Emergency Preparedness HR Policies for Utilities

emergency preparedness HR

When you think about emergency planning, the role of human resources (HR) may not be the first thing that comes to mind.  After all, why think about emergency preparedness HR policies when there is no distinct HR section in the classic Incident Command System organization.  Without an HR representative on the restoration team, we can run the risk of taking personnel policies for granted.  But beware: there may be troubles ahead if you do.
Generally speaking, HR’s role in emergency preparedness involves documenting employee-related policies and procedures, and communicating this information to all employees.  So what kind of policies and protocols should HR spearhead?

Emergency Preparedness HR Policies

HR can support emergency response documentation by maintaining and updating emergency role assignment information.  For example, do you have an emergency response role assignment database that includes employee contact information?  What about skill sets that might be leveraged for emergency second roles? If so, who maintains the database, and how often should it be updated?  When employees move from one department to another, do they retain their current emergency response role, or are they trained in a new role?

A detailed incident response notification protocol should let employees know when and how they’ll be informed of an emergency assignment, and what the expectations are once they’ve been assigned.  Include the current policy on off-hour availability for a declared incident; response expectations for both exempt and non-exempt employees; and steps to take should an employee refuse to report to his/her assignment.  If the weather forecast indicates that travel conditions may be difficult, will you expect them to report in advance of the storm?  If so, will you pay for them to stay in a hotel close to the office?  If any employees feel that traveling to work is unsafe, will they be paid to stay home or will you allow them to take a vacation day?  Will you send someone with a four-wheel drive vehicle to pick people up?

During Incident Policies

A key emergency preparedness HR policy is to spearhead family assistance protocols.  Include a contact number for employees’ families to call should they need assistance while the employee is working the restoration effort, as well as details around how these calls will be answered (i.e., IVR, live reps, etc.  And include specifics on the type of support that can be offered to families, as well as who internally is responsible for managing the family assistance team.

Don’t forget that sometimes emotions can run high.  Stress, fear, anxiety, exhaustion are all common feelings that your responders may experience. Limiting these will increase their effectiveness during these operations.  Do they have a way of communicating with their families if they are affected by an outage?  Are they aware of their work hour limits?  Are they working within their normal teams or are they going to be assigned to a new crew?  Where will they be sleeping when off shift?  Making sure that creature comforts are met to the best of your ability will ensure your employees will respond with the best of theirs.

You need a policy on extraordinary pay during emergency events.  Do you have a policy in your plan regarding supplemental pay for exempt employees working extraordinary hours (including measures to ensure consistency across the entire organization)?  There’s nothing worse than having word get around that one department paid a bonus to their team for working long hours, while others were told there was no extra compensation.  There is no right or wrong answer here, just be consistent.

HR should provide a vacation cancellation policy.  For example, if you require assigned employees to cancel vacations, what’s the reimbursement policy, and can there be any exceptions to cancelling?  Does the vacation cancellation policy vary depending on the position assigned during an event or the size of the event? (Remember the fallout when the General Manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light went on vacation during the 2013 Christmas ice storm that disrupted service to nearly 40,000 customers?)

Business travel can also cause problems.  If a storm is coming, does that mean that a business trip to an out-of-state technical conference should be cancelled in case the traveling employee’s emergency assignment is activated?  What if the storm happens while the employee is already at the conference; is he/she required to come back?  Again, there is no right or wrong answer – the main point is simply to be consistent in how these issues are addressed.

Finally, consider the Code of Conduct employees are required to follow while working the restoration effort.  Think about having a policy describing the consequences for employees that restore service to their own homes outside the restoration protocol.  A final critical emergency preparedness HR policy is one forbidding employees from accepting monetary gifts from customers looking for preferential treatment, as well as the steps to take in the event an employee breaks this policy.

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