Disaster Preparedness: Do It Like the Fire Department

Disaster Preparedness: Do It Like the Fire Department

Years ago, I was part of a giant corporate reorganization. For those of you who have never written the words “I was part of a giant corporate reorganization,” count your blessings. I’m getting the shakes as I write this, thinking about the multiple times I’ve had to endure them, much less design them. About twenty years ago, I was involved in one of these reorganizations. A consultant asked me to identify a company I respected and spend a few weeks with them. The consultant wanted me to benchmark how top-performing companies do things. They were expecting me to come back with insights from similar-sized corporations, like Coca Cola, Ford or some other mega manufacturer.

Three weeks later, and much to their surprise, I came back with the business plan from a large city’s fire department. They thought I was nuts, but I was able to convince them otherwise. The model is a good one for how to run a business of any kind. Even an animal welfare organization. Allow me to elaborate:

Fire departments get their reputation from what people see. When they respond to things, firefighters are experts at getting your attention. Their trucks have loud horns, bells and a variety of attention-getting electronic sounds. They have flashing lights attached to every viewable angle on their large, bright vehicles. They magically make the traffic lights change. People stop, look and get out of their way. To describe what they do, they use heroic expressions like, “fight fires,” “battle blazes,” “rescue people and save lives.” And they’re not kidding. They do all those things and they are, in fact, heroic.

But when I went into the business plan of the fire department, I discovered something enlightening. Fire departments really aren’t just about fighting fires. Fire departments spend most of their time and effort preventing and minimizing them.

  • Fire departments inspect existing structures before a loose wire can cause an old building to burst into flames.
  • Fire departments work with architects and engineers to “disaster-proof” new construction.
  • Fire departments work with their communities to identify potential safety issues and prepare plans for homes, businesses and schools.
  • Fire departments prepare communication plans so getting information out is really a matter of updating something that has already been designed.
  • Fire departments purchase and maintain the equipment they’ll need when something goes wrong.
  • Fire departments prepare their staffs ahead of time to minimize surprises and maximize effectiveness when it is critical. They consistently, tirelessly train and drill their people on how to handle disasters. Then they post reminders about key concepts.
  • And this one I particularly loved — fire departments are realistic. After going to great lengths to avoid issues, they refuse to let themselves become overconfident and complacent. Even the best planning can’t prevent something bad from happening. Fire departments control what can be controlled and then train for the rest.

When you add it all up, fire departments, according to my research, were spending more than 90 percent of their time planning, avoiding and minimizing the effects of a disaster and only about 10 percent of their time addressing them. There’s a lesson there. Pull the bold type out of that list to build your own disaster preparedness plan:

  • Inspect your existing structures and see if there is something that could turn into a disaster if it’s not addressed. Ask your fire department to help.
  • If you’re doing new construction, work with your architects and engineers to disaster-proof And that’s not limited to building a whole new facility. Improperly sealed floors can lead to disease contamination. Not all glass is shatter-proof. Edges on office furniture can snag leashes. In disaster prevention, there’s no such thing as a little thing. Ask Louisiana SPCA. Their new facility was designed to help them appropriately address the kinds of things they endured during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
  • Work with your communities ahead of time and arm them with information on how to avoid disasters and what to do in case something happens. If something does happen, it’s best for people to know where to go and what to do. Your website is a good place to start, but make sure police and fire departments know what your plan is if something were to happen.
  • Have your PR staff prepare communication plans for various scenarios. Keep them close so you can quickly get information out to the community when you need to.
  • Think ahead and purchase equipment you’ll need in case of a disaster. Maintain it and make sure people know how to operate it. Checking an owner’s manual during a disaster sounds like another disaster.
  • Consistently train your staff on what to do to minimize surprises and maximize effectiveness. Don’t fall into the trap and say, “We’ve done that” and skip that reminder step. It’s important to post reminders so response becomes second-nature.
  • And finally, be realistic. All the planning in the world is not going to stop a natural disaster or something bad from happening. Control what you can control and train for the rest.


Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.

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