Last week, as Hurricane Irene threatened our friends on the East Coast, I got an email from someone I had met at the ACA Conference last spring. She was in one of the areas that was threatened by the storm. She knew I was in South Louisiana and had some experience with hurricanes, especially one named Katrina. This friend emailed to ask me what I do in my practice when a storm threatens. Specifically, she asked me if I have a policy or plan. Hmm….yes and no. I do have a process but until she asked me that, I don’t think I ever thought of it as a “policy”. They say necessity is the mother of invention. Because I live in hurricane alley, I think that I handle the storm issue the way I do because it has just evolved out of necessity. Her email got me thinking that disaster planning isn’t something we automatically associate with our practices but the fact is, stuff happens. Having some kind of plan for the possibility of your practice being disrupted can give you peace of mind and make recovery much easier. You may never need to use it, but if you do, it’s there. I thought that if my friend was wondering what to do, others might be too. So I thought I’d share with you here a bit of what I shared with her.
How do you let clients know the status of the practice? How do you check on those you may need to check on?
Know your risk. Every area of the country has some kind of vulnerability. Here in South Louisiana, it is hurricanes and flooding. In your area, it might be earthquakes or wild fires or some man-made risk. Knowing what your greatest risks are can guide you as you start to plan.
How will you communicate practice information? After a catastrophic event, the biggest problem is often communication. Your ability to communicate may be limited for days or weeks – or longer. How will you let your clients know the status of your practice? Land lines may be down. Cell service may be interrupted. Internet may be out. If I know in advance of an impending event, I put information on my outgoing message. I use my website as a place to post messages about the practice and use a web-based email address. As part of my new client packets, I include information about emergency/disaster communications. They know to check the website if the phones are not working. What would work best for your clientele?
Client Contact. After Katrina, I literally couldn’t get to my office for some time. How would you contact your clients after an event if you couldn’t get to your office to get their contact information? Are there clients you would need to check in with? In an emergent situation, a password protected flash drive with basic contact information may be a way to take that information with you. Think about what might work best for your practice needs.
Records. What is the biggest risk for your records? Are they secure where they are? Do they need to be moved to a safer, more secure location? Evacuating with boxes and boxes of files in impractical. More importantly, there is no good way to maintain their security if they are in the back of a car. Moving to electronic files is one option. Otherwise, you have to be sure your files are as secure as they can be in their location. Knowing your risk will guide you in your decisions on how you store your files.
There are so many more issues to think about when making a plan. I hope that this provides food for thought. I’d love to hear how others address potential practice disruptions from unexpected events. We can learn so much from each other’s experiences. Ironically, as I sit here and write this blog tonight, there is a new tropical depression spinning off the coast of Louisiana and we are under a storm warning. Tonight I am thankful for the plan.
Dawn Ferrara is a counselor in private practice and clinical manager for a community-based children’s mental health program. Her areas of interest include disaster mental health counseling, lifestyle management, and counselor wellness.