The weather radio beeps loudly, demanding your attention. Tornado sirens blare. TV meteorologists advise you to seek shelter. You rush to safety and hope for the best.
It was a common scene across the Bluegrass State a week and a half ago. For small businesses, everything you worked so hard for can be gone in 15 seconds.
Are you prepared for what can happen in the aftermath of a disaster? Probably not. An Ad Council survey suggests 62 percent of small businesses do not have an emergency plan.
Even if your physical operations are not directly affected by a disaster, your employees might be. How do you communicate with them or your customers?
It's never too late to develop a disaster plan for your company. The main goals of any such plan should be to keep your employees and customers safe, maintain customer service with minimal disruption, and protect your physical assets.
Having a business continuity plan is a must. Companies must drill down to their core services and know what they do well in times of crisis, said Ike Pigott, a communications professional based in Birmingham, Ala., who has done disaster-response work.
Know your capabilities and what you can and can't do before a disaster strikes, and be sure to communicate that with staff and customers. This will help you meet the needs of customers during an emotional time.
You can take some quick steps now to protect your business for the future.
Regularly back up your data: You can use a Web-based file hosting service such as Dropbox or Carbonite. Also, secure important paper files in waterproof and fireproof containers in a protected area. These documents should include building plans, insurance policies, employee contact and identification information, bank account records, supplier and shipping contact lists, and computer backups. A second set of those important documents should be stored off-site.
Communicate with staff and customers: Make sure you have various ways to get in touch with staff and customers because communications channels might be disrupted. One way can be to set up an out-of-area number that staff may call to say they're OK. For example, it could be your Aunt Jean who lives on the East Coast.
Work all channels of communication: Phone service might be down, but SMS service might not. There are a few free group text message services such as GroupMe and Google Voice that allow you to send bulk messages.
Keeping your Web site updated is important, too. But remember that people aren't necessarily going to go there during an emergency, Pigott said. They're going to turn to sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where their friends and family are likely to be accessible. So keep your Facebook page and Twitter feed active by sharing information.
That's what the Hardee's restaurant chain does, said Jenna Petroff, public relations and social manager who works with franchises in Kentucky.
During the 2011 tornado outbreak in Joplin, Mo., and again recently in Kentucky, the chain used Twitter and Facebook to confirm its staff members were OK.
In Joplin, two of the three Hardee's were heavily damaged. After confirmation that staff members were not injured, Petroff tweeted the good news using the hashtag #joplin and then began using Hardee's following on Twitter to help raise money for relief funds.
Make customers aware of your plan: You should let customers know that if "x" happens, then "y" and "z" will happen. For example, if schools are closed, then the business also will be closed.
For more resources, visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site dedicated to business preparedness at Ready.gov/business. Also, think about bringing in a professional to assist you if you feel overwhelmed making preparations.
A weather disaster doesn't have to wipe out your business. It is key to be proactive and have systems in place before a disaster. It won't stop Mother Nature from knocking your business down, but having a plan in place gets you back on your feet more quickly.