As one of many emergency response teams providing support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have just passed the six-month marker since we first activated to support our company and our stakeholders. The majority of emergency response teams train to be able to respond at a moment’s notice, quickly assess the situation, and assign responsibilities and resources to put order to the chaos.

Other than on-the-ground recovery efforts from a natural disaster or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an emergency response typically has a very short timeframe, ranging from a few hours to several days. In runner’s terms, this is basically a sprint. However, when the crisis becomes a marathon, much like we are experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you support the emergency response teams providing the support?

The first 30 days—a 5K

On January 20, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus had occurred. On January 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in the U.S. On February 3, 2020, the U.S. declared a public health emergency. On February 25, 2020, the CDC indicated that COVID-19 was moving toward pandemic status. For most organizations, their emergency response teams were activated to assess the immediate precautions necessary to maintain the health and safety of their staff and stakeholders and maintain their operations. These included:

  • Communications
  • Review of business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans
  • Educating staff on CDC guidelines regarding handwashing, use of hand sanitizers and known symptoms for COVID-19
  • Limiting air travel within the US

Due to the human-to-human transmission of the virus, organizations and their emergency response teams began planning to take their operations off-site and have staff working remotely. Many companies had already included remote work into their business continuity and disaster recovery plans due to weather, natural disasters or other business disruptions.

At this point, most emergency response teams were focused on maintaining operations. Their work responsibilities shifted to include increases in operational meetings, workload and work hours. The 5K was turning into a half-marathon, and the strategy to stay the course needed to be adjusted to support the team supporting the organization.

The next 60 days—a half-marathon

As the number of states reporting positive cases of COVID-19 continued to increase, it became apparent that the human-to-human transmission of the virus was increasing. In late February 2020, organizations and their emergency response teams’ worst-case scenario became reality. On March 19, 2020, California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order. By April 7, 2020, 44 states had also issued similar orders.

Many organizations had already implemented some level of remote work for staff during normal business operations. To maintain the solidarity of the organization and the health and safety of the staff, the response to the pandemic needed to shift once again.

Emergency response teams were now tasked with moving all business operations remote. Depending on the organization this may or may not have been possible. For those who could have staff working remotely, their IT teams now took the lead in the race. Their immediate concerns included:

  • Secure connections for staff devices (VPN)
  • Ensuring remote connectivity to servers
  • Confirmation of all platform accessibility
  • Communication platforms (i.e., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.)
  • Testing load capacity

In addition to the technology issues, the emergency response team also had to review all critical operations for the organization to confirm whether they could be supported remotely or determine the backup plan. These included:

  • Communications (internal and external)
  • Finance (invoicing, payments and receipts)
  • Payroll
  • Mail

Many organizations used a staged approach to take their operations remote. This allowed the IT team to address issues as they arose and provide the necessary support. This also provided critical feedback to continue with the process.

90+ days—the marathon

It has now been almost six months since the initial stay-at-home orders were put into action. Due to the continuing increase in positive cases of COVID-19 and concerns for health and safety, many organizations continue to operate remotely. Others have resumed operations but have put in place additional precautions recommended by the CDC. These include:

  • Deep cleaning of work areas (especially if a positive case had been reported)
  • Air duct cleaning
  • Spacing of work areas (minimum of 6 feet between staff)
  • Face mask requirements (in shared areas or if 6-foot spacing is not available)
  • Limited access for visitors and patrons
  • Hand sanitizer made available throughout the workspace
  • Hand-washing reminders
  • Personal responsibility for maintaining safety and health (coughing into elbow, staying home if symptomatic, etc.)

Some companies also took the additional step to add contact tracking/tracing into their workplace to quickly identify and alert staff who might have had close contact with an individual who had now tested positive for COVID-19.

Even with these health and safety precautions, organizations continue to have a portion of their staff working remotely because they identify as high-risk or feel anxious about possible exposure to the virus in the workplace. As a result, emergency response teams continue to be engaged to provide support to their organizations to maintain operations.

The pandemic has provided organizations with an opportunity to actualize their business continuity and disaster recovery plans. How did your plan weather COVID-19?

To learn more about our crisis management services, please contact FEI.