Global Business Basics -- Unnatural disasters

Dec. 21, 2004
Preparing for the worst may be the best thing you do for yourself, your employees, and your company's bottom line.

You receive word that a disaster has struck one of your firm's Far East facilities. The news is fragmented, frightening, and tragic. Hundreds of lives have been lost. That night you watch the television coverage. It is horrific. The physical destruction is a sad counterpoint to the human devastation. Residents have lost everything. . . and as a major employer in the region, your firm has a responsibility to care for the people from your company. But what can you do? Power, phone, and water lines are down. You can't even get through to your plant. Do you start by contacting one of the major relief organizations, like the Red Cross or Red Shield? Do you go through the U.S. Government (the State Dept., the Commerce Dept., etc.) or the local government on-site, which is coordinating emergency rescue teams. How could you have been prepared for this? In a global economy, many companies have faced these problems in the last few years. Just consider recent earthquakes:

  • Turkey endured two major temblors in 1999, and over 17,000 people died.
  • A strong earthquake in Athens, Greece, killed more than 140 in September 1999.
  • Early Sept. 21, 1999, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale struck Taiwan. Over 2,250 people died, more than 8,700 were injured, and approximately 100,000 were homeless.
After the Taiwan earthquake, many highly trained international rescue teams (with sensitive acoustic equipment and sniffer dogs) were frustrated in their efforts because transportation and communication infrastructures had been destroyed. They simply could not get to the hardest hit regions within the critical first day. Taiwan's government received a lot of criticism during the crisis because they lacked both a central command function to coordinate rescue efforts, and the equipment to locate survivors who were trapped under the extensive wreckage. If your company had a facility in Taiwan during the disaster, you probably heard of a fast-moving relief organization called Tzu-Chi Foundation. It was Tzu-Chi, a foundation led by the Buddhist nun, Cheng Yen, that proved most effective in immediately getting to survivors. They provided food, facemasks, aid to the injured, and the compassion that the victims desperately needed. Dharma Master Cheng Yen was able to mobilize hundreds of Tzu Chi volunteers immediately after the quake and establish a local presence long before other relief efforts arrived -- because Tzu Chi volunteers were part of each neighborhood. The stature of Master Cheng Yen (and her 3 million members worldwide) was enhanced further when Taiwanese officials realized they needed $30 million for the 5,000 housing units that had to be built in two months. The officials turned to the 62-year-old Buddhist nun for assistance. Master Cheng Yen used her network to contact corporations and individuals for the required donations, and continued to offer support to the earthquake victims once they occupied the new homes. Besides the toll in human lives, these disasters affected economies all around the world. During and after such catastrophes, what can multinational firms do to assist their own in decimated areas? Good research of a plant site and planning for emergencies is key. The Pacific's "Ring of Fire" is a seismically volatile region, and many geologists believe that Taiwan is ultimately doomed because of its position above the juncture of the Philippine and Eurasian plates. Still, it is such an economic powerhouse that the risks are far outweighed by the monetary rewards of establishing facilities on the island. A similar environment exists in many parts of the U.S.'s West Coast. In the states of California and Washington, evacuation routes and emergency procedures have long existed not just for some firms, but for towns and entire metropolitan areas. Having standard emergency procedures, and rehearsing them, for everything from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions is a vital aspect of protecting inhabitants in high-risk zones. International facilities should receive at least the same level of emergency preparedness as those at your domestic headquarters. The preparation for disaster procedures should include:
  • Evaluating international site locations for the risk of disasters -- whether they be tornadoes, terrorism, or tsunamis.
  • Instituting emergency plans (evacuation routes, medical relief operations, etc.) and assigning the responsibility for their implementation to a senior staff member who would direct a corporate command center.
  • Assigning a coordinator at each site who reports back to corporate.
  • Rehearsing the procedures company-wide.
  • Developing relationships with rescue and relief organizations at multiple levels:
    • Global organizations like the Red Cross/Red Shield
    • National Government Officials (Human Services, Embassies, etc.)
    • Local government (Fire, Police, etc.)
    • Culturally networked organizations (Religious or Secular)
  • Establish a Web site for emergency information. During a Disaster:
  • Respect the procedures and customs of the local populace. Be highly sensitive at times of crisis -- bring interpreters with your rescue team and work with local leaders.
  • Provide extra support whenever possible to not only your employees, but the region as a whole. Extended families and friends may have been involved.
  • Be aware of your local surroundings. Political developments sometimes change swiftly in times of crisis. Follow basic security procedures.
  • Make whatever data you have accessible to all your employees -- on your Web site, in person, through daily debriefings, etc. Disseminate any helpful information to the public as well. Remember that a crisis can bring out the worst, or best attributes of anyone. Train your employees in safety measures and crisis management. Hopefully, they won't need it, but if they personally encounter a tragedy, they can then address it as the Tzu-Chi Foundation members did in Taiwan -- with speed and compassion. Terri Morrison is the coauthor of several books such as Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries and The Year 2000 World Holiday and Time Zone Guide. She also has a Web site, Getting Through Customs, which features seminars, online database, and books. For more information call 610-725-1040, fax 801-516-8774 or e-mail:[email protected].
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