to stakeholders that business disaster preparedness must become part of the organization’s culture. Just like the board of directors approves the budget annually and staff review monthly variances, best practices include involving staff at all levels in disaster preparedness

Three forces are critical for social work administrators and social workers in private practice when creating a business disaster preparedness plan.

  1. (1) Be proactive. Edwards and Yankey (2006) note, “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).

  2. (2) 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 COOP (or Continuity of Government Plan) 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, man-made, and technological threats and national security emergencies (GPO, n.d.).

  3. (3) 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).

Step 2: Establish the Disaster Preparedness Team and Safety Team

There are two types of teams that social workers need to consider establishing. The first team is the disaster preparedness team and the second team is the safety team. Some individuals may serve on both teams. The disaster preparedness team consists of individuals who are planners and does not necessarily include all of the members of the executive management team. These knowledgeable team members focus on collecting the details, including, but not limited to, facility information, business documents and identifying where critical business documents are stored. 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 consists of individuals who are 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

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 man-made disasters’ incident probability or frequency specific to the organization. Disasters, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, 2013), include

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

  • Man-made disasters: warfare and nonconventional warfare, civil disasters, criminal or terrorist action, and accidents (in categories including transportation, structural collapse, explosions, fires, chemical, and biological).

Consider previous natural disasters in the geographical area, and 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, 1993). 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, and other important features.

The disaster preparedness team needs to work with senior level staff to identify critical business functions. Functions should include critical documents, processes, and personnel that are needed by the organization to continue running the business in the event of a disaster. Creating a template for managers and supervisors gives them the time to think through what information they would need to function in a disaster. Holding face-to-face meetings gives the preparedness team the opportunity to brainstorm with personnel to ensure they have not forgotten a critical business function. 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 job 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 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.

  • Key personnel or positions and their roles and responsibilities (when positions are vacant, identification of who ensures the assigned role or task is covered).

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

  • Key business processes and procedures (that is, payroll, membership lockbox).

  • Identification of who has remote access to office systems and information technology.

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

  • Documentation of essential equipment.

  • Confirmation of the organization’s contingency location.

  • Ethical responsibilities to clients.

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

Whether the organization is faced with a natural or man-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 and members allows the organization to continue functioning 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.

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

  • Engage a knowledgeable information technology consultant.

Once the organization has an electronically accessible system, the risk of a technological failure or utility outage in their building should be assessed and a back-up plan established for the electronically based system. Creating electronic systems that are shared between the auditors of the organization or the social work practice 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. Completing a full test of the entire plan annually is highly recommended.

Step 7: Evaluate the Plan

Plan evaluation includes assessing the effectiveness of the plan and the readiness of the individuals involved. Debriefing after drills, incidents, and disasters guarantees practices and protocols remain relevant. Members of the disaster preparedness team and safety team are responsible for reviewing the plan with senior management. The evaluation includes discussing what went well, hearing what could be improved, and identifying lessons learned. This process gives the organization the opportunity to revise, adjust, and update the plan, as well as to replenish emergency supplies, such as, food, water, and other materials. Every incident is unique and different, and needs to be reviewed to strengthen the organization’s preparedness.

If the organization needs 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, 2013).

Step 8: Establish a Communications or Public Relations Plan

When an organization is going through an evacuation, crisis, or disaster, the process goes more smoothly if a communications plan has been outlined. Communicating with stakeholders is key to successfully weathering a potential disaster. Communication plan elements include the following:

  • Naming the organization’s public spokesperson.

  • Outlining how stakeholders 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 is in the plan.

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

  • Identifying who has access to critical business systems (human resource files, login information for computer systems).

Step 9: Outline an Executive Management Crisis Response Plan

In the event that executive leadership (the president or board chair, the chief executive officer or executive director, or the executive vice president or chief operating officer), is 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 give stakeholders the reassurance that the organization had planned for every contingency.

Ethical Responsibility

As a best practice, social workers who work for organizations or have an individual social work practice have an ethical responsibility for a variety of potential disasters and crises. Sections of the NASW Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) highlight why it is imperative that social workers 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. 8).

  • 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. 12).

  • Section 3.04(d), Client Records, “Social workers should store records following the termination of services to ensure reasonable future access” (p. 12).

  • Section 5.01(a), Integrity of the Profession, “Social workers should work toward the maintenance and promotion of high standards of practice” (p. 15).

  • Section 6.03, Public Emergencies, “Social workers should provide appropriate professional services in public emergencies to the greatest extent possible” (p. 16).

Next Steps

Disaster preparedness for organizations can be an overwhelming task. 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 it. If the organization or social work practice does not have a plan, identify persons who can conduct the workplace and threat assessment.

  • Establish culture. Have the disaster preparedness process become part of the organization or social work practice’s culture. Just like paying payroll, establish the expectation that disaster preparedness is a critical business function.

  • 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.


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Further Reading

American Red Cross. Plan and prepare.

Confirmed link:

Business Continuity Institute.

Link confirmed:

FEMA. Continuity of operations planning template for federal departments/agencies.

Confirmed link:


Link confirmed:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Link confirmed:

National Fire Protection Association.

Link confirmed:

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA): Evacuation Plans and Procedures eTool

Confirmed link:

Pascale, A. (2011, March 23). 9/11 a decade later: Study finds shared trauma still a factor. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from

Confirmed link:

Response Systems: Disaster Preparedness for Healthcare and Communities.

Confirmed link:

The Joint Commission (TJC; formerly Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations). National patient safety goals.

Confirmed link:

U.S. Small Business Administration. Emergency preparedness.

Confirmed link: