PORTLAND – Banks, hospitals, government agencies and utilities in the United States are required by law to have disaster plans for things like the swine flu outbreak. Many large businesses have made preparations voluntarily.

But most small businesses remain vulnerable to disasters like a pandemic. It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Eric Blom with Broadreach Public Relations in Yarmouth, which has provided pandemic response planning services to its clients.

He offers the following advice to small businesses:

• Identify key employees, vendors and processes: Pinpoint critical aspects of your business and also those portions of the operation that are less important, in case you need to shift resources as employees or vendors become ill. Prepare today to ensure there is continuity in case of illness, through cross-training, creation of backup processes and identification of fall-back scenarios.

• Prepare a response plan: Draft a document that includes clear succession and chain-of-command responsibilities, in the event of a pandemic. Figure out what new work arrangements might be allowed and what technology would support it.

• Keep people healthy: Sick-leave policies should encourage people to stay away from work when ill and not punish them for keeping themselves – and their germs – at home. Require people to use good hygiene, such as washing hands often and keeping public spaces disinfected. Provide hand sanitizers in those areas where hand washing is not easily completed and keep fresh-air circulating.

• Communicate effectively: Make sure there is a well-defined plan for external and internal communications. Having a great response plan in place doesn’t do you any good if nobody knows how to execute it and if others involved, including customers and suppliers, aren’t aware of how they fit in. The plan should centralize key information in a location that other involved parties can access and include written procedures for how to communicate with those outside the organization.

• Create a checklist of tasks to be completed and delegate responsibilities where possible.

• Tap the knowledge and creativity of workers, vendors, customers and colleagues.

Even if the plan is ultimately never used, the process itself will produce benefits, Blom said, by helping a company understand its own business better. And the document will be there to help the firm respond to other unforeseen events.

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