September is National Preparedness Month and the perfect time for credit unions to reflect on ways to prepare for when natural disasters strike.
2017 was a record year for natural disasters in the United States and 2018 is following suit with the recent California wildfires and with hurricane season now upon us. While these events have devastating effects on the land and communities in their path, the impact can be minimized with the help of the right support structures.
Credit unions have a long history of helping disaster victims, generously devoting time, resources and donations to helping members of their communities in need. Last year, when Tropical Storm Harvey devastated parts of Southeast Texas and Louisiana, CO-OP partnered with other industry organizations to create a support line for providing impacted members with access and branch information. CUAid, an organization which provides disaster relief donations for credit union members and employees (and which CO-OP is a proud donor), reports it has raised $2.8 million in contributions so far in 2017-2018.
While credit unions have and will continue to be quick to respond when a disaster strikes, they must also be proactive prior to the event. The key to disaster preparation: have an effective plan.
“The history of credit unions is a democratic one,” says Jonathan Lobb, Vice President of Operational Communication at CO-OP. “Credit unions were designed to serve the public, connecting individuals to resources that may not otherwise be readily available to them. And in times of disaster, people often rely on this same concept of democracy and community.”
With mobile technology and social media changing the way we communicate, Lobb asserts that credit unions have much more at their disposable when it comes to disaster communication. However, it is crucial to prepare in advance and establish a plan.
Here are five tips for effective disaster preparedness plan:
Tip #1: Ensure Staff Safety
“The first priority for a credit union in the event of a disaster should be ensuring the safety of their staff,” Lobb says. “Whether they work in the office or they’ve suffered damage to their own homes, make sure they’re okay and they have the resources they need. Taking care of staff is the first step in taking care of your members.”
This means it’s crucial to know in advance how you will reach your staff in the event of a crisis. Lobb points out that during Hurricane Harvey, despite massive power outages, only 4-5 percent of cell phone towers were down in affected areas. Therefore, it is likely credit unions will still have a line of communication with employees. However, it is still wise to have a backup plan for communication, whether it’s an online chat channel or a Facebook group. Establish a hub of communication where staff can meet and receive updates in case of an emergency.
Tip #2: Assess Infrastructure
Prior to and during a disaster, assess your infrastructure and see what options are available for members. Consider how to use tools like social media, text alerts, or locator apps for ATMs to communicate with credit union members. “Branch apps that pinpoint open locations during a storm are very helpful,” Lobb says. “Remind members that if they cannot reach a physical location, mobile payments generally would still be available to them in order to receive or transfer money.”
He adds that people can leverage CO-OPs network of 5,600 branches and 30,000 ATMs as well. The ability to refer members to alternative self-service locations is key, and shared branch kiosks can provide expanded service when members need it.
Tip #3: Designate a Disaster Preparedness Team
Put together a team of staffers who can take action when disaster strikes. It’s important to designate this team well in advance and keep them updated on protocol so they are prepared to do the job when necessary. Some specific questions to ask when designating this team include:
- Where will team members be during a crisis?
- Is their contact information up to date?
- How will teams check in and stay in contact?
- What backup channels, such as satellite communications, do you have?
- Do team members know how to use them?
- Who is willing and able to manage your website, social media channels, internal communications, and so on?
Make sure that if you’re hit with a disaster, staffers know who is carrying out specific tasks assigned to them. Lobb adds that it can also help to conduct a mock tabletop exercise: a disaster drill, so to speak. This way, everyone knows what to expect.
Tip #4: Develop and Review Disaster Protocol
“I would encourage every credit union to have a plan and make sure that plan is socialized with their staff, not just collecting dust on their bookshelf,” Lobb says. If you already have a disaster protocol, now is the time to review it and make sure it’s up-to-date. “And make sure the plan is tested so it’s truly useful in before it’s executed,” Lobb says. “The time to test is not when the storm hits, it’s before it arrives.”
This plan should be ready to go in case of the worst. “When I worked in a bank years ago, we had what we called a ‘robbery kit’,” Lobb adds. “It was a shrink wrapped folder, to be opened only in the event of a robbery. Following a robbery or any traumatic, people are often distraught and panicked. The idea was to have a kit that you can simply unwrap and it will tell you exactly what to do.”
#5 Find Partners for Support
Finally, credit unions should look for opportunities to protect their members through partnerships with other organizations. “The credit union motto of ‘people helping people’ really means something when it comes to disaster preparedness,” Lobb says. “Disasters are so unpredictable but having a concrete plan and a pool of shared resource can help mitigate the damage and maintain the trust of your members.”
With over 5,600 shared branches, 30,000 ATMs, and 24/7 support offered through our Contact Center, CO-OP can help you deliver the service your members need in the event of an emergency. Contact us to learn more.