Feb. 2, 2009
In the summer of 2007, Margaret Cruz learned the importance of planning for emergencies. Her pizzeria, Margarita's Pizzeria in State College, Pa., was destroyed by a fire.
She was on her way to work when she got the call.
"One of my employee's dad is a fireman," Cruz said. "He heard about the fire on the scanner. I couldn't believe it was happening."
It took Cruz about 10 minutes to drive to the pizzeria. By that time, her business was engulfed in flames.
Experts in disaster prevention recommend that operators like Cruz write an emergency plan to better cope with crime, fires or natural disasters if they occur. Having such a plan in place, they say, is the key to protecting a business and its future.
While no one likes to think about the devastation a disaster can create, fires, earthquakes and tornados do happen. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the number of declared major disasters nearly doubled in the 1990s compared to the previous decade.
"The irony of (emergency planning) is you want to be prepared for something, but it's not like you want to practice being prepared for it," said Andrew Hatzis, vice president of operations and training for ADIR Restaurants Inc., master franchisor of fried chicken restaurant Pollo Campero. "You want to be prepared for something, but at the same time, you hope it's never something that happens to you." Ask the tough questions
Calamities such as a fire, a crime or flooding, can happen anywhere. Business owners should ask themselves the "what ifs" and then develop an emergency plan, said Theodore Darden, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at College of DuPage in Wheaton, Ill.
"Business owners generally are not prepared for catastrophic events. What are you going to do if there is a train derailment near your business, a chemical spill, a fire, flood or hurricane?" he said.
"There has to be a protocol in place for things that you can foresee," he said. "Even if it's just a one-person operation, there should be a protocol in place."
To help companies better prepare for a disaster, natural or otherwise, the Department of Homeland Security has created Ready Business, an initiative that outlines emergency measures business owners and managers can take if an unexpected event occurs.
Ready Business recommendations reflect the Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity Standard developed by the National Fire Protection Association and endorsed by the American National Standards Institute and the Department of Homeland Security.
Darden also recommends meeting with fire and police departments to discuss safety issues. For instance, police departments are able to advise owners on alarm systems, locks, lighting and their cash handling systems.
Additional reasons to create a plan and to put it in writing are to keep employees and customers as safe as possible and to minimize criminal or civil liability in the case of a lawsuit.
"Having a plan would show the court that they tried to do what they could to reduce harm," Darden said. "If they did nothing it could be considered gross negligence."
Some losses not covered
Cruz was able to reopen her restaurant in mid-November 2007, about three and half months after the fire occurred.
Though the task of rebuilding went pretty smoothly for Cruz, Darden said business owners need to understand that some situations are much harder or even impossible to bounce back from. Insurance companies, for instance, can decline to pay a claim.
"Your insurance company could take a close look at you," Darden said. "Often, there's fine print that says if its gross negligence they don't have to pay up."
Cruz started the recovery by calling her insurance company, her landlord, a fire restoration company, her vendors and contractors who rebuilt the business.
"It was very time-consuming. It didn't happen overnight," she said.
Her biggest loss, which was covered by insurance, was of a deep freezer and two refrigerators. About $6,000 in food was not covered, she said.
Several things did go in Cruz's favor. For example, her landlord did not require her to pay rent while the pizzeria was closed. Food suppliers also were lenient about payments.
"They said if we needed a month to pay them it would be fine. But it wasn't necessary," Cruz said.
She even was able to use the office at a bank next to her business for holding meetings and making calls to organize the rebuilding work.
Because it was determined that the cause of the blaze was the spontaneous combustion of rags, Cruz now instructs her employees to store rags in metal cans.
And since she operates in a small town, it wasn't hard to get the word out that her business would be closed for several months.
"We put it on our voice mail," she said. "And everywhere we went people were asking about the fire and when we were going to re-open."