Washington View: Beyond duct tape

Washington View: Beyond duct tape

WASHINGTON - When the government put the country on Code Orange alert, warning us that terrorists might-just-could-possibly-be-maybe, lurking in the neighborhood, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. Our office is a couple of blocks from the White House, so we're in the bull's-eye if Washington should again be a target. That is no cause to panic by itself, but an alert is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable we are.

Then the Department of Homeland Security provided comic relief. Well-meaning officials issued a list of items that every household should have in case of a terrorist emergency. What was the deal with duct tape? We had a steady stream of video clips on local TV news, showing citizens stripping the shelves of duct tape and plastic sheeting from local hardware stores. Even David Letterman had a duct tape gag on his show.

In the following week, radio and television were filled with voices debating the merits of duct tape and larger matters of Homeland Security policy. Politicians complained that the federal government was not doing enough to support "first responders." Experts debated the most likely scenarios for the next terrorist attack. Turned out, duct tape wouldn't do you much good after all.

It's scary stuff to listen to, and confusing. But the drumbeat does cause you to think about what you can do for your own survival, at least here in Washington. Beyond the Beltway it's a different story. An ABC News poll showed that most people are not upset by an Orange alert. A terrorist attack is something that's going to happen somewhere else.

For most people that's true. Readers of The Journal of Commerce may see things differently. Most of you are in ports or major metropolitan areas, places that the government considers viable targets. The threat is real, even if it's distant. Beyond the hype are some common-sense questions that we ought to consider in these tense times.

-- How about your location? Have local authorities finalized their emergency and evacuation plans? Do you and your employees know how to get out the area quickly and safely? How will you keep in contact with them once they are out of danger? Should you designate a meeting point, or will you have a communications plan to keep everyone in touch? A note on the latter: consider all of your communications options. On September 11, telephone land lines and cellular networks in Washington and New York were overwhelmed with calls. It was nearly impossible to get through anywhere in the first hours after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit.

What if local officials determine that you should stay where you are, because there is danger from chemical, biological or radioactive material in the air? Some Washington-area property managers are installing easily-accessible switches so tenants can shut off building ventilation systems in an emergency - a sensible idea. Should you stockpile food and water for all employees, and for how many days? One local business is laying in cases of beer with its non-perishable food. Food may be a good idea. Beer is optional.

If you're taking precautions for your business, your employees should think of their own families. Homeland Security's household checklist included food, water and batteries as items families should keep on hand. What about the local school system? If there is an emergency, will school officials keep children inside until it's safe to go home, or will they expect parents to pick them up? How will your employees communicate with their children, spouses or partners? Being unable to reach loved ones may be a more frightening prospect than a terror attack itself.

-- How will you resume business after a terrorist incident? After the government announced the Orange alert, congressional staff members were advised to create a "go-pack" of critical documents to take with them so they could continue working off-site. If you cannot return to your office for several days, are you prepared to set up a temporary site? What will you have to take with you, such as client files or payroll records, so you can return to business? Do you have a "hot site" for your data processing? If you plan to have a branch office in another city take over your accounts, are they equipped to handle the sudden increase in volume?

The past weeks have taught me that the federal government will try to prevent another attack, and it will respond in some way if we have one. But surviving an attack, and moving on afterward, is a matter that the government is leaving up to you and me.

What about you? Do you have ideas for keeping business going and calming employee anxiety that you can share with others? Send me an e-mail. If I get some good tips, I'll pass them on to JoC readers.