At Crunch Time, People Count

Opinion: Training and intangibles are paramount when disaster strikes.

Surviving a disaster is a lot like carrying out a military operation. Facilities, equipment and planning are important, but when the crisis hits, its all about your people and how they respond. That fact jumped out at me in my recent coverage of Hurricane Katrinas first anniversary.

Military experts will tell you that you must have a battle plan, but the plan will get thrown out the window once the battle starts and you have to deal with chaos as it unfolds. Thats why the best military training emphasizes character building and teamwork—intangibles that become tangible very quickly when disaster hits.

That message came home in my interview with Bruce Thomas, CEO of the Calcasieu Teacher & Employment Credit Union, in Calcasieu Parish, La. "You can plan all the technology you want, but when it comes to a disaster, its the human element that youve really got to be prepared for," said Thomas. "Youve got to know your people, and you cant wait for a disaster to learn your people. Can Joe hold up when things are going crazy around him? Knowing your staff members and their abilities are just critical."

The credit union, with $34 million in deposits and 5,500 customers, is run by only nine employees—a SWAT-team-size crew to begin with. Thomas said the staff is cross-trained to handle a variety of duties. Even though Thomas is the CEO, for example, hes fully conversant in IT and disaster recovery planning.

Because of its location in southwestern Louisiana, the credit union escaped the brunt of Katrina, but it was severely tested by Hurricane Rita, which hit on Sept. 24, 2005. The credit unions disaster recovery plan called for a SunGard Availability Services mobile unit to be set up in a location beyond the reach of the storm. When Rita hit, credit union staff set up shop in a SunGard mobile unit (that is, a truck) in Natchitoches, La., for three weeks. Only four of the nine staff members at the credit union could man the truck at first, said Thomas. "Some people had sick family and dogs to take care of," said Thomas. Those on duty had to live in a nearby hotel for the three weeks, he said.

Having a business in southwestern Louisiana has steeled the credit union to be prepared for the worst. "We go through disaster drills constantly around here," said Thomas. "When a hurricanes coming, we know the procedures to follow. When we get anything even threatening, our employees know exactly what to do. I dont have to tell them."

Who are your best people? Jan Rideout, CIO of Northrop Grummans ship systems sector in Pascagoula, Miss., said that in the aftermath of Katrina, its harder to find people willing to volunteer to be part of what the shipbuilder calls, coincidentally, its ride-out team—the chosen few who will ride out the disaster. "Prior to Katrina, you probably would have had a lot more [employees] volunteer," Rideout said. "Now, people know the worst can happen. It has been very difficult to find people willing to do it."

Thomas said that merely saving data is not enough; an institution such as a credit union must continue to serve its customers, whose needs can be very different when a disaster hits. "Youre just trying to make sure people have the money they need to do what theyve got to do. Youre there serving your customers," he said.

Serving customers may mean relaxing or suspending some rules, such as allowing more than the usual number of cash withdrawals, said Thomas. He also said customer hand-holding cannot be neglected. "You want the best human relations person you have to man the phones," he said.

Living in a disaster-prone region confers a certain advantage on organizations such as the Calcasieu Teacher & Employment Credit Union: Do something enough, and youre bound to get good at it. But what Thomas and his institution have learned above all is that when stress is put on an organization, training and character really do matter. Make sure youve got plenty of both now—before the next disaster hits.

Executive Editor/News Stan Gibson can be reached at .


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