Disasters, whether natural or otherwise can hit any time and without notice. The best line of defense is offense—prepare your employees, physical office, data, systems and clients with these procedures before disaster strikes. Be prepared to serve without power, phone, internet and even without a physical office location.
Agency principals should work with carriers in advance to establish protocols for the claims process and document this information for staff. Frequently reviewing the policy will help staff understand their role and serve as efficiently as possible in the wake of a disaster.
A good disaster plan allows you to focus on recovery and service, not searching for critical data or piecing together tools to work. Make sure the final document is easy to find by everyone on staff, from any location.
Fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. Before a disaster, agency leaders must determine the roles of the employees, such as what part of the plan should be implemented and by whom. For example: Who’s responsible for checking physical office location and determining the safety of the space? Who speaks with the media, including social media posts and communications? Who will monitor closures and safety?
A key part of determining employee roles is to set out expectations. Agencies should communicate clear and concise guidelines for employee communication and establish minimum expectations of work attendance in advance.
Agency staff will then need to prepare to minimize damage to their office. Begin by identifying the areas most vulnerable to wind, rain, fire or rising water and take steps, such as installing shutters or pre-cut plywood sections on windows, placing sandbags around doorways and moving equipment to interior portions of the office. Should time permit, be prepared to move items off-site to secure out of town storage and be prepared to rent temporary office space or work remotely if needed.
Make a note of contact information for power, phone and internet companies because you will likely need to check on service. In the event that power is totally cut off, determine your minimum power requirements to support customers, such as servers, computers, phone systems, lights and printers, and research back-up power supplies, like generators and alternative telecom solutions.
If your office is inaccessible, creating and providing a written agreement and a clear process for alternative business locations, such as home offices, CAT vans, off-site locations, is important to ensure that, whatever happens, you and your employees can serve your clients.
In the event of a disaster, here are a few key areas to consider for making sure your operations continue in the most seamless way possible:
Internet and phone service. If possible, subscribe to two forms of broadband Internet access. This allows for failover if your primary provider should fail and reduce downtime in the event of an outage. This is especially true when the agency’s primary database is hosted by a vendor.
Some cell phones offer broadband hotspots for an additional fee, which may provide a minimum bandwidth needed to conduct business, including VoIP, should broadband internet service not be available.
Single-site agencies should consider partnering with another agency outside of your immediate geographical area should you need office space and phones, or IT space. This will allow you to quickly and easily reestablish communication and IT operations.
Laptops and tablets. Make sure your laptops and tablets have wireless access and prepare staff on the cyber risk of portable tools. Laptops should have the most updated agency management system and operating system updates installed.
Download your latest non-web or cloud-based data files for instant access. Make sure all security precautions are taken to protect your data and ensure its integrity. Remember to back-up information regularly on a USB or external hard drive.
Agency management system. Ensure your agency management system is up to date with regular operating system updates. If you have a LAN-based system, confirm your off-site backup and recovery process. If, like most, you have a Web-based (or ‘ASP’) system, work with your vendor to clearly identify recovery processes. For more information about how to stay compliant and protect client data in a hostile world of data breaches and cybercrime, refer to the ACT Agency Cyber Guide 2.0.
Ensure data access and accuracy. Ensure system data accuracy via consistent carrier downloads for as many lines of business as possible. Work with your download vendor, such as IVANS, to ensure you are taking advantage of all lines of business downloads, claims downloads, eDocs and messages.
Being paperless makes disaster recovery significantly easier. However, if your agency isn’t already paperless, it’s probably too big of a project to begin while a CAT event is looming. Even with paperless and automation procedures already implemented, printed contact information and other lists are still a good idea. Just prior to an emergency, print copies of the disaster plan, ACORD claims forms and other office supplies.
Power down. Protect critical IT equipment with documented procedures for properly shutting down and powering up. This will eliminate unnecessary downtime, data corruption and damage. Be sure to include the battery backup units within the plan.
Before using back-up power sources, measure the load on your generators and have an “amperage audit” completed. If you have servers or a computer room and add extra equipment, make sure your generator can still handle the added amps, so you don’t exceed load specifications on your generator.
Communication between your agency’s employees, with clients and with carriers is vital. To prepare, create contact lists. Internally, this should include staff, vendors, service providers, carriers and clients. Also, develop a written guide so that employees are aware of and educated on their specific responsibilities and review the process often.
Externally, be prepared to communicate with clients via your agency-customer portal, social media, email, AMS and website from any location. Include disaster preparedness tips on your website and explain how your clients can work with you during disasters.
In the event of a disaster, one of the most sought-after pieces of information is how to make a claim. In an obvious area on your website, post the claim hotline numbers for all carriers you represent, as well as emergency contact information and staff contacts.
Lastly, to ensure your website stays up and running, host it with a reputable vendor that offers uptime guarantees. And to make sure you are providing up-to-date information, ensure agency staff can edit website content from anywhere. Moreover, in 2020, it is critical that your website is mobile-friendly to meet the needs of people whose landlines are cut, or who are displaced by disasters.
Prepare with Carriers
Work with your carriers to educate agents on the claims processes and procedures within their organization, especially special disaster claims reporting procedures. Agencies should make themselves familiar with the CAT-claims processes and procedures for each of their carriers.
The best carriers help agencies understand the standardized process for transmission of claims reports from the adjuster in the field to the examiner in the carrier’s office during a CAT. This will help to expedite the settlement with the customer.
Also, make sure you have up-to-date claims information available online or easily at hand to provide clients with fast updates over the phone. If possible, the carrier should provide emergency draft authority to your agency or provide ATM cards for the agency to distribute or for the adjuster to have available as needed.
During the Event
In the midst of a CAT event, safety is the first priority. Above all, employees should be encouraged to seek safety and reminded not to take any unnecessary risks in order to pursue their work. At this time, doing nothing and staying safe is a vital component of being able to execute your disaster plan.
Just stay tuned to local news, monitor social media and other media for alerts about the impact that the event is having on your area. When it’s safe to do so, depending on the severity and type of event, begin to test computer systems, start to communicate with your vendors, staff, clients and carriers, and update website and social media with critical information for your customers and staff.
After the Event
After ensuring your current location, family, home and vehicle are safe, assess the safety of your staff. Continue to deploy your disaster plan and monitor local news and social media if possible.
Once roadways are safe, assess the safety of the building. If it is safe to enter, test and monitor the power source or back-up power and other services necessary for business. Follow up with your local catastrophe liaisons if your state has a CAT committee and if any insurance villages were designated.
Be prepared to welcome clients and adjusters if possible. Remember, the Trusted Choice® Disaster Relief Fund is available to assist Big “I” members and their staff in the event of unrecoverable losses caused by a hurricane or other natural disaster.
Dealing with the aftermath of a disaster is a stressful time for agents as well as clients. However, it is your responsibility to be prepared to provide quality and empathetic service when your clients need you most. If serving them face-to-face, do what you can to provide a comfortable, calm environment.
Wherever possible, provide them with all necessary information swiftly, including access to website portals with claims status. Respond quickly and communicate often and ensure staff follow up periodically with impacted clients to ensure their needs are met.
Continue to use social media to relay any carrier alerts and updates, federal agency offerings and significant updates, such as materials and labor services updates and the implications of a shortage, including price changes and delays.
Once the dust settles, conduct a quantitative and qualitative post-event evaluation with your team by reviewing your agency’s analytics and checking for feedback from clients for areas to improve. Also, work with carriers on the claims process and ease of communication. Then, implement solutions and update your plan as needed.
Ron Berg is executive director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT). This article is adapted from ACT’s Disaster Planning Resource. View all of ACT’s disaster planning resources.