Is Your Pharmacy Prepared for the Unexpected of Natural Disasters?
Being prepared can lessen the effects of natural disasters on your business and help your communities bounce back more quickly.
The greatest threat to your pharmacy business could come from nature, not a competitor.
No one thinks a natural disaster will affect them, yet each year there are hurricanes, blizzards, tornados, floods, earthquakes, fires and other types of unexpected disasters. While no one can predict exactly when and where a disaster will occur, there seems to be no shortage of natural disasters that have enormous impacts on communities.
Impact of Disasters
Not only do natural disasters impact communities, but they can devastate a small business. The statistics are staggering:
- A quarter of the businesses that close for more than 24 hours because of a natural disaster never reopen, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.1
- Another 25% or more may close within two years because of the lasting impact on their business.
Don’t underestimate the potential dangers. “Most people are in disaster denial,” warned Jim Satterfield, president and COO of Firestorm® Solutions LLC, a crisis management and continuity planning firm. While you may think your pharmacy is in a safe location, chances are you can recall a time when something interrupted your business, even if it was only a power outage for a few hours.
If a disruption occurs and your customers start going to another pharmacy because you close, even for a short time, “you may never get back the business that you lose,” Satterfield said. “They’re going to change their buying habits.” Similarly, staff members may find employment elsewhere while you rebuild.
What should you do? Firestorm’s Predict. Plan. Perform.® process provides structure to your approach.
Predict: Anticipate possible disaster scenarios
Break down the possibilities of what could go wrong, Satterfield recommends, by looking at four zones, from big picture to very small picture:
- Your nation. Disasters of this scale that might affect your business could include a global pandemic or a terrorist event.
- Your region: Examine a 20-mile radius. Are you located near an earthquake fault line or nuclear power plant?
- Your neighborhood. Asses the risks within a three-mile radius, such as a river flooding.
- Your location. What could happen in your pharmacy or adjacent businesses? For example, a water pipe may break or a fire in a neighboring business could release toxic chemicals.
For each of these situations, think through what could happen, and if it did, how it could affect your business. For example, Satterfield explained, “A power outage is going to take everyone back 150 years.” It can shut down not only the lights but also heating, cooling, computers and mobile phone systems.
Business disaster planning resources
A wealth of resources can lead you through the steps of creating a comprehensive disaster plan. Even if you already have drafted a plan to comply with insurance requirements or state pharmacy board regulations, you may be able to improve it.
- Open for Business®, a business continuity planning program from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, offers a brief planning toolkit, “OFB-EZ,” and other information at www.disastersafety.org.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website (www.ready.gov) includes a section for protecting your business from a disaster. It offers advice on protecting records and inventory, as well as how to install a generator for emergency power.
- The American Red Cross’s Ready Rating™ program (www.readyrating.org) includes a 123-point assessment to gauge how well-prepared your business is, as well as tools and tips to improve your plans.
- “Disaster Ready People for a Disaster Ready America” is a free e-book from Firestorm (www.firestorm.com) that leads families through creating their own disaster plans. Many of the steps apply to business plans too.
Plan: Who will do what when
The business disaster plan that you put in place (possibly using some of the tools shown above) will involve planning for all possible scenarios you identify. Other important considerations include:
- Monitor. When the types of disasters that could impact your pharmacy are known, it is important to constantly monitor potential disasters so you are fully alert regarding the potential timing and impact.For example, Cramerton Drug in North Carolina was tuned in to the National Weather Service in late July 2013 as the river about 100 yards from the pharmacy was rising, according to Lee Isley, pharmacist and co-owner. Staff members monitored where and when the river would crest, and joined more than 100 volunteers to place sandbags around downtown buildings.When Superstorm Sandy headed toward Rockaway, N.Y., employees of Belle Harbor Chemists who lived near the store kept Rich Longo, the president, informed by phone and text message after the pharmacy had to close.
- Plan to restore operations. For every type of disaster scenario, determine the critical steps that are required to restore operations. Set a “recovery time objective” for reopening, Satterfield encouraged. Everything may not need to be in place and repaired before you reopen.The flood in Cramerton destroyed a floor in the pharmacy, Isley said. But in less than a day the staff stripped the damaged floor and covered the area with thick paper from a home improvement store, offering a temporary solution until permanent flooring could be replaced.The damage from Sandy was more severe, of course. “We had moved things up two to three feet, and it still wasn’t enough,” said Longo, who estimates the water damage was more than four feet high.
Although the water destroyed the pharmacy’s computers, Belle Harbor’s software vendor backs up data offsite daily. The staff had taken a hard drive from the pharmacy before the storm as an additional backup but didn’t need it.
“We opened for business three days later,” Longo said. He and his business partner, Frank Stella, rented a heated trailer and set it up in front of the pharmacy. At first the Belle Harbor location took in prescriptions and filled them overnight at a sister store on Long Island. Later it could rely on Wi-Fi service and a fax machine to transfer the prescriptions for faster turnaround.
“You are your own first responder,” Satterfield said. Plan ahead to ensure that your business will have what it needs for at least three to five days.
- Consider staff. In your plans, consider how employees’ families will deal with the disaster. By doing that, workers will be able to focus on the business. Otherwise, Satterfield said, “you’re forcing your employees to choose between work and family, and family wins every time.”
- Reinforce your supply chain. One of the most common failures in disaster plans is neglecting the business supply chain, Satterfield said. Ensure that you will have the medications and other items your customers need. If a winter storm is approaching, for example, you may want to order a “buffer” supply to hold you for a few days.For pharmacies, it is important to keep ice chests/coolers on hand to secure refrigerated product, as well as maintaining a list of inventory for liability and insurance purposes.
- Collaborate. Work with nearby businesses and even other pharmacies in town to aid each other in the event of a disaster.Belle Harbor’s trailer became a communications hub for the community. It set up a bulletin board and allowed nearby businesses and doctors to post information about when they would open and how customers could reach them.
- Communicate. Constantly communicating with customers is a vital part of disaster planning that businesses often overlook, Satterfield said.Cramerton Drug communicated continuously during the flood in its community. Staff continued to answer the phone on Sunday when the flood was approaching, while they moved stock and computers to higher shelves, and transferred insulin and vaccines to a safe refrigerator in another location unaffected by the flood. They were able to fill emergency orders and advise customers that they “may have to walk down here to get it,” Isley explained, because roads were being closed.Then, while the town’s downtown area was closed on Monday, Cramerton Drug’s Facebook page thanked customers and community members for their support and informed everyone that the pharmacy would reopen at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
When Belle Harbor Chemists was ready to move from the trailer to its new building, the news spread quickly through the town by word of mouth, but Longo also bought a full-page newspaper advertisement and placed banners on the trailer and former building to refer people to the new location, across the street and down the block.
As part of your communication planning, be sure to keep a hard-copy list of all important phone numbers, implement a “phone tree” to ensure everyone is informed, and have an assigned meeting spot where employees should gather after a disaster.
- Lead customers to act. As you are planning for a potential disaster, encourage your customers to plan too. Explain whether their insurance will allow them to order refills early to have a few days’ supply of critical medication on hand, and stock your store with items they may need during storm seasons, such as flashlights.Belle Harbor Chemists encouraged customers to refill medications in the days before Sandy hit, with newspaper ads and a sign in its window. But, Longo said, “This town survived the storm the year before, so it was a lukewarm response.”
Review your insurance
In light of the potential risks that your pharmacy faces, it is a good idea to periodically review your insurance coverage. Satterfield recommends asking your insurance agent in writing whether various scenarios are covered. Also, find out whether your current policy covers lost income in the event of a disaster and what you would need to do to document a claim. Armed with that information, you can decide whether to adjust your insurance policy and your disaster plans.
Knowing that in a disaster you may not remember all of the details of your well thought-out disaster plan, store multiple copies of the plan where they will be easily available. If the power is out, a digital copy on a flash drive or in the cloud will be useless. A paper copy safely locked in the pharmacy will be inaccessible if the roads to your business are impassible. Have multiple copies in multiple locations.
Perform: Practice before it hits
Don’t wait for a disaster to discover whether your plan works. Satterfield suggests testing a different aspect of your plan each quarter. You can talk through what each person would do in a specific scenario, or hold evacuation drills, for example. Practice makes a difference, Satterfield said. “You don’t want people to have to make decisions for the first time in an emergency.” With ample training, employees will act with confidence during a disaster.
Also schedule on your calendar when you will update supplies, to guarantee you will have charged batteries, fresh water, and other critical items when you need them.
Even after a disaster, your planning isn’t complete. That’s the perfect time to fine-tune your plans, assessing what worked and what didn’t. Ask yourself, “What do you wish you had that you didn’t have?” Satterfield recommended.
Belle Harbor Chemists had rented a building with aluminum siding before the storm, but in February 2013 it moved into a brick building with a higher deck in the pharmacy area, to protect items from water damage.
Reinforce your presence in the community
During a disaster, people aren’t thinking about business opportunities; they are thinking about their family and community. But customers and community members will need to fill their prescriptions, will need important supplies, and will want a sense of normalcy in their lives. By being prepared and able to quickly spring into action, independent pharmacies can play a critical role in serving their communities by helping meet customers’ most basic needs. This can reinforce your pharmacy’s central role in their lives.
In the aftermath of Sandy, the Belle Harbor Chemists’ trailer also became a distribution center for government handouts of items such as gloves and water. One of its customers, a doctor, volunteered at a nearby mobile medical station and communicated with the pharmacy by cell phone to ensure medications such as antibiotics and anti-anxiety drugs were on hand.
Natural disasters can’t be prevented. But by planning ahead it is possible to minimize their effect, protect your business, and assist your customers and community in a time of great need.