Back to Basics

Back to Basics: Are You Ready for an Extreme Winter Storm?

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to prepare for an extreme winter storm.

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s time for people in many parts of the country to start thinking about winter. And with winter comes extreme weather such as storms that can bring snow, ice, and bitterly cold temperatures, often leading to dangerous conditions and power outages.

In its Prepare Your Organization for a Winter Storm Playbook, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers preparedness tips and advice designed to help businesses improve their winter storm readiness. Among those tips is guidance on how to hold a tabletop exercise, which is a facilitated discussion to help organizations assess and improve their ability to maintain or reestablish operations when affected by a winter storm.

The exercise is designed to help businesses identify strengths and weaknesses in facilities, human resources policies, continuity of operations plans, and emergency operations plans. FEMA says the exercise should last two to three hours, depending on the amount of discussion and breaks. You should select a lead planner, who executes the exercise and works with leadership to select participants. A facilitator should be chosen to lead the discussion, provide scenario updates, and prompt participants to interact. Representatives from throughout the organization should participate, including senior leadership, facilities management, communications and public affairs, information technology, security, human resources, and legal. Third-party vendors such as phone, IT, food, and others may also be included.

In the scenario outlined in FEMA’s playbook, it’s Sunday at 5 p.m. The National Weather Service (NWS) detects a cold front moving toward your community and weather officials urge citizens to prepare for a large storm that will begin in the next 24 hours. A winter storm warning is issued by the NWS for your community and all surrounding areas within 100 miles. The NWS predicts light snow that will likely mix with or change to sleet or freezing rain. The public is advised to expect widespread power outages, tree damage, and treacherous road conditions.

Initial questions for the group include:

  • Who in the organization is responsible for monitoring or would hear or receive a bulletin or alert from the National Weather Service?
  • What information are you sharing with employees at this time? How do you notify them of potential threats or hazards, including those employees who are out of the building?
  • When you hear that a Winter Storm Warning has been issued, what are your immediate concerns?
  • Based on the forecast, it seems that your facility will experience significant winter weather over the next 24-plus hours. What decisions need to be made at this and who needs to make them? This includes closing early, operating at an alternative site, and taking actions to protect the facility (or facilities) from damage.

In the first scenario update, the storm begins on Monday at 1 p.m. starting with wet snow for several hours before changing to freezing drizzle, and then freezing rain. Ice up to 1 inch thick accumulates on roads, sidewalks, trees, power lines, and homes, and wind gusts up to 40 mph are reported in the area. The roads nearly all impassable and emergency response vehicles are unable to respond to calls for assistance. The ice and snow causes dozes of trees to fall, which takes down power lines and leads to widespread power outages. Schools are closed until Thursday and all local government buildings are closed.

For this first update, participants are asked the following:

  • What are your immediate actions and priorities in the first 10-15 minutes? This includes determining who is in charge and how leaders will communicate with each other and employees during the storm.
  • What and how is your organization communicating about the storm at this time? This involves having an alternate plan for communications if the power is out.
  • What expectations do you have regarding employee attendance under these circumstances? Are you prepared to operate with a limited number of employees? This discussion should cover whether you have policies to support employees working remotely, as well as who is essential for you to have at your facilities during a winter storm.

In the second update, it’s Tuesday at 8 a.m. and an inch of ice remains underneath the snow covering. Major roads are cleared but many secondary roads are impassable. Most businesses remain closed and cell phone service is spotty. Your local utility is still overwhelmed and it may take a week to fully restore power. You have not been able to access your facility to determine if there has been any damage. Based on this information, the group should ask if it has any new concerns, what information to share with employees and public, whether there is a process to account for the whereabouts of all employees, and if your facilities are able to continue to operate in any capacity.

The third update moves to Saturday at 8 a.m. as the ice and snow is beginning to melt throughout the area. Utility crews are working to restore power but it could take another week to fully return to normal. You can finally check on your facility and find serious water damage to the lower level from flooding due to frozen pipes. Your records storage area has flooded, as has the area where you house IT and communications hardware. Questions for the group include whether you can continue operations, if you can access copies of vital documents (e.g., insurance papers, financial information, key documents, etc.), and how you are communicating with employees about work status. Other issues to discuss include what critical services employees rely on to be at work, the long-term impact of the storm on the business, and what you can do to support the community as it recovers.

Once you conclude the exercise, hold a 20-minute debriefing to review the exercise and identify next steps. Among the questions you can ask include:

  • What weaknesses in your organization’s emergency plans did you find?
  • What unanticipated issues arose during the exercise?
  • What gaps did you identify?
  • What high-priority issues should be addressed?
  • What are new ideas and areas for improvement?
  • Did you meet the exercise objectives?

Follow up the exercise by creating a plan that lists what items should be addressed, who is responsible for those tasks, and when the issues should be resolved.