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Beltrami County urges businesses, families to plan for disaster scenarios

Hypothetically, if a disaster occurs, what would your business do if the work force was cut by 40 percent? If there was no electricity? If your "go-to" person was incapacitated?

Beltrami County hosted a seminar on emergency preparedness for businesses on Thursday. Speakers, borrowing a line from the Boy Scouts, urged the public to "be prepared."

Linda Chattin with Beltrami County Public Health and Beryl Wernberg, the emergency management director for the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, led the session. Chattin discussed the need for family communication plans and emergency supply kits while Wernberg talked about how businesses can plan for disaster scenarios.

Wernberg said businesses should develop plans detailing what to do in case of disasters or emergencies - and, even more importantly, actually put those plans into practice.

"It's all very fine, well and good to create a plan - but you need to take it down off the shelf" and practice it, she said.

About one month prior to the Red Lake shootings, she said North Country Regional Hospital practiced what to do in a multi-tragedy situation, showing employees exactly where to go and what to do.

"Thank God we did that," she said.

Putting a business plan into practice could save lives, she said.

"It's worth every minute," Wernberg said.

She also stressed the importance of not depending on "go-to" employees. Because someone could be difficult to locate or incapacitated during a disaster, Wernberg said plans also should utilize back-up personnel.

Duties should be assigned by position, not an employee's name, she said. Someone could be transferred, promoted or could move before the plan is updated.

She also said companies should talk to employees to discuss how to reach them in the event of a disaster. Telephones and cell phones may work in minor situations, but she said lines will jam or may not have service during large-scale disasters.

She said phone trees may be necessary to call employees to say whether to come to work. Workers also may want to know where one another live, in case they need to physically find someone to tell him or her about a situation at work.

In the event of a pandemic, Chattin said, around 200 million people would be infected in the United States.

But, "the primary people affected would be children," she said.

Chattin explained that, depending on the pandemic's level of severity, schools may be closed. People could be isolated or quarantined and social gatherings may be halted, she said.

If a pandemic such as bird flu does occur, she said, each community would be expected to be self-sufficient because the entire country would be affected.

"We can't think that we will get rescued from another region," she said. "We think the impact would be simultaneous."

Chattin asked those in attendance if they had a meeting place for family members in case of a disaster. Do they have an out-of-area phone number where they could call to let others know they are OK?

If a major disaster does occur, Chattin said, typically, 25 percent of small businesses do not reopen following the event. They were usually unprepared for the disaster and did not have a plan in place.

She asked those in attendance if their businesses had considered how many employees would be needed to keep the business operational in case of a reduction in employees, whether employees could work from home or if they could stagger shifts.

She also asked how businesses are working to reduce the spread of infections. Do they have hand-washing stations? Signs that encourage hand-washing after using the restrooms or before eating?

"We all need to be more mindful of washing our hands before eating or touching our eyes, nose or mouth," Chattin said.

She also reminded everyone that the standard for covering one's mouth while sneezing or coughing has been changed. You should no longer cover your mouth with a hand, but rather sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow.

She also stressed the importance of getting an annual flu shot. While it does not prevent one from catching the bird flu virus, for example, Chattin said it would help in preventing someone from catching the regular flu - and, in the case of a pandemic, it could also help prevent someone from getting a secondary illness.

When asked how to get others interested in preparing for such situations, Wernberg mentioned the recent Interstate 35W bridge collapse, past school shootings, and Britain's current problem with foot and mouth disease.

"Things happen all the time," she said.