Emergency Preparedness

Last January I nearly wrote a piece about emergency preparedness when some unexpected ice storms throughout the Mid-Atlantic and North-East states dipped more than a few orchestra administrations into some temporary chaos. Unfortunately, I never seemed to get around to it but Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated that it’s a subject you simply can’t ignore…

I was going to contact several randomly selected orchestras and ask if they had any set emergency plans they could put into motion for a variety of possible dilemmas. If so, when was the last time the plans were reviewed or updated? Even though we don’t have specific answers to examine, the questions alone more than set the tone for a discussion of the issues.

Through the years, I’ve noticed the vast majority of orchestra managers I discuss the subject with have thought about issues which may delay or cancel concerts but they don’t always consider larger misfortune. For example, what sort of contingency plans can administrators, staffers, and board members rely on if the offices burn down, the library is destroyed, the primary venue becomes unusable, or telephone and utility service is interrupted for weeks at a time?

Are computer records backed up and copies kept off site if the offices are damaged? Does the organization have alternative, perhaps even unorthodox, venues they can contact and establish performance arrangements on short notice?

Is there a way for managers to remain in communication with each other as well as with the musicians if they are scattered throughout a geographic area? How will patrons contact the administration or vice versa? Can an operations department regularly staffed by eight be run by three?

Creating contingency plans isn’t always an easy exercise; it takes some serious brainstorming and some sincere follow up in order to minimize the negative impact of a devastating situation. Like all risk planning exercises you have to evaluate the level of possibility. You can’t go spending 25% of your operational budget and time creating and reviewing contingency plans. Nevertheless, does every organization have at least some sort of basic catastrophe plan?

The size, scope, and location of an organization have considerable impact on how they will shape the answers to many of these questions. The solutions for an outfit the size of Boston Symphony will be quite different than somewhere such as the Buffalo Philharmonic not to mention the amount of planning related to emergency preparedness grows almost exponentially with the increase in the operational extent of an organization. Then you have to factor in the likelihood of catastrophic disasters, the Baltimore Symphony is at much less risk for being impacted by tornadoes than say any orchestra located in “Tornado Alley”.

Nevertheless, every orchestral organization out there needs to take some time to design contingency plans and create a regular system for reviewing those plans. If you’re starting from scratch, start at the top and work down. Create a hierarchical structure of emergency situations which deserve immediate attention and those which can be addressed afterward. Here’s a simple list to get you started, branch out from here and identify what’s unique to your area and start developing plans.

Potential emergencies impacting operations:

  • Failure of Computer Networks of Other IT systems
  • Cyber Attack/Hackers
  • Power Failure
  • Telecommunications Failure
  • Theft
  • Loss of Water or Sewage
  • Security System Loss
  • Blizzards
  • Ice storms
  • Heavy Snow
  • Severe Thunderstorms
  • Flooding
  • Hurricanes
  • Hail
  • Fog
  • Landslides
  • High Winds
  • Tornadoes
  • Earthquakes
  • Heat wave
  • Fires
  • Droughts
  • Epidemics
  • Hazardous Chemicals Spills
  • Civil Disturbances: riots and demonstrations
  • Strikes
  • War & Military Action (don’t forget that these things can easily disrupt tours)

Make sure that your organization doesn’t rely on only one or two individuals to retain detailed knowledge about any contingency plans. Make certain the musicians of the orchestra committee and the local Union office knows about contingency communication plans. Furthermore, don’t forget to contact peer organizations and see if you can utilize their infrastructure to help out until you get reestablished.

Finally, be creative. It doesn’t take much to establish some fast, efficient forms of communication which don’t rely on cellular telephones. For example, this latest disaster in the Gulf Coast Region has witnessed a wonderful use of internet based technology to help connect members of the organization scattered through the United States and Canada. Five years ago such a system wouldn’t have been as reliable or readily available, so it just goes to show how valuable it is to regularly update plans.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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