Five Ways to Make Your Hotline Disaster-Ready

By Keith Morris, President, Elder Law of Michigan, and Director, Center for Elder Rights Advocacy

Pad of paper and a computerIf there is one thing that I have learned in the past few years, it is to be ready for anything.  We have had to deal with a week-long power outage, a flood, an evacuation due to a gas leak, a cut fiber optic cable that once provided internet service, threat of violence from a client, and countless blizzards.  Each time we encounter one of these challenges, we learn something that we could have done better.  After working on several versions of our emergency plan, and after working with two other hotlines on reviewing their plans, I have a couple of suggestions that I thought other hotline programs, and even non-hotline programs, might find helpful.

1) Have an actual plan document that everyone knows how to find. 

Anyone that knows me will tell you that I have been pushing for a paperless office for years.  (Notice I didn’t say we have achieved this.)  But, a lesson learned is to have a printed summary of your emergency plans for when the power goes out or the internet goes down.  If you stop and think about it, the best plan in the world does no good if it is posted on a nice internal website that no one has access to because there is no power.

At the very least, you should have posted somewhere the steps to take when the internet connection is lost, your phone system goes down, and the power goes out.  And if you are a small program that doesn’t have at least two full time technology-staff, you need to make sure that all managers or designated staff know how to get to this information.

You should include a checklist of things to check to make the extent of the problem can be determined.  For example, someone should know what other tenants in your building have the same internet provider.  Another example would be to look out the window and see if the building across the street still has power or if the traffic lights are off.  I know these sound like something you would already know to do, but when the stress of the moment is happening, it never hurts to give someone a little extra guidance.

Once the extent of the problem is determined, they should know who to call and in what order to call them. While it is important that you be kept updated on everything that is going on, it is probably more important to find out from the power company how long the outage is expected to last.

2) Post a safe designated meeting location if you have to evacuate—and also an alternate location in case the other location isn’t safe. 

In the not too distant past, we had to immediately evacuate our offices due to a gas leak.  At the time, our designated meeting location was across the street.  So, everyone left the building and scattered.  It took several hours before we knew whether or not everyone was safe and what we were going to do.

3) Make sure your volunteers know your emergency procedures. 

We are very fortunate to have law students, retired attorneys, and other volunteers come into our office every week.  On more than one occasion, one of these very dedicated volunteers made their way through dangerous conditions to come to the office to volunteer.  Be sure that you have a way to keep them informed.

4) Set up a system with at least two ways to inform everyone about emergency situations. 

We used to use a phone tree whenever the office was going to be closed due to dangerous weather.  Now, we let everyone know the standard we use for determining when to close the office, we post a notice on our internal communications page, and we change the greeting on our call-in voicemail. Everyone in our office knows that a decision to close the office is based on whether the nearby university is closed, and they know that we stick with that approach and post our decision by 7am.

5) Have a process to make sure that the clients are informed. 

If you lose power, and you still have client appointments, how do you handle those?  Do you ask staff to make the calls from home?  There are some advantages and pitfalls of having staff make calls to clients on their personal phones.  Depending on the technology, your staff may be able to log into your phone system from anywhere and work just like they are sitting at their desks.

If that isn’t the case, you should at least have one or two people call each person that has an appointment and let them know what is going on and that someone will reschedule with them as soon as you return to full operations.  But remember, you have to have a process to know who to call so make sure you can access that information securely even if your office has no power or internet connection.

Someone should have pre-recorded a greeting that informs all callers about the situation.  Oh, and everyone should know who is responsible for activating that greeting.  If your phone system is still housed at your offices, make sure you have a system to handle the calls when the power goes or internet go out.  Your phone provide should be able to put a short greeting for emergencies on all lines.

These are just a couple of the basics.  You may have some other suggestions that you are willing to share.  Please feel free to post these in the comments. If your program needs a template to start an emergency plan, let me know and I will send you a couple that I found through my research.

Good luck.

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