Category: Business Contingency Planning

Get out of a contract because of coronavirus

Signed contract
You signed in good faith, but . . .

If your business being shut-down isn’t bad enough, you are being sued because you didn’t fulfill a contract! Is there any way you can get out of a contract by blaming the virus?

I’ve been reading and hearing about the problems businesses are having because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Naturally, I thought first about business insurance. We reviewed the major types in our Emergency Preparedness for Small Business Book. But this article isn’t about insurance!)

As I read specifically about contracts, though, an expression kept coming up: “Act of God.” I thought I understood what that meant, until I started seeing references in many of the same articles to another term, “Force Majeure.” That expression was only vaguely familiar to me so I did some research, and here’s what I discovered.

I’m sharing what I’ve found here because if you are in business, you need to know both these terms right now.

You may need a way to get out of a contract you can’t fulfill.

A contract seems so simple. You make a promise in exchange for money. By law and common sense, even if the job turns out to be a lot harder than you thought, that contract is enforceable.

But what if something unanticipated and extraordinary makes it not just hard, but impossible to fulfill your promise? Something like COVID-19?

How can you get out of a contract?

It all depends on how your contract was written. (Any surprise there?)

Many contracts do contain a particular clause that may make it possible for you to wiggle out from under, or at least to delay fulfilling on your promise. This is the Force Majeure clause.

The Force Majeure clause is the key.

Force Majeure translates roughly to “greater force” or “superior force” and refers to natural and unavoidable catastrophes that are so great that they keep participants from fulfilling their obligations – and thus make it possible for them to escape from the contract.

Sometimes the Force Majeure clause is called the “Act of God” clause, but the two terms are not synonymous.

Force Majeure is the broader term dealing with the event that interrupts the normal course of business. Act of God is a subset of Force Majeure, and usually refers more narrowly to natural disasters that are unexpected and couldn’t be avoided or prevented.

Before you assume your Force Majeure clause allows you to get out without penalty, however . . .

Review the wording of your contract very carefully, and contact your attorney right away. Here are some of the things to watch out for (by no means a complete list!)

  • Does your contract even have a Force Majeure clause?
  • If so, how is Force Majeure defined? Is it restricted to events due solely to natural causes (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) or does it include human events such as acts of war, strikes, pandemics, terrorism, etc.?
  • Which of these events could release you from liability? Which events do not allow you to get out?
  • Are there any time requirements – for example, do you have to declare by a certain date or time that you intend to use the Force Majeure clause to get out of the contract?
  • Do you have to prove that you have made efforts to fulfill on the contract? What is needed for that proof?

Of course, there’s more to be considered . . .

The more I dug into Force Majeure, the more exceptions and or permutations I found. I found references to contracts being broken or delayed because of fraud, impossibility of performance, misrepresentation, frustration of purpose, and because they were against public policy.

These words may seem familiar or understandable, but they all have years of law behind them (and laws from other countries) so they don’t necessarily mean what you might think at first read.

You will need an attorney to help you sort your way through this! Your attorney is probably getting lots of practice in coping with business contracts as you read this, so you better set up an appointment now!!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. Now I have many business books in my own library, and several are on the basics of business law. If you are looking for more on contracts or how to get out of a contract, I’d recommend this one first. Unlike most books on the topic, it is written for people signing contracts, not drafting them! (Click on the image to go to Amazon – where we are Associates — to check prices.)

And if you need something a bit more rigorous, but still readable, check out this one from the Dummies series. I have always found them reliable.

One of the reasons I always have legal resources at the ready is because the more you know before you go in to meet with the attorney, the less you’ll have to pay for time getting educated . . .!

April – Month of Action!

Working Securely At Home

Working securely at home curing coronavirus outbreak, shelter-in-place, security risks
Can you identify the security threat?

Have you been working at home as a result of the coronavirus and orders to shelter in place?  Do you have employees working at home? Are you confident you and employees are working securely at home and your company’s secrets are as safe as they need to be?

It’s probably time to take another look at security in your home office.

Of course, you may not have time or resources to set up the perfect work-at-home situation. But the survival of your company may depend on its at-home workforce. You can’t afford a simple mistake that could bring the whole enterprise tumbling down.

The following checklist is meant to be a quick way for you to confirm the strengths of your at-home set-up, and identify any weaknesses that need to be corrected. If you’re the boss, you can apply some of these ideas to your at-home troops. If you’re an employee, you can certainly ask about them

So, here we go.

Good habits for managing remote teams

Do you have a schedule for regularly communicating with your team?

Everyone in your company is experiencing uncertainly and even fear. Not being in regular touch will make that worse.  A daily virtual meeting can keep people in the loop and on track. (Most of the people we talk to are using Zoom. They like seeing the faces of friends and having the advantage of “reading” their emotions.)

Make some of your communications “staff meetings” that deal with business. Other meetings can be “virtual coffee breaks” for informal sharing.

Whether via virtual meetings or email blasts, are you getting frequent factual updates?

These could be about the status of the business, what’s happening politically that will impact your industry, or even health updates for your co-workers, city or state. Of course, your updates need to be as accurate as you can make them. When you find useful, reliable resources, encourage ALL employees to rely on those quality resources so everyone gets the same info. For example, if people are worried that they may be coming down with the virus, they can head for help to

Are employees working securely at home? Are you monitoring security while employees are working from home?

The security you have worked so hard to set up at the office may be impossible to recreate by employees at home. But the risks of user error, data breaches, scams, or cyber-crime remain just as high – or even higher. Working securely at home requires a new security mindset that applies to a whole range of issues.   Which of these suggestions can you and your co-workers implement?

Are computers safe at home?

Are take-home company computers limited to company business only? (That little kid in the image above is just waiting for a chance to press a few keys the minute you step away to go to the bathroom!)

Have you created strong NEW passwords to protect your at-home devices that are used for work? Consider using multi-factor authentication. For sure, don’t let the computer itself store your new business passwords.

Do all at-home devices have anti-virus and malware protection? Here’s an earlier Advisory with more about cyber-crime and passwords.

Are all operating systems and programs updated?

Does your home network use WPA2 or WPA3 for security? Have default usernames or logins been changed?

Are you communicating effectively and professionally with colleagues and clients?

Can you make calls and check voicemails from home?

If you can’t forward calls, have you left an “out of office” message?

Are you avoiding social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Whatsapp) for business communications?

Are you protecting confidential paperwork? If you don’t have a locking office, make sure confidential work-related papers aren’t spread around the room for visitors to see.

When you participate on a video call with a client or supplier, do you make sure all confidential papers are covered or in a drawer so they are not visible? What about your white board (that happens to have your recent income figures clearly identified)? Do you remind your team before meetings?

On every kind of call, do you protect yourself from listening ears – including Alexa, Siri and Google Home?  

Actually, if you expect to be on the phone a lot, with calls and/or meetings, you may want to consider business headphones with a microphone. A good set dampens the noise of the kids for both you and for the people you are listening to. You can get sets that fit over or in the ears, are wired or operate wirelessly.

Below is a good example of a mid-range headset model . It’s from Jabra, a company with a long history in headsets and electronics. If you think a headset would be useful, click the link to go to Amazon where you will find other models ranging from as low as $30 to well over $300. (As you probably know, we are Amazon Associates.)

Keeping the data secure at home

Do you have the appropriate levels of security set for the company files you and employees need to access, whether on the company server or in the cloud?

Can you support the tech needs of your employees working at home? Do they know who and at what point to call for help? Is that person set up to use remote diagnostic and repair software?

Are you reminding your employees about pfishing and other scams? They may be more vulnerable during this emergency, where everyone is so eager to hear and respond to “good news.” By the way, the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, CISA, wants to hear about security incidents. Report pfishing and malware at

Is everybody backing up their work? (How often? Where? How do you know?)

If you are used to running a business from home, most of these reminders will be just that — reminders. For employees who haven’t done serious work from home, we hope this will become a to-do list, as appropriate.

Be safe. Stay healthy.

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P. S. Working at home may actually become part of the way you run your business in the future. Keep that in mind as you go through this checklist! Let us know what you would add to it for the perfect office in home.

Preparedness Takes a Village

Group of people ready to take action
Everybody ready to step up???

The more I learn about preparedness, the more I see that genuine security for your family depends on far more than you alone can do. In other words, preparedness takes a village, with every member taking a role.

So as we head into 2020, let’s take a look at some of the options you have to improve your situation and the situation of the people around you, too.

You must take the initiative to keep your family safe.

Here at Emergency Plan Guide we try not to discriminate between young or old, single or married, urban or rural preppers. However, we do aim our outreach to the kinds of friends who are looking for “practical, simple and sensible every-day actions” they can take to become better prepared. (By and large, these friends don’t plan to depend solely on the government or other “authorities.”)

In September, FEMA’s 2018 annual National Household Survey came out. I was interested to see how our preparedness objectives fit in with what the survey reports!

According to the survey (5,000 people across the country), 57% of us have taken at least 3 or more “preparedness actions.”

FEMA identifies six basic preparedness actions.

Below is a list of what FEMA counts as “actions.” How many of these actions did you take in 2019?

  1. Gather and store 3-days’ worth of emergency supplies
  2. Talk with others about getting prepared
  3. Attend a local meeting
  4. Seek information on preparedness
  5. Participate in a drill
  6. Make an emergency plan

Did you take all six actions in 2019? If not, what can you add to your “to-do” list for 2020?

What keeps us from doing all six?

If you read more deeply into the results of FEMA’s study, you’ll discover that of the people interviewed, 97% admitted that at least one disaster could impact where they live – but only 47% of them feel confident that they can prepare effectively.

47%! That’s nearly half! What stands in their way? The study quotes the same “reasons” we’ve heard for years: (1) perceived hassle (2) anticipated cost (3) don’t know exactly what to do.

(When I look at this list, I see “reasons” we give for not doing a lot of things! For example, I can easily apply all three of those reasons to buying or selling a car, changing dentists, applying for a new bank account, etc.!)

Getting more people involved depends on what’s going on in your neighborhood.

If you look back at that list of preparedness actions, you’ll see that half of them can be accomplished by working on your own – but the other half require participation by others! Yup, that the “preparedness takes a village” aspect!

And here’s where Emergency Plan Guide stands out from most other resources. We’ve written community preparedness into every one of the books in our Disaster Survival Series.

You want your neighbor to be ready to help.

After all, that neighbor is likely to be YOUR first responder in an emergency!

The FEMA list cites the value of “talking with others,” “attending local meetings” and “participating in a drill.” Somebody has to manage these – they don’t just happen by themselves.

CERT training, offered by local emergency management office, usually becomes the basis for neighborhood readiness. But the next step requires local community leaders to step up. Our Emergency Preparedness Meeting Ideas book is aimed at those leaders, helping them in planning and putting on educational neighborhood meetings. (This is our best-selling book, by the way!)

Emergency Preparedness Meeting Ideas
More about this best seller . . .

What role can you take in 2020 to support your local neighborhood?

If your job disappears, all your personal work may be for naught.

The past several years we have seen whole communities decimated and destroyed by flood, storm, and fire. Even if people escape with their lives, when businesses are destroyed a lot more “goes up in smoke:”

  • Employees no long have a source of income.
  • Business owners lose their investments.
  • Suppliers and advisers lose a client.
  • Customers lose a valued product or service.
  • The community loses vitality – and tax revenue.

Our book Emergency Preparedness for Small Business helps business owners make plans — for protecting their business in the face of a disaster and getting their business back up and running if the disaster actually hits.

Business preparedness depends on a whole team.

The concept of teamwork really stands out when it comes to business continuity planning. In the book we spend time on the professional team of advisers that a business typically has in place – but may not have called upon to help it build a plan!

These advisers include:

  • Skilled and experienced employees (and not necessarily just upper management)
  • Business attorney (who can assess contractual liabilities associated with disaster and, in particular, liability associated with not having a plan)
  • Business accountant (helps identify value of equipment, business activities, etc. and thus helps set priorities for protection and recovery)
  • Business banker (prepared to offer emergency funds, extend loans, etc.)
  • Business insurance agent (with added expertise in Business Interruption insurance, Extra and/or Contingent Expense coverage or riders)

If you are a business owner or a member of management where you work, how would you assess your business continuity plan? Have professional business advisers been involved in putting it together? Is it time for a review of your plan?

What’s your plan of action for preparedness in 2020?

In the midst of everything else that is happening, can you commit to improving the resilience of the “village” around you?

This Advisory lays out several broad suggestions. I hope you’ll take up at least one of them!

In the meanwhile, we’ll keep examining options in more detail here at Emergency Plan Guide. We would very much appreciate your help in that – in the form of questions, comments, and suggestions. Here’s to a very busy 2020!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. I would also welcome your offer to write a guest advisory! Do you have something you’d like to share? Let me know and we’ll talk about the best way to get your good info out to “our” village here!

Emergency Alerts and Communications


You’ve heard that jarring emergency alert sound, coming on the TV or on your cell phone, right? Something like BRRRRRRRKKKKKKK. BRRRRRRRKKKKKKK. Usually, the message that follows is: “This is a test.” Or it could be an AMBER alert about a kidnapped child.

Ever stop to think about where these emergency alerts are actually coming from? These days there could be several sources. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Emergency Alerts at the federal level

We’ll start with a simplified description of the federal system. If you want more detail, head to the Federal Communications Commission site. From there, you can go deeper and ever deeper into the subject.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) was first set up in 1997.

Its purpose was to allow the President to speak to the American public during a national emergency.  The program is run jointly by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Some 77 radio stations across the country, equipped with special back-up capability, send out EAS messages. EAS messages can also go out over TV, cable TV, wireless cable, satellite and video.

In 2012 a second level of emergency messaging went live.

The Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA) can send messages to specific locations (“geo-targeting”) and devices using – you got it – wireless technology. If your cellphone is WEA enabled, you may get an emergency alert – but the person standing next to you, whose phone is NOT enabled, may not receive it!

Action item: Find out if your cellphone is WEA-capable. Not all wireless service providers offer WEA on all their devices.

And be sure that in addition to your cellphone you have at least one (preferably more) working emergency radios! For a thorough discussion of the different kinds and the features they offer, please take a look at Emergency Plan Guide’s own Emergency Radio Reviews. (You’ll see photos of some of the radios we own!)

OK, those are basics for widespread, official alert messages. If you hear one, you’ll probably pay attention. Fortunately, they don’t come too often.

Emergency Communications at the local level

A second source of emergency alerts is likely to be your town or city. Every day, for example, communities experience fires, security breaches, power outages, accidents, and severe weather. These localized emergencies may impact many people – residents, transportation services, health care facilities, businesses, etc. 

Cities, towns and counties are required to have emergency management organizations and to develop emergency management plans for the continuity of the government and the safety of residents. And many cities set up programs to help their citizens be more prepared in emergencies – programs like CERT.

Examples of some local emergency alert systems

So how do cities let people know that there’s a local emergency? It all depends . . . For example, here are some of the city/county systems I came across in preparing this article:

  • Santa Clara County (CA) sends text messages to residents via AlertSCC.
  • San Francisco has AlertSF as well as a public loudspeaker system.
  • The City of Pittsfield (MA) has installed CodeRED that can send out phone, text and email messages to thousands of its residents, in minutes.

Here in our city we have a similar, county-wide alert system. One of the challenges – unlike EAS or WEA, which go out automatically — people have to actively sign up to get on the local alert lists in order to be notified! (Sadly, since our system is relatively new, only a small percentage of people have gotten around to signing up.)

Action Item: Find out if your city or county has an emergency alert system. How comprehensive is it? (phone, email, computer, etc.) Do you have to sign up to get the emergency messages?

Emergency Communications where you work

A third source of emergency alerts could be your work. It it experiences an explosion, a power outage, a crash, data breach, an active shooter incident, etc., how will employees find out what’s happening? How will they know what to do? What about families, customers, neighboring businesses, and the media?

Not having a plan for managing crisis communications is a recipe for disaster. (At the very least, legal disaster! The most likely charge if someone is damaged?  Negligence.)

What to look for in a business crisis communications system

So what should your crisis communications plan include? Start with this basic list to see what you might need:

  1. Your messages need to get out without delay – even if the disaster happens at night or on the weekend. This means having a number of pre-written messages “on the shelf” that crisis team members can readily access. In particular, any messages that might reach the media should be crafted in advance.
  2. Messages need to be able to reach everyone, one way or another because one way may not work! This means email, phone, and text at a minimum. Messages need to be short and simple (no acronyms) and, if necessary, in more than one language.
  3. People need to be able to respond – that they are safe, that they have evacuated, that someone is injured at a given location, etc.
  4. Can you target your messages to just one location, one level of management, etc.? Just as you want to reach everyone who is in the danger zone, you don’t want to necessarily upset people miles away.
  5. Can you make the system work at the critical time? Is it easy to learn and easy to operate? (Many companies use their crisis communications systems for more everyday purposes, just to be sure more people know how it functions.)

Action item: So how well does your current business emergency communications system stack up?

If you think some improvements might be in order, follow up with these two resources.

  • Capterra reviews all kinds of business software. Here is a link to their 2019 list of emergency notification software programs. Fifty-one different programs/services are reviewed!  (One of the services on this list is used by my own community association. One-way messages only, to my home phone.) You’ll get a good idea of what’s available by reviewing even a few.
  • I went further and took a free, half-hour personal “guided tour” of one of the systems. Preparis was recently purchased by Agility Recovery, a company I’ve admired for years. If you are truly in the market for emergency communications system, I recommend you contact Agility and ask for a demonstration. Watching how the system works, and being able to ask questions, will give you a much better understanding of just how it might work for you and your company.

I encourage you to give your company the tools it needs to protect employees, property and reputation by having a stronger emergency communications plan.

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. You know that sound that you hear as part of an AMBER alert? It’s called a “header burst” and is followed by an “attention tone.” These sounds were selected because they are so jarring and unpleasant! Oh, and by the way, advertisers or entertainers or anyone who misuses the tone can be sanctioned and fined.  (I read about one fine of $1 million!)

Workbooks Make It Easier to Get Prepared For Emergencies


A year ago . . .

About a year ago, Joe and I came out with four books aimed at helping people and their communities get better prepared for emergencies. (Have you published a book? If so, you know it’s a proud moment!)

Neighborhood Disaster Survival Guide Series
I trust you’ve seen these images before!

Now, people do buy our books. (Thank you!) But here’s what we hear from too many of them . . .

“We love reading all this good information about getting prepared. But we just can’t find time to make consistent progress!”

Hmm. Joe and I are nothing if not committed! So over this past summer we worked like crazy and as a result . . .

As of this week . . .

We have added four NEW books to the shelf that are meant to make it easier to get prepared! Check out THIS image!

 Neighborhood Disaster Survival Guide Series - WORKBOOKS
(These are full-sized, 8 ½ x 11 volumes.)

Yes, to get the value, you’ll still have to read. But here’s the difference. These are WORKBOOKS!

Workbooks make it easier to get prepared.

The content of each workbook follows the flow of its companion book. The workbook actually often refers to its companion book for reminders, lists, background info, etc.

But in contrast to the books, most of the material in the workbook is presented in the form of simple questions with space for you to fill in YOUR answers!  We encourage you to doodle, draw arrows and exclamation points! Here are some examples of questions taken from the Apartment Communities version.

Questions from Emergency Preparedness for Apartment Communities - THE WORKBOOK

Who will benefit most from the workbooks?

If you find it challenging to get started, or to keep making progress, or if your group is stuck – one of the book/workbook combos may be exactly what you need to break the log-jam!

Five reasons to work your way through the workbook questions and fill in answers.

  1. Visible progress. You can see progress! (Along with using colored pens or highlighters, I recommend using a bookmark, or folding down the pages as you complete them!)
  2. No stress. There are no right answers so you won’t be intimidated.
  3. Decisions get made. As you answer questions step by step, you are actually making important decisions based on your circumstances, your family, your budget, etc.
  4. Lasting impact. By writing your answers, you are engaging not only your brain but your muscles. (We believe strongly that physically writing things down helps memory and understanding in a way that typing on a computer simply can’t. Joe often works late into the night over a yellow pad.)
  5. Compare and confirm. You can share written answers with others in your family or on your team – or compare answers if they are completing the workbook, too. They will be there as a physical record and as proof of your commitment to the process.

What’s the next step?

We invite you to consider a “package deal” (book + companion workbook) for your own household, for neighbors, your emergency response team, your church — any group of people who are looking for help to become better prepared.  

You may want to get the small business book and workbook for your own company, for your employer, for the other businesses in your association.

As you can imagine, there’s more detail on the books at Amazon. Here are the links to each of the books and workbooks. (They haven’t been up at Amazon long enough to be reliably connected with their partners!)

Be in touch!

If you have questions, drop me a line. If you purchase the books, please be kind enough to leave a review at Amazon. And,

If you are working with a community, let us know what challenges you are working on and we’ll try to address them here at Emergency Plan Guide – or create a special checklist or resource document just for you!

As I said above, Joe and I are nothing if not committed to the mission and to our emergency preparedness “tribe!”

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. We have one more book that is a sort of hybrid book/workbook. And it’s the most popular one of all! Here’s a link where you can see the entire collection!

Summertime – Not the time to be lazy with security at work

Man checking in at front desk

I’ve written in the past about good procedures to have in place for the front entrance of your place of business. Security at work suggestions include a controlled entrance, good visibility, good lighting, etc.

Because it’s summer, though, it’s so easy to relax your procedures. People arrive in casual clothing. Family members from out of town come to visit. Your business may host picnics or other summer activities attracting many different people.

Why can’t we relax our security at work during the summer?

Consider some of the underlying reasons for focusing on security all the time.

  • First, to avoid distraction or unnecessary accidents.
  • Second, to discourage theft, sabotage, or violence.
  • Third, to uphold legal requirements for security and confidentiality.

Let’s take a look at just one aspect of security at work: VISITORS.

Do you have an appropriate procedure to welcome, identify and track visitors? Are you following your procedure during these casual summer months? How would you answer these questions about visitors at your workplace?

  1. Are all your visitors required to sign in and get a visitor badge? Does this include employee family members, employees coming in during off hours, former employees, and temporary employees? What about contractors and suppliers? Do visitors sign out, too?
  2. Should visitors be accompanied in your building? By whom?
  3. Should certain areas of your workplace labeled as “off limits” for safety, confidentiality, etc.?
  4. What should employees do if they see un-badged or unaccompanied visitors? Strangers in the “off limits” areas?
  5. In an emergency, who is responsible for tracking the whereabouts of visitors. Can you be sure they all make it out safely?

Is this all we have to consider when it comes to visitors?

This isn’t everything you’d want to look at in building a true visitor management program. (Here’s an article that lists the top 5 visitor management programs for 2019. You may find them far too complicated for your needs — but they will open your eyes to the possibilities!)

Regardless, you can bring up the issue in the coffee room or at a staff meeting. Use these questions to get the conversation going. See what suggestions or push-back you get from co-workers.

Whatever the results, you will all become more aware – and some important changes might be made.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy — and therefore it is the perfect time to revisit security at work!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

Day 30 of Summer Vacation: A time for some shorter and lighter Advisories as a welcome change-of-pace!

Continuing Saga of the Planned Power Outage


This isn’t a picture of me but the photo by iamSherise on Unsplash gives you an idea of how I felt yesterday . . .

After all the furor yesterday, at the end of day I received this notice from the Public Works department at the city about the now infamous planned power outage. (The notice came after I had spoken to two different city offices, leaving messages but never actually talking to this person who ultimately responded.)

Read carefully. The key word is in the second line . . .

Hello Virginia,

I contacted the utility regarding the planned outage and they have informed me there was an error in the notifications. The duration of the outage will not be 24 hours. Instead there will be two 30 minute outages affecting residential customers and one 8 hour outage overnight that will impact only commercial customers. They will be sending corrective notifications to customers regarding the planned outage.

Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

Can you believe it?!

Perhaps you can. In our experience, utility companies do not always operate efficiently. (Joe and I have worked with utility companies a lot, on the East Coast and on the West Coast!)

In this case, I had contacted 3 different utility representatives earlier in the day and each of them had a different answer to my questions. I hung up totally dissatisfied. That’s when I switched gears and aimed my calls at the city to “raise the level of awareness” a bit more!

Later, the city Public Works person told me, “We have a direct connection with the utility because we work with them all the time on infrastructure projects. So I just called my contact there and she got it straightened out.”

Moral of story: “You gotta know who to call!”

Second moral: “If you don’t know who to call, keep calling until you get to the right person!”

Thank you for giving me the chance to unload about this power outage “error.” It truly created upset and even panic among some of our neighbors. Now we have the job of reassuring everyone while reminding them that an extended outage could still happen and they need to take steps now to be ready!

Please consider your own level of preparedness for an outage. According to my trusted sources, a power outage — local or extended, planned or unplanned — is the most common emergency that businesses face — and that means all of us.

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

Day 19 of Summer Vacation: A time for some shorter and lighter Advisories as a welcome change-of-pace!

Does Business Hold the Key to Community-wide Preparedness?


Anyone who is active in the world of emergency preparedness recognizes these simple truths:

  • Disasters, whether natural or man-made, are becoming more frequent and more serious. And more deadly.
  • People with a personal survival plan have a better chance of surviving a disaster than those with no plan. Same for businesses and for communities with active neighborhood emergency response groups.
  • Getting individual Americans to make a plan is an uphill battle!

How Can We Help More People and More Communities Be Better Prepared for Emergencies?

The government plays a role in preparedness.

FEMA was formed in 1979 with good intentions. When disaster awareness took front stage after 9-11-2001, FEMA’s efforts ratcheted up.

Actually, even before that, FEMA had seen the efforts of Los Angeles Fire Department to train civilians in earthquake preparedness. The LAFD program was adopted in 1993 as a national program and called Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

CERT training is now available in all 50 states. Thousands of citizens have been trained and now serve as valuable interim backup to official First Responders. Training is at minimal cost and in some cases is free.

For the past decade or so, shifting from its traditional top-down approach, FEMA has looked at improving resilience at the community level. But here we are today, having gone through Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria and Michael. We’ve experienced hundreds of mass shootings, thousands of acres of historical flooding, massive wild fires, and millions of data breaches — and the level of preparedness in American families hovers unchanged at around 50%!

Why don’t individual Americans prepare for emergencies?

After 30 years of working with our individual neighbors all across the country, we have found it boils down to this: the comforts of urban living have overtaken the urgency to develop survival skills.

And there’s a secondary reason, too. While people understand that working together will give them an advantage in an emergency, our increasingly diverse and ever-more-mobile society makes working together harder. 

So while people will always agree that they SHOULD be preparing, and that working together will give them an advantage, most lack the necessary leadership skills or they just aren’t willing to make the effort.

CERT Volunteers do their best to engage neighbors – but . . .

CERT training attracts a special breed of people, people who recognize risk and are eager to take action to reduce it for their families. When they have completed the CERT training they have a unique understanding of how their community and in particular how their First Responders work in a disaster. They also have skills to help save lives on the ground until those First Responders arrive.

But CERT training does not include a module on “community organizing.” Without the aptitude for sales or sales training — and lacking backing and financial support – individual CERT volunteers who want to build neighborhood groups around themselves inevitably run into a wall.

Businesses have preparedness advantages that individuals don’t.

Are you familiar with the statistics for business survival after a disaster?

FEMA reports that up to 40% of businesses never reopen after a disaster, and those that stay closed for more than 5 days are unlikely to last more than a year.

With a solid emergency preparedness or Business Contingency Plan, chances improve dramatically for a business to make it through or re-open more quickly.

But small businesses, like individual families, still lag behind in planning. They may not recognize the powerful advantages they already have for effective preparedness:

  1. A business is already an existing group. Its members are typically in close physical contact. They know each other. They are used to working together as a team to meet a common objective.
  2. Businesses have a built-in network of resources to call upon for help in planning for emergency. Those resources include other neighboring businesses, partners like suppliers, city governments, utilities, and professional advisers like accountants, attorneys, insurance agents, etc.  And CERT training is available to business usually at no cost.
  3. Every business has a duty to protect lives, and everyone in the business has an incentive to protect their livelihood!  Even if the doors of the business are closed, the business has to make sure regulatory and legal commitments are met. A proper plan can assure this continuity, keep employees paid and deflect legal assaults.
  4. The owner or employer sets the tone and can require and ensure that the business develop a preparedness culture.
  5. Where the business’s plan includes well-thought-out emergency communications with employee families, it reduces employee anxiety and gives employees an incentive to stay or at least return to work during the critical minutes and hours immediately following an event.
  6. And the prepared business actually adds a bonus for the whole community. Employees will take knowledge and training home and spread it within their local neighborhood.

Businesses start ahead of the game. All they have to do is get into it! 

Logically businesses might first turn to their existing team of professional advisers for help in putting together a plan. These are the accountants, attorneys, bankers and insurance brokers who currently advise them on their business issues. Each has valuable expertise.

But these professionals may not see themselves having a role in emergency preparedness. So without that guidance, how can businesses turn the corner on preparedness?

Businesses can use CERT to jumpstart preparedness training at their location.  

Once the business has been exposed to CERT, building a more comprehensive Business Contingency Plan will be a natural. And once employees have been exposed to CERT, they will automatically take new awareness and skills home with them right into their neighborhoods!

Spreading CERT from the business into the community at large isn’t a guaranteed or proven answer to more community resilience. But, given the uneven track record that many communities experience in trying to organize neighborhoods, this would certainly seem to be an approach worth testing.

Let us know what you think!

Here at we’ve been committed for years to preparedness at the community level. To help businesses get started, we have published a simple guide to preparedness for small businesses. We are making it available to professional business advisers, too, along with reference materials and more resources from that particular service perspective.

Take an Insurance Inventory

How to file insurance claim after fire? You need an insurance inventory.
“How will we ever remember what we lost?”

Take an Insurance Inventory Before You Need It

After last week’s Advisory about spring cleaning, with the comments on updating insurance, I felt obliged to take action and create an inventory of our stuff, once and for all. First, I looked for some advice about how to begin. Here’s what I have discovered so far about inventories.

What goes into an inventory?

I started by looking at several paper inventory sheets that are meant to be filled out by hand or, in some cases, by computer. Here are examples.

Example of insurance inventory sheets.

What layout do I prefer?

What you see immediately is that there is no one format that works for every home or every business.

Determine what information to include.

What I did find, though, is that if you are doing an insurance inventory you want to include at least these items, in whatever format you prefer:

  • Date of the inventory
  • Item type
  • Item description (manufacturer, brand)
  • Where item is located now
  • Cost when originally purchased

If you are doing a business insurance inventory, you will want to include this information also:

  • Make/model
  • Serial number
  • Warranty
  • Current value

Organize by category or location?

Some people lump all similar items together in categories– for example, they’ll do a list of electronics, one for books, one for appliances, one for musical instruments, etc.

Others organize the inventory by location – everything in the living room, office, kitchen, etc.

However you do it, don’t forget things you own that are not inside the home! For example, do you have items in a bank safety deposit box? A storage unit? Digital items stored only in the cloud? What about patio furniture, tools in the garage, etc.?

Just this far in, and the thought of writing it all down seems overwhelming.

So I looked into other options.

Video-tape an insurance inventory!

This makes sense. Go through the house or office, starting outside the entrance and going through every room, carefully filming everything and commenting on the tape as you go.

Depending on how much stuff you have, you may need or want to supplement video with still shots.

Here’s some thinking I did for two sample categories in my house.

Office inventory

In our office, I will start by panning around to show furniture, certificates on the wall, book cases, file cabinets and the supplies closet.

Then I’ll stop the filming to prepare the desks and supply cabinet for the REAL inventory – opening drawers and boxes so supplies and files are visible, and then taping the whole area again.

Our network setup (routers, modem, controller) is worth another whole series of shots with commentary.  Same with phones, computers, monitors and printers.

Special collections

You can guess that we have a lot of emergency supplies and equipment.  Some of this will show up in the office, but most is stored on shelves in the laundry room and two different closets!  I’ll have to go through these to film emergency radios, HAM radios, emergency lanterns, batteries and more batteries. We also have survival kits, CERT helmets and miscellaneous camping gear. Lots of stuff for the insurance inventory!

Note about collections. This I already knew! If you have valuable collections (art, jewelry, collectibles) you may want to get them appraised and add a rider to your policy to be sure they are adequately covered. Most regular homeowner policies have a surprisingly low limit on specialty items. There’s also a limit on coverage for home business equipment that may not be enough for you.

You get the idea!

In an emergency, if the house were flooded, tumbled by an earthquake or simply trashed by intruders, just these two categories alone – office and emergency — would be almost impossible for us to reconstruct without help from pictures!

Moreover, without some picture proof, we would be unable to put together a decent and fair insurance claim. And guess what – You may be asked for a list of what is missing within the first 24 hours of the incident!

Can I make an inventory using my phone?

If you are like me, you turn to your cellphone for a lot these days.  Can you use your phone to create the insurance inventory video?

Take photos.

There are apps (iOS, Android or both) designed specifically for inventories using photos. Take a picture, then label (tag) and put into a folder and file.  You can add just about as much info as you want; the app may even calculate the total value of the items in the inventory! Some apps allow you to transfer your inventory data to a spreadsheet or pdf. And at least one app creates QR labels so you can stick them to moving boxes!

As you can imagine, many of the inventory apps are free; the ones with the most options have a monthly or annual fee.

Make a video.

Since I am not an accomplished thumb typist, I looked at option 2 –narrating a video of my stuff.

Depending on the phone, the video will be limited by . . .

  • how much total storage the device has
  • how much data is already on the phone (programs, photos, etc.)
  • what resolution video you’re shooting.  (Higher resolution takes up more space.)

Use a camcorder.

Personally, if it comes to taking pictures, I think I would opt for using a camcorder. I have an old camcorder and it fits a lot better in my hand. I can see just what I am filming. It also has a better microphone.

It used to be that camcorders were considered “expensive.” Take a look at these models – way less than half as much as a new smart phone!  (Of course you can spend thousands of dollars on high-quality cameras for film making. We’re talking here about easy-to-use models perfect for everyday – and for inventories.)

The first one is very small, very compact, fitting right into your pocket. It offers zoom and wide angle. You can choose resolution: higher resolution uses up your battery faster. You can connect the camcorder to the TV and show your videos, or send to your computer. Click on the image or the link to get to Amazon for full details and prices. Obligatory disclaimer — we are Amazon Associates.

Sony – HDRCX405 HD Video Recording Handycam Camcorder (black)

Right in the middle of my research for this Sony camcorder at Amazon, I also got an ad from a big box store for the exact same item. There was a price difference of $40!  (Amazon was the better deal; well under $200.) It pays to shop!

Here’s a second example, with more zoom power, a two-channel microphone and what I would call movie effects.  Probably more fun for family and sports videos! Again, under $200 at Amazon.

Panasonic Full HD Camcorder HC-V180K, 50X Optical Zoom, 1/5.8-Inch BSI Sensor, Touch Enabled 2.7-Inch LCD Display (Black)

Final point. Protect your inventory.

Your inventory is useless if it is washed away in the flood, burned up in the fire, or stolen along with the collectibles. Be sure to keep extra copies off premises (with a family member?), in a fireproof safe and/or saved online in the cloud.

Now I have to admit that I haven’t actually STARTED on my inventory yet. But now I know what the next steps will be. How far along on an inventory are you???

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

Power Outage in the Workplace


Updated March, 2019

Power Outage in the Workplace

A Common Emergency Than Can Turn Into a Disaster

It’s Friday morning, you arrive at work and are greeted with . . .

“Guess what! Power is out!”

As people pull in and start to crowd around the front door, questions ring out. . .

  • “Who’s in charge?”
  • “Don’t we have a generator somewhere?”
  • “What about next door, is their power out, too?”
  • “Has the outage been reported?”
  • “How long will it last?”
  • “Does the boss know?”
  • “Shouldn’t we turn stuff off so it doesn’t all go on when the power comes back?”
  • “What was on?”
  • “What about the deliveries we’re expecting?”
  • “I have appointments today. Should I cancel them? Can we meet somewhere else?”
  • “Who’s in charge?”

Power outages are happening more often and lasting longer.

Inside Energy reported that in 2014 in the United States, the five-year annual average number of outages doubled every five years from 2000 to 2014.

Three years later, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the length of the average power outage nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017 – to almost 8 hours. Then came this addition: “. . .and the total duration of interruptions caused by major events was longer.”

Why the increase? Most notable: more and stronger hurricanes, massive winter storms, raging wildfires.  And lurking behind it all, the vulnerability of the grid itself.

We’ll be watching for statistics from 2018, and later for 2019, which has started out as bad or worse than ever before.

Note: Are you familiar with Allianz, the global insurance company? Their 2019 Allianz Risk Barometer now adds cyber incidents to the list of top business interruption risks.

A power outage in the workplace is a lot more problematical than one at home.

You may be able to get along at home because you have immediate access to extra food, clothing, etc. But to respond to a power outage in the workplace YOU NEED TO HAVE PREPARED IN ADVANCE!

Here are three simple questions you can use to start the preparedness conversation.

  1. What equipment will go off? Will it be damaged or dangerous if it shuts off suddenly?
  2. Who needs to know about the power outage? How quickly do they need to know?
  3. How will we communicate with employees, customers, suppliers, regulators and the news media when the power is out!? Who will do the talking?

Resources for planning for workplace outages.

Fortunately, there are some super resources out there to help out in this regard. One of the best is: Agility Recovery. Started 30 years ago, Agility is now serving businesses of all sizes in 44 states. While you may or may not be a candidate for their services, be aware that their website’s library has excellent videos and checklists for every business. The case histories of specific industries (banks, healthcare) are particularly interesting.

Agility has been on my radar for a couple of years now. I’ve attended their training webinars online and talked to several of the sales people, with very useful results.

Four suggestions for taking action to prepare for power outages in the workplace.

1- If the questions in this Advisory have hit any nerve at all, head over to Agility and grab Agility’s free Power and Generator Checklist. You’ll see a complete list of things to do BEFORE an outage, with specific questions to ask your electrician. The checklist adds safety recommendations as well as steps to increase security during an outage.

2- If you’re concerned about having some basic equipment available to help you through the outage — like lighting, power for computers, or a generator — check out our Emergency Plan Advisory: Fire related power outage

3- If it’s time your company considered the bigger picture, I recommend our own book: Emergency Preparedness for Small Business

It too has checklists – many of them! They start at the very beginning to help you get over procrastinating, identify ALL the possible risks (not just power outage), and get you started on pulling together a real business continuity plan step by step. (We describe Joe’s secret weapon that he discovered and developed when he was in military intelligence.)

4- In any case, consider assigning someone from your company to attend the upcoming webinar being offered by Agility on May 15, 2019, 12 – 1 p.m. MT. These webinars last just one hour, and are crammed with interesting info. May’s topic:  Ask the Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery experts. You can reserve your spot here: 

(In case you’re wondering if I have any particular affiliation with Agility Recovery, I don’t. As you know, I am constantly researching resources, and I simply feel very comfortable recommending them.)

With 70% of businesses anticipated to lose power sometime in the next 12 months, this is an important topic for all of us at Emergency Plan Guide. I urge you to take steps now to protect yourself and to keep an outage from becoming a disaster.,

Before you leave, please read the P.S. for just a few more examples of what happens when power goes out at work!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. We all have a good idea of what happens when the power goes out. At least, what we notice immediately. BOOM!  No lights! Meeting rooms, offices, halls, closets, bathrooms, stairwells – all dark except for emergency lighting.

But look a little further, and you may discover . . . .

  • Automatic gates and doors are frozen open, so you have no security.
  • Communications are down.  No landlines, no internet access, and the heightened potential for increased cyber vulnerability.
  • Bathrooms don’t work if you have power assisted toilets or water faucets.
  • UPS systems everywhere are pinging, pinging, pinging. (How long will they last?)
  • There’s no power to the kitchen = no coffee, no microwave, no refrigerator. (Medicines may be compromised, food starts spoiling immediately.)
  • Time clocks and timers may shut off.  (How to track employee time, industrial processes, scheduled communications?)
  • A/C and air handlers go off, same with pumps in the basement and any electricity-driven medical devices (Environment may become uncomfortable, even unsafe.)
  • Your out-of-gas vehicles can’t refill their gas tanks or recharge their batteries.
  • The only tools or pieces of equipment that work are those with battery backup or that run with rechargeable batteries. (What about dental drills? Auto repair tools? Restaurant stoves and freezers?)

What will happen in YOUR workplace when the power goes out? You need to know, so you can be prepared. Otherwise, this outage could truly become a disaster for the business.

What To Do When You Discover a Gas Line Leak — Part Three of a Series


(Part Three of a series aimed at neighborhood or workplace teams)

Gas main shut-off

Where and how?

“OMG, I smell gas!”

In the first two segments of this special article we talked about where gas lines run, why they leak and how to recognize a leak. Now, let’s talk about what to do if you actually discover a gas line leak!

What to do depends in large part where you find the leak.

When you discover a gas line leak in the home

Don’t forget Rule #1. If you detect a STRONG smell of gas in your home, leave the house immediately. Do not do not switch on or switch off lights or appliances. Do not make a telephone call from within the house.  Do not start the car.  When you are at a safe distance, now call 911 and/or your utility to report the smell.    

What’s most likely, though, is that you will get a weak smell of gas. In that case, remain calm. Think.

You may be able to solve this problem yourself and safely.

Possibility #1. Pilot light

Nearly every home has a couple of pilot lights – usually in the gas furnace or water heater, gas stove or oven. The pilot light is really a “starter” flame. When you turn on the appliance, the pilot light ignites the gas coming out of the main burner.

In older appliances, the pilot light burns 24/7. In newer ones, it is turned on when needed by an electronic igniter. (You may hear a clicking sound as it activates.) Fortunately, when the pilot light goes out, it triggers an automatic shutoff valve to the gas supply. So you won’t usually smell a gas leak from this source.

However, in older systems, your pilot light could go out from something as simple as a draft or spill. If the system doesn’t have an automatic shut-off valve you would smell leaking gas.

In this case, you can attempt to relight the pilot light yourself by following instructions on the appliance. They are likely to be something like this:

  1. Turn off the appliance and wait at least 5 minutes for any leaked gas to dissipate.
  2. Be sure you know where the pilot flame is located. (It may not be near the on/off knob.)
  3. Turn the knob from OFF to PILOT.
  4. Hold down the reset button (could be the knob itself) and light the pilot light with a long match.
  5. Keep holding the reset button until the flame is burning steadily, maybe a minute.
  6. Turn the knob to ON.

If the light doesn’t stay lit, try again. If it still doesn’t work after a couple of tries, quit and call for professional help.

Tip: You can’t light an electronic pilot system using a match! If the electronic system isn’t working, be sure the appliance is turned off and call for professional help.

Action item: Check all your home appliances now, before there is any leak!  See where you have pilot lights.  Are they ever-burning or do they have electronic ignition?

OK, so much for pilot lights. You’ve checked, they are working, and you still smell gas.

Possibility #2.  Appliance connection

Most often, if it’s not the pilot light, when you discover a gas leak in your home it will be from an appliance with poorly designed, faulty or damaged connection.

  • Sniff to see if you can detect where the rotten egg smell of leaking gas is coming from.
  • Coat a questionable pipe or connection with soapy water. Bubbles will appear where the leak is located.
  • Look at the color of the flame on the appliance. Is it blue (good) or orange (not so good, could suggest a leak)?
  • Check the outside of the appliance for soot or scorch marks.
  • Do you have excessive condensation on the inside of your windows?

In these cases, if you identify the culprit appliance, get assistance from a qualified expert – probably your gas company. You may be advised to shut off the gas to the appliance, or even to the whole house. In either case that expert will have to re-set the system once the leak is repaired.

Action item: Do any of your appliances have shut-off valves? Look for them when you’re looking for pilot lights. Usually the shut-off is a handle that turns 90 degrees.

When you discover a gas line leak in a larger pipe or larger system

If you discover a gas leak in a larger pipeline or facility, move to a safe distance and notify your gas system operator or property owner and/or 911. (Review signs of a major pipeline leak in Part 2 of this series.)

Do not attempt to find the exact location of the leak, to shut off the pipeline or to fight any gas main fire. Dealing with a large pipeline leak is the business of professionals.

However, in a BIG disaster . . .

You may be called upon to shut down an entire system to protect against fire or the spread of fire.

The more you know about where gas lines run and the shut-offs on those lines, the more options you will have.

1-Building or home shut-off. In an emergency, shutting off the gas to the building likely means shutting it off at the meter. To do this, you’ll need to know where the meter is. You will also need a wrench and an understanding of the ON vs. the OFF position of the valve. Here’s a sample of what a typical home shut-off valve looks like. The shut-off consists of a rectangular piece sticking out of a round valve.

Gas meter turn-off

And here’s an illustration showing the ON (open) and OFF (closed) positions of the valve.

Open or closed?

You can turn a shut-off valve using a regular crescent wrench. Or you can use a non-rusting tool specially designed for the purpose, like the one shown on the ground in the photo or the one below. (Click the image or the link to go to Amazon, where you can buy this tool — less than $15. As always, full disclosure: We are Amazon Associates and may get a commission.)  In either case, you must store the tool near the valve. And you may need to stand on the wrench to get the valve to turn!

SurvivalKitsOnline 515100 On-Duty Emergency Gas and Water Shutoff 4-in-1 Tool for Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Fires, Floods, Disasters and Emergencies

Action item: Find your home and building shut-offs and place a wrench at each location. Figure out a way to attach the wrench nearby to keep it from disappearing.  Suggestion: Consider a bulk purchase of shut-off wrenches for members of your neighborhood group. It’s an easy and valuable way to recognize their volunteer efforts. And it means they will be better prepared to help neighbors in an emergency.

2-Automatic valves. Some valves, such as seismic gas shut-off valves, operate automatically. They aren’t required, and many professionals don’t trust them – but you may have them on your system. Action item: Find out if any automatic valves are installed on gas lines leading to your home or in your place of work.

3-Gas main. When it comes to shutting off gas at a larger line, the shut-off may be a larger version of the wrench turn off, or it may operate with a large wheel and gear. It may be locked. Often, these valves are painted red. Action item for your group: locate the pipes and the shut-offs leading to your building or community. Larger line shut-offs may be marked with a sign like the yellow one at the start of this article. Or they may not be marked!

What procedures are in place for shutting off the gas?

As we have emphasized, shutting off the gas is a major event to be taken only with due deliberation. It will require professional assistance to get the gas turned back on again. It may take days for all gas service to be restored.

You or your group may have to make decisions about shutting off the gas. In our case, members of our community actually took official training in how to shut off the main valve. All residents have been shown how to shut off the gas to their own homes.

Questions you need to have answers to BEFORE something happens

  • Who is authorized to shut off the gas?
  • Which valves are they authorized to shut off?
  • What training and tools do these authorized people need? Do they have what they need?
  • How likely is it that authorized and trained people will be on hand in an emergency, when immediate action may be required?

With this info, you will be far more prepared in case of an emergency.

Getting even more answers

Over the years we have found that “the authorities” are loathe to share gas line information. However, as we have built up our own skills and knowledge, we have better luck at getting more. Above all, we have a better understanding of just what our role should/could be in an emergency.

One of our most effective guest speakers was a representative from the Fire Department who talked about the various gas lines in our neighborhood. (We have the usual mains and feeder lines PLUS a high-octane aviation fuel line running beside our community.) Action item: Get a speaker on natural gas safety from your own fire department or local utility. Prepare some questions in advance and send them to the speaker.

Your invitation will cause that fire official to update his or her knowledge about your neighborhood or building, as well as remind your neighbors and/or co-workers to be more alert. (In our case, the fire department speaker was NOT up to speed on gas mains that had recently been installed near us as part of a construction project!)


We started this 3-part series with the question, “Are you sitting on a gas leak right now?” The question still is pertinent. We hope that by now you have a better idea of how to respond!

And one last disclaimer. We are not professionally trained experts on gas main construction, maintenance or procedures. We offer this special series for informational purposes only. Any time you consider messing with your gas supply or gas lines, we recommend that you do it with the assistance or under the supervision of professionals. Gas is inherently dangerous so treat it with all due caution.

But as emergency responders, you can’t ignore it!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

Here are the three parts of this special series. Please read all three parts.

Part One: Are you sitting on top of a leaking gas line?

Part Two: Detecting a gas line leak

Part Three: What to do when you discover a gas line leak


Detecting a Gas Line Leak — Part Two of a Series


(Part Two of a series aimed at neighborhood or workplace teams)

“Do you smell gas?”

“Could this be leaking? What is it carrying, anyway?”

If you are concerned about the potential for a gas line leak, you probably want to start by finding the location of gas lines in your neighborhood. You will discover that this takes some time and effort!

Still, using the online resources and your local utility, as described in Part One of this series, you can usually get a good start.

You will note that there are three main types of gas lines:

  1. Transmission lines — Long-distance lines, typically more than 10” in diameter (can be as big as 42”), move large amounts of gas under high pressure (200 – 1,200 psi).
  2. Distribution or main lines –- These lines operate at intermediate pressure (up to 200 psi) and are 2″ to 24″ in diameter.
  3. Feeder or service lines – These are the lines that actually connect to your home. They are not so easy to track once they disappear underground. Typically they are less than 2” in diameter, and they carry odorized gas at low pressures, below 6 psi.

For a local emergency response group, your feeder or service lines are probably what you’ll be looking for. But we have to repeat, utility companies are concerned about vandalism and sabotage or even terrorism, so they don’t publicize the location of these lines. Think persistence and relationships!  We were actually able to get the construction drawings showing location and sizes of the gas lines for our community.

Action item: create a map of your neighborhood, showing the different gas lines as you identify them. If possible, note the location of shut-off valves.

Should we assume we’ll experience a local gas line leak?


The gas distribution system is made up of thousands of miles of pipelines, and they operate safely most of the time. Still, all of the time, the system is under one or another source of stress.

Stresses include:

  • Built-in weaknesses from poor connections, bad welds or incorrectly installed equipment
  • Corrosion or wear from aging
  • Weather-related shifts (winter freeze-thaw cycles) Think of the extreme weather events we’ve experienced in the past couple of years!
  • Seismic shifts or earthquakes

And, of course, there are construction accidents where a hand shovel or large piece of equipment punctures a line.

Just to give you an idea, I cut this out of the news yesterday.  There are notices like this every day!

Gas line leaks reported

. . . from the news yesterday

It is the responsibility of the system operators to monitor and maintain the pipelines under their jurisdiction.

In some states legislation has been introduced to require the utilities and/or operators to report on leaks and on their progress in fixing them. As you can expect, the utilities oppose this legislation, saying that the number of leaks is exaggerated and that fixing more leaks faster would be too expensive. Find out about legislation in your own state!

Can we prevent a gas line leak in any of these pipelines?


But you can do your community a service by finding out what sort of gas line maintenance takes place.

And, you may be able to prevent a disaster by detecting and reporting a leak!

How can we tell if there’s a leak?

1-Use your nose in and around the house!

The most common indication of a leak is SMELL. An odorizer called Mercaptan is added to feeder lines for the very purpose of making a leak noticeable.

What does Mercaptan smell like? Most people compare it to “rotten eggs.” In any case, it is distinctive and obvious.

If you just aren’t sure what natural gas smells like, spend a few dollars for some “scratch n’ sniff” samples! Makes a great addition to a meeting about gas leaks! Here’s a link to Amazon – 30 stickers like the one shown as the left, only $3.00 when I checked today!

Natural Gas Mercaptan Stickers

2- A gas sniffer will help pinpoint the leak.

If your environment may have more than one suspicious smell, or if you sense you might easily get used to a smell and stop noticing it, consider investing in a gas sniffer. This is a simple hand-held gadget that can identify a leak for sure. Some sniffers tell you what gas is leaking. They use a meter and/or an audio sound (“tic, tic”). As always, the more you pay for equipment, the more functions you get.

Our local emergency response groups own a couple of different ones. The “pen” model (less than $40) is used by one group to check around their emergency gas generator when they start it up.

The “tube” model (around $150) adjusts from broad to fine sensitivity in order to pinpoint the precise location and type of gas that is leaking. We have used this model with startling success, using it to identify a propane leak from a gas BBQ, among other leaks. (We also have a neighbor who insisted she smelled leaking gas. It turns out it was smoke from marijuana coming from a nearby shed. We didn’t pursue to see if its use was legal or illegal!)


Pen style

General Tools PNG2000A Natural Gas Detector Pen


Tube model

UEi Test Instruments CD100A Combustible Gas Leak Detector

Action item: If you suspect or are plagued with frequent leaks, you may want to add a gas sniffer or two to your collection of safety equipment. They are easy to operate and can add a degree of confidence to your suspicions. In a big emergency, a gas sniffer might make it easier to decide to shut off the gas entirely.

Be on the lookout for signs of leaks from larger pipelines.

You’re not likely to find yourself walking along the route of a larger underground pipeline, but a leak can show up anywhere. (We experienced a gas-line break right in front of our community. A back-hoe hit a line that according to the construction crew “wasn’t on the map.” )

Here are some ground-level signs you might notice:

  • An unexpected hissing, roaring sound
  • Dirt or dust blowing up from the ground
  • Water bubbling or spraying
  • A spot of dead or brown vegetation when it’s green everywhere else
  • Flames coming from the ground

As a reminder, the gas in these larger pipes may have no odorants added.

What should we do when we discover a leak?

When you do identify a leak, you need to act quickly and decisively. Your goal is to avoid a build-up of gas around a leak or a build-up from gas “migrating” to a nearby area (such as a basement) – creating conditions for an explosion.

Your first response should be to get safely away from the area (hundreds of feet away!) and then CALL 911 or the gas line operator to GET THE GAS SHUT OFF.

As you move away, warn other people about the danger, too, and encourage them to move to safety.

Above all, DO NOT CREATE A SPARK by flipping a light switch, lighting a cigarette, starting an engine, turning on a battery-operated light, etc.

Action item: Discuss with your group where a break might logically occur in your neighborhood. Identify some ordinary actions that someone might take that could start a gas fire. In our community, starting up the car to “get away from the danger” is likely to be the most dangerous action possible. The catalytic converters of cars in a traffic jam can reach 1,600 degrees – plenty hot enough to start a fire if there is the right mixture of gas!

Is that all we can do? Shouldn’t we turn off the gas?

Calling 911 from a safe distance is the first and most important step. Not creating a spark is the second.

Every member of your family and of your workforce should know and be able to follow this rule.

However, as an emergency response group, there is more you should know and consider when it comes to getting the gas shut off.

We will address some of these options in Part Three of this series.

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

Got any stories about gas line leaks or explosions? Feel free to share . . .! And don’t miss the first article in this series.



Are you sitting on top of a leaking gas line? Part One of a Series


(Part One of a series aimed at neighborhood or workplace teams)

An often-overlooked threat

Be safe from leaking gas line

Read before you toss as junk mail!

The word “disaster” usually makes people think about natural disasters like tornado, flood, or earthquake.  You’ve probably already talked in your group about how to prepare for these threats.

But unless we’re reminded by notices from our local utility we may never even think about the gas lines that run under or near our homes or places of business.

And if we take the time to learn even more, we will discover that any gas line could be a leaking gas line! Moreover, a big enough gas leak can be deadly.

Time for your group to be asking: Where are the gas lines around us?

Finding out where the gas lines run in your neighborhood will take some effort.

In the years that we’ve been studying our own community we have run up against resistance from a number of sources. As can be expected, cities and gas line operators are concerned about sabotage and/or terrorist activities. They protect the details of their systems from everyone, including residents.

Moreover, a leaking gas line may or may not be repaired even though it has been noted. As you can imagine,  a utility company really doesn’t want you looking over their shoulder when it comes to their maintenance policies!

Still, a good emergency response group wants to understand its community’s risks, and so the group perseveres . . .!

Three places to start your research.

1-The National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) is an online map provided by the Department of Transportation. As a member of the public you can search by your State and COUNTY to get an idea of where gas transmission and hazardous gas pipelines are located.

I say “get an idea” because the public viewer is good only to +/- 500 ft.  (If you are actually going to dig, then you need to contact your local pipeline operator – or call 811 – to find out exactly where the pipes are.)

Here’s the link to the map (“Public Map Viewer”):

2-Your local gas company

Here in California we have two of the largest public utilities in the country, and our local utility provides a map showing transmission and distribution lines. Once again, the authors of the map stress that the maps are accurate only to +/- 500 ft. Still, we can easily identify the “hazardous liquid” line running along the railroad tracks very near our home.

My research on other utility companies shows that there is no consistency. Many of the utility company websites simply refer readers to the National Pipeline Mapping System.

3-Your local pipeline operator

The pipeline operator is not necessarily the same as the utility.

Keep your eye open for pipeline signs. They are not required, nor are they necessarily placed in the same way every time. What they seem to have in common is the gold color.

The round warning sign will tell you who the pipeline operator is. (You’ll see a round sign on the brochure in the image above, too.) Write down the name and emergency phone number. You may be able to get further information about that particular pipeline and what it carries from the operator.

Kinder Morgan is the largest pipeline operator in the country. Its website says it transports nearly 40% of all piped natural gas, refined petroleum products, crude oil, carbon dioxide (CO2) and more. I found this map at their website. It shows just their biggest pipes. As you might expect, Kinder Morgan has a number of competitors.

Kinder/Morgan PipelinesThe point of all this is that with some digging (bad joke!) you can discover a lot about where pipelines are in your community and who is responsible for them.

How we got information about our own community.

This Advisory is meant to give you an idea of where to start. Different members of our neighborhood emergency response group took on different tasks in researching our gas pipelines.

  • I tracked down online maps like the ones shown in this Advisory.
  • One member hiked along the nearby railroad tracks and photographed a construction project. His photos show the size and exact location of gas lines.
  • One member went to city hall to get the original construction drawings for our community. These drawings show not only the location but also the size of the various pipes in the network, plus shut-off valves.
  • As a group we queried the management of our community regarding make-up and maintenance of our local system.
  • Our group invited the fire department, the police department and our local utility to special meetings on gas safety. (You will not be surprised to learn that they don’t always agree on where the lines are, what information to share or how to respond in an emergency!)

OK, so we now have an idea of where the pipelines are and what they are carrying.

And we found that gas is leaking from all these systems all the time!

With over 200,000 miles of pipelines, and many of them decades old, it’s to be expected that there will be leaks. In fact, distribution companies track something called “lost and unaccounted for” product.  One report has their measurements ranging from under 1% to over 4%!  (

What causes the leaks? Common causes are simple deterioration, overgrown and over-stressed systems, defective equipment, incorrect hookups, code violations, faulty manufacturing of tanks and/or appliances — and natural ground shifts due to floods, earthquakes, etc.

Most of the time gas that escapes isn’t even noticed (except by the atmosphere, of course, since methane – the main component of natural gas – is 30 times more potent as a heat trapping gas than CO2.)  But any time there’s a leaking gas line, there’s a potential for explosion or fire.

The key is to keep gas from building up until it reaches the level where it can explode — that is, to where it makes up between 5 and 15% of the atmosphere. A whiff of gas won’t explode.  A mix that is too rich won’t explode. There is a 10% window in which it can ignite.

Good to know!

In Part Two we’ll share what we have learned about finding leaks!

Click here to move right on to Part Two.

Virginia Nicols
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team



Better Business Security Over the Holidays


better business security

Closed and Shuttered for the Holidays

Thanksgiving is over;  Christmas shopping has started in earnest. And many of us are looking forward to some time off over the upcoming holidays.

Before dashing out and locking the door behind you, take a moment to consider the increased chance of criminal activity that takes place precisely during these next four to five weeks. (Increases are seen mostly in robbery – taking by force  —  and larceny – no force involved.) It’s worth a close look at better and better business security.

What should you as business owner* be doing to protect yourself and the company?

1-Review cyber security procedures with all employees.

It’s easy to get distracted – and attracted! – by online sales, personal schedules, party planning, etc. During this busy period, don’t get suckered into fraudulent requests for payment or funds transfer, pfishing emails, or using an unsecured hotspot (coffee shop!) for a quick business transaction. Don’t let your kid use the work computer you’ve brought home!

Cyber QuizHave a list of cyber security policies and go over it with everyone. (Your IT team should have prepared such a list. If not, here’s a basic business cyber security quiz we’ve put together, updated for 2018.)

2-Take another look at your physical surroundings with holiday security in mind.

Decorations — We go through these reminders every year for the residents who live in our community. They also work for better business security.

Put up safe decorations!  No live candles, period. Use outdoor–rated electrical wires for outdoor lighting. Don’t overload circuits. Keep cords out of high-traffic areas. Be sure holiday lights aren’t left burning overnight.

Locks and lighting – Holidays attract thieves. Be sure all your workplace security equipment is working: outdoor and emergency lights, locks and access control systems, panic buttons, surveillance cameras. Don’t forget to let your security company know your holiday schedule. And be sure to provide them with appropriate contact names and numbers (knowing that a lot of people will be out of town). (A lot of these surveillance items are being featured in special deals online this year. CLICK HERE for an Advisory that will help you figure out what you need so you can get the best prices. )

3-Keep people out of trouble.

We all tend to get excited during the holidays, and it’s easy to forget some of the basics. One prime example – letting strangers in or inviting friends into the building when they usually don’t belong there. As you lock up each night, check to be sure no one is lingering in restrooms, storage rooms, etc.

And if you’re hiring temporary employees during the holiday period, do criminal background checks on them before allowing them onto the team.

You may find it’s time to do a review of all aspects of security at the front door. Our Advisory about that topic is a popular one.

4-Review your policies for dealing with cash.

Lots of sales and lots of shopping mean people are carrying more cash than usual. Your business may be handling more end-of-year purchases than usual, whether cash or credit. Take steps to protect current business activity so you don’t come back to problems in January. Some suggestions for better business security involving cash:

  • Insist on careful credit card use.
  • Periodically remove extra cash from registers and put in a safe. (No safe? Consider installing one now. The Advisory about security at the front door mentions a couple of different model options.)
  • Don’t openly carry cash to the bank. And make deposits before it’s dark.
  • Check records for suspicious refunds, discounts, over rings, etc.
  • If you’re open longer hours than usual, be sure to keep back doors locked and alarmed. Keep parking lot lights on until after employees have left.

5-Protect the Company from a Holiday Party Disaster.

I suspect we’ve all heard the stories of companies being sued because at the holiday party, under the influence of alcohol, some employees act inappropriately, embarrassing photos get posted on Facebook, or a driver leaving the party under the influence is involved in an accident.

Every one of these incidents could result in a crushing lawsuit.

I attended a New Year’s party a couple of years ago that had some good ideas about better business security as it relates to employment law.

My friends (actually, my employer) hired a professional bar tender who poured the drinks and was prepared to stop pouring for people who had too much to drink. They closed the bar a good hour before the party was over and switched to serving coffee. When we came in the door, we were quizzed about designated drivers, and reminded that taxis would be available. And the party had some very important clients there, too, which kept the atmosphere more businesslike than it might have been otherwise. It was a great party that got repeated the next year!

After the holiday you deserve the chance to come back to work refreshed and ready for the new year. Good business security will help kick off 2019 that much more easily!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

* Occasionally I get an email from a reader saying something like, “I am not a business owner so I’m not interested in this topic.” Yes, some of these Advisories are addressed to business owners. But nearly all of them, just like this one, have implications for all the employees. If there’s a break-in, a theft, or a lawsuit at the place you work, it could easily become a disaster for the whole company, not just the owner! Please share these suggestions with your business’s owner if it makes sense.




A Tsunami of Threats


Too many threatsThe number of threats can be overwhelming.

In just the past 2 weeks we have been bombarded with stories of threats that turned into disasters and near disasters.  I’m sure you’ll remember these:

October 10, 2018Michael makes landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in the Florida panhandle. 50 people dead, billions in losses.

October 15, 2018 – 60,000 without power as PG&E shuts down lines over more wildfire fears.

October 24, 2018– Police intercepted suspected pipe bombs sent to high-profile Democrats, in what New York officials described as an act of terrorism.

October 29, 2018Eleven people were killed and six others were injured on Saturday when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

October 29, 2018 –Boeing jetliner crashes after take-off in Indonesia, all 189 aboard presumed lost.

This is just a short list. There were more. And throughout the country people suffered from local tragedies that didn’t make the national news.

How can we do a realistic job of preparing for so many threats?

Consider a systematic approach.

1-Start with a written list of threats.

In writing our Neighborhood Disaster Survival Series we found ourselves assembling multiple lists of potential threats. Ultimately we put together one list for homes and a different and considerably longer list for businesses.

You can build your own list. Get your team together in front of a BIG white board or easel (plenty of pages of paper) and brainstorm all the threats that you could possibly face. We have done this a number of times in our group, and we usually come up with 20-40 threats. (This is a great exercise to get people engaged. )

2-Narrow it down to threats that are realistic for you and your community.

Go back over your massive list (!) and start paring it down by removing threats that may be POSSIBLE but really aren’t PROBABLE.

Usually it’s simply a matter of replacing emotional response with common sense and some history.

For example, here’s a short list of threats with some thoughts that can get you started on the paring down process.

  • Every day challenges like power outages – the most frequent disaster in the U.S. (and increasing in frequency). In our local neighborhood we have to include water main breaks and gas line breaks and/or shut-offs, because of the age and quality of our infrastructure.
  • Potential localized dangers to your neighborhood, like transportation accidents – particularly high risk in industrial areas. If you live or work near an airport or beside train tracks, near chemical plants or certain industrial processing installations, threats of accident might be high; otherwise, you could probably take these threats off your list.
  • Natural disasters like floods or storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires – likely tied to your geographic location. These are always first on everybody’s list, and their likelihood is pretty easy to evaluate.
  • Mass shootings and workplace violence – nearly always the result of personal motives and/or mental illness issues. Very difficult to anticipate or prepare for, but you could be blamed for negligence if you ignore the possibility.
  • Attacks with weapons of mass destruction – suddenly appearing on our list after decades of being absent. We’re talking here about the threat of nuclear explosion or biological or chemical attacks. If you live and work in a major metropolitan area, particularly a government center, your risk would be higher.
  • Cyber attacks – almost 3.25 billion data records were compromised in the U.S. during the first half of 2018; new vulnerabilities are being exploited as data moves to the cloud. As you read this, attacks ranging from simple virus infections to ransom claims are happening to individuals and businesses around the world.
  • Lawsuits – becoming more frequent but one of the easiest threats to protect against.
  • Terrorism – Whether international or domestic, terrorism results in dramatic news coverage. It is still relatively rare in the U.S., but the number of incidents has been rising.

3-Begin preparing for these selected threats.

Pick the most likely threats and start with those. What can you do to find out about the threat in advance? Can you mitigate (lessen) the impact by making changes NOW? What processes, tools and people might you need to recover once the threat has materialized? What’s the plan for assembling these resources, training, etc.?

Warning: Don’t let your emotional reaction prejudice your efforts.

During the “threat analysis” exercise you may find that people’s individual biases and emotional reactions are likely to emerge. Their experiences may make it tough for them to think dispassionately about a given threat.

Moreover, research has shown that most people seem to find man-made disasters more frightening and rate them as more severe than natural disasters. Terrorism tops the list for emotional reaction, even though it is very low on the probability list.

Try not to let these biases get in the way of making good decisions as to which disasters you actually prepare for!

Reminder: Plan to repeat.

Analyzing threats is something you’ll want to do more than once, because circumstances change. Build a repeat look at threats into your plan!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. We were hit this week by another of those “local” disasters. It had to do with a Windows 10 update. Our entire network just threw up its hands and quit.  So while I would normally have offered you our list of over 80 threats to business, I just haven’t been able to make it happen!  If you can’t wait, please just buy a copy of Emergency Preparedness for Small Business and you’ll find that list in the Appendix, along with a multi-page Risk Analysis Worksheet that can help you set priorities!  I’ll report in later about how we recover!