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Disaster management – need for business houses to participate

S Ranganathan
Product Manager, Tata Infotech Ltd.
Email: [email protected]

Business houses can play a proactive role in disaster management. After all the root of proper business development lies in the well-being of the society.

When a disaster strikes, the first thoughts those race to all our mind is the – what is government doing? Where are the NGO? Where are the social support orgnisations?

Business houses come to mind only as a source for fund raising.

There is more to Disaster Management (DM) than just providing monetary support. Many of the business needs like “Proactive support” is applicable in the areas of disaster management also.

The other side of the coin
While government has responsibilities on one side the business also has equal responsibilities if not more to the society in such situations of dire needs. After all the business happens only due to existence of such societies and business needs shoulder its share of responsibilities.

Can business houses contribute more to disaster management that just provide money? Can there be a better proactive role that business houses in India can play in such disaster management situations?

What happens in Disaster?
Disaster permeates every corner of the society. It does not spare the rich or the poor. This affects individuals, business and organisations. There are economic losses-direct and Indirect.

The first to get affected is the infrastructure – the railways and roads. All the utilities get affected – the telephone lines get broken, the electricity is disrupted, water pipes get broken and water gets contaminated. Many business close down and people lose their job. As per international studies, 40% of the small businesses never open again.

Damage to Business
The most obvious damage to business is the physical structure and capital equipment. With the break in infrastructure and transport the interruption to business is real. Infrastructure loss resulting in long term electrical outages and unusable roads leads halt in operations, supplies not being completed and all mission critical systems not operating. The community also loses its residents. Essentially for the business, it means loss of customers and the existing market. This is equivalent to building the market afresh. The downtime also leads to heavy business loss.

Is there a Vaccine available that can protect the communities
A vaccine is nothing but a proactive measure taken to avoid possible damage due to onset of a disease (when disease itself cannot be stopped). This is precisely what each business is trained for and focuses to do – to avoid future pitfalls and protect itself against future uncertainties.

The project Impact programme from FEMA combines this uncanny sense of business houses with disaster management plan to provide disaster resistant communities. To help communities to develop and implement measures to protect themselves from disasters, FEMA with the help of many emergency management professionals and prospective business partners has developed a model that communities can use to make their towns and cities less vulnerable. It is a four – phase process that involves building partnerships, assessing risk prioritizing need and finally, keeping the project impact community informed of the progress and the actions taken.

Project Impact
The FEMA Director James Lee Witt launched this in the fall of 1997 at the EI Nino community preparedness Summit that FEMA sponsored in Santa Monica, California Monica. The Project Impact consists of four phases,

  • Building partnerships
  • Assessing risks
  • Prioritizing needs
  • And communicating to the disaster resistant community.

The Project Impact is all about building partnerships, identifying risks, prioritizing out needs and implementing long term plans to protect the community from these emergencies. The success of the programme depends equally on the ability to communicate the measures taken and success seen to the members of the community. Thus it is also about keeping the community involved and sharing the success with them. Let us see how FEMA looks at Project Impact and how it describes its various phases.

First phase – building Partnerships
Natural disasters like flood, earthquakes, storm do not spare any body. Hence fighting them requires everyone in the community to play their bit in mitigating its effects. The first step is then to form a Disaster Resistant Community Planning Committee. This committee would typically consist of local officials, business professionals, and others who are interested in protecting the community and maintaining its economic stability.

A guideline from FEMA suggests members from the following groups to be invited as part of the committee,

  • Industry & Business
  • Infrastructure: Transportation,
  • Utilities & Housing
  • Volunteer & Community-based
  • Health Care
  • Government
  • Workforce
  • Education


Each member has a different need and contribution in a different way to the programme. The business derives its workforce and market from the community and hence their risks and the way they approach must be different. Education also has a large role to play in the event of disaster as they provide shelter to the displaced people. Each member must be looked at and motivated by finding ways for keeping them interested and showing them how they can derive direct and indirect benefits.

The committee then identifies the CEO and goes about planning subgroups for handling various tasks. Then comes the process of identifying the various hazards and vulnerability of the communities to the identified risks

Second Phase – identifying the risks
The purpose of this stage is to proactively find out the possible hazards that can strike a community, assess the vulnerability of the community and find out ways to minimize the damage.

The steps would be to

  • Hazard Identification – This will define the extent to which natural hazards threaten your community (e.g., mapping)
  • Hazard Vulnerability – This is to Identify with existing knowledge those structures and areas that are vulnerable to hazards. In addition one could use a community growth plan super-imposed on the hazards map to help identify areas vulnerable to natural hazards.

GIS has a direct role to play in this step to help to identify the areas and to come with a good emergency support plan. The MapInfo experience in handling New York Ice Storm is a great example to understand how GIS can play an effective role in such areas.

Third Phase – Prioritizing Needs
This is a significant step. Once all the vulnerabilities and hazards are identified, we must start prioritizing the identified needs. The needs of each community varies and hence the committee has to start identifying which is most important to them and structure their mitigation plan accordingly.

Some of the policies related to hazard regulation, which will get reviewed in this phase, include,

  • Community growth management planning
  • Land use planning and regulation
  • Transportation planning
  • Planning for open spaces
  • Conservation and recreation
  • Public safety and housing
  • Preservation of historic resources

Fourth Phase – Communicating Progress
This is the phase where in the community is continuously informed on what is happening and what are the actions already taken. This is also to be done is a very systematic manner – just like any business will manage its public relations.

This would involve organising a publicity sub-committee, which will constantly look at various at various milestones reached and will communicate to the outside world. This can be done be holding special events, press conference, press release and all ways which will act as visual proof of achievements of the community. It would also be good idea to recruit media outlets as sponsorers or partners in the process.

Why should business contribute?
While the threat to business is real, business also has three primary responsibilities-

  • Responsibility to the company. The primary responsibility of any company is to protect itself and to protect its physical assets against damage. The case study of Anheuser Busch, a brewery company, is a great example here. This company, realizing that it was in an earthquake prone area, identified all the company building that had weak structure and spent huge amounts of money as part of its risk reduction programme

    Result – when earthquake did occur, they stood to save US$300 million in direct and indirect losses, which 15 times the money that spent in strengthening their physical assets.

  • Responsibility to the employees. This responsibility is the very cause of a company’s survival. If a disaster strikes and there employees are not protected then when employees are lost, the companies looses all its skilled labourers. Then comes the cost of training and recruitment. On the contrary, if their homes are protected then they can continue to contribute to the economy. Michale Baker Associates is contributing to help to protect the assets of their employees by contributing either 10% or $50 towards flood insurance.
  • Responsibility to the community. This contribution is part of every large business house. TATA group has its own Tata Council for Community Initiative (TCCI). Similarly all large business houses may contribute their might towards the welfare of the community of which they form a part. This could be a good ground to bring business houses to contribute towards disaster mitigation progrmmes.

Do business organistions ever worry about such disasters?
For some of us who want to know how businesses do this kind of proactive efforts, listed below are some of the examples.

The example in figure 1 shows how an insurance company puts its policyholders on the map and then overlays the earthquake zones to find out the impact of possible earthquakes.

From figure 2 we proceed to do a step-by-step analysis of how an insurance company arranges its risk analysis. In the figure 2 we have the insurance company put all its policy holders on to the map.

In figure 3 we see the company doing a thematic on the types of policy holders based on the amount of policy they have taken.

In the figure 4 the company overlays the bush fire zones onto the map.

Now the company simulates a bush fire event e.g. bush fire zone extending by few kilometers and does an impact analysis (figure 5).

Thus we do find business has equal interest if not more in protecting the communities against such disasters.

A plan like the FEMA plan, if implemented, keeping the business communities also involved, would be beneficial to the community and the participating business houses.