Crisis preparation calls for planned protocols

February 1, 2008

When wildfires tore through San Diego last year, approximately 1 million people were displaced. At San Diego-based American Specialty Health, the management team knew that, beyond personal challenges, there was the potential impact of a long-term shut down on more than 12 million insured.

When wildfires whipped through San Diego last year, nearly 350,000 homes were evacuated, approximately 1 million people were displaced, roads and freeways were closed, and schools and businesses were shut down across the city.

At American Specialty Health, the largest health insurer headquartered in downtown San Diego, half of its 600 employees and 85% of the executive team were evacuated for three or more days. For the management team, it became apparent that, in addition to personal challenges, they had to recognize the potential impact that a long-term shut down could have on more than 12 million insured, 2,000 employer groups, and 24,000 contracted providers.

Our company had developed a comprehensive Disaster Recovery Plan with specific protocols for an event such as this wildfire. The first step was rapid communications outreach to locate our incident response and business resumption team. With most of us evacuated from our homes, we immediately began a telephone triage to the emergency cell phones of our team. We were able to locate almost everyone and implement a twice-daily conference call program to establish and implement a plan of action. An employee emergency hotline was activated.

Within days, the company resumed full operations. Volunteers began working overtime to catch up on claims, the nearly 1,500 wellness coaching appointments that had been delayed. To inform clients and business affiliates of our new operational status, we crafted a set of messages and rapidly disseminated those to appreciative customers and providers.

All totaled, the wildfires cost San Diego an estimated $2 billion in damages and lost productivity, according to the San Diego Institute for Policy Research. At American Specialty Health, we were very fortunate that not a single employee lost their home to the fires, no one was injured and our crisis planning paid off in minimal business disruption and minimal impact to customers.

Below are a few best practices that can help any business better manage a crisis and minimize disruptions in customer service and communications.

A good emergency preparedness plan and extensive communications outreach can help your business smoothly survive an unexpected crisis by rallying employees, reassuring clients and business affiliates, and minimizing the impact to customers, the backlog of work, and the financial consequences of a business outage.

Robert White is president of American Specialty Health.