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The Role of Human Resources in a Natural Disaster

As civic employees work tirelessly to coordinate relief efforts, their human resource teams care for them.

Credit Shutterstock/Miami2you/Kilmer Media/Shawn Hill/Pe3k
Shutterstock/Miami2you/Kilmer Media/Shawn Hill/Pe3k
In the days and weeks that followed Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Harvey, Americans across the nation sat transfixed, waiting for news updates from the impacted communities. Within the affected communities, civic employees became modern-day heroes as they worked tirelessly to coordinate relief efforts, communicate safety information, and help citizens begin the long, arduous process of recovery. They committed themselves, nearly 24/7 to rebuilding the communities they loved. As they cared for their citizens, their human resource teams cared for them.

Human resource managers serving local governments must prepare for the unpredictable and ensure they have a plan in place to care for employees before, during, and after a natural disaster.

The Role of Human Resources in Disaster Planning and Preparation

Natural disasters result in wide-spread community impact. Not only would a hurricane, tornado, or wildfire cause the damage or destruction of public property, it could prohibit some staff from being physically able to travel to fulfill their work duties, while it could require other employees to work countless overtime hours to help with recovery efforts.

Such staffing issues are a significant part of the reason why municipal human resource teams play such an important role natural disaster planning. Responsive staff management plans are necessary to ensure sustainable civic operations before, during, and after a crisis. To create an operational sustainability plan for your community follow the steps outlined below.

  • Determine Your Risks. Identify the types of natural disasters that may impact your community (e.g., floods, hurricanes, extreme heat or cold, blizzards, tornadoes, flash floods/tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires). Refer to this interactive map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to determine your community’s risk of tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) also maintains a database of natural hazard maps.
  • Assess Personnel Needs. Determine the number of personnel you would need to assist during and after an event occurs. Include around-the-clock shifts and every impacted role and department, such as information technology (IT), public works including road crews and utility workers, fire, police, search and rescue, and emergency dispatch.
  • Consider Staffing Contingencies. Be sure to account for contingencies for staff unable to travel into the area during or immediately after the event. If this occurs, have a plan in place to reassign other available personnel to assist with different roles or duties. Plan to ensure proper cross-training is given to these designated staffers annually.
  • Include Volunteer Efforts. Talk to your public safety office about creating a volunteer-based community emergency response team (CERT), if one does not already exist in your municipality. CERT volunteers are educated about possible natural disasters and given preparedness and response training so that they can be useful during and after an event to assist with essential first response services.
  • Ensure a Platform Exists for Internal Communications. If an event is ongoing, or municipal operations have been disrupted due to property damage, it may not be possible to merely call key personnel into a conference room and discuss response efforts. Make sure you have a notification and collaboration solution in place to hold immediate, urgent conference calls or virtual meetings with key staff to review and execute response initiatives.
  • Identify a Control Center Location. During and after a natural disaster, key personnel will need a safe, central location to collaborate, plan response efforts, communicate to citizens and the media, and manage recovery efforts. Work with your public safety and IT offices to designate a building or room that will serve as an emergency control center and make sure all key staff will have the building and equipment access needed if an event occurs.
  • Identify Worksite Alternatives. For every office building and worksite location in your community, identify an alternate worksite in the event the primary site is damaged, destroyed, and rendered inoperable. Make sure potentially impacted employees know where they should report to if their primary worksite is damaged, and how to obtain information and updates about worksite closures.
  • Offer Employee Assistance. Identify opportunities, policies, and budget to offer employee assistance for those who suffer property damage or loss, are injured in a disaster-related event, or—worst of all—suffer the loss of a loved one.
  • Train Employees on Disaster Social Media Policies. During a natural disaster, when all eyes are on staff and citizens, and members of the media will be searching for official updates. Help employees to understand that should not be publishing any information deemed as internal only, or any information that has not been confirmed (such as damage estimates, death tolls, or road closures).
  • Get Buy-In. Have your sustainability operations plan reviewed by administrative leaders, elected officials, and members of your municipal risk management team to obtain buy-in.
  • Identify Plan Enforcers. Designate a human resource safety officer who will be responsible for ensuring plan compliance in the event of a disaster. Large cities and counties may want to designate several officers and outline specific regions for each to oversee.
  • Share Your Plan and Train Personnel Accordingly. Make sure the managers of every department review the plan and receive proper training. All staff in key departments, such as public works, police, fire and rescue, and communications should also receive training. Ensure all new staff receive disaster sustainability training at the time of hire and hold ongoing annual refresher training to keep critical information top-of-mind.
  • Understand Federal Reporting Requirements. Municipal human resource managers are required to complete specific federal reporting requirements in the event of a natural disaster. Understand the reporting requirements that may impact your community related to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), COBRA, possible state laws that affect paycheck distribution, I-9 reporting, and notifications associated with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN).
  • Review and Adjust. If a natural disaster event does occur in your community, take time after the recovery efforts have ended to evaluate your sustainability plan. Determine what went well, and what areas could be improved. Use this information to adjust and optimize the plan for future use.

Having a natural disaster operations sustainability plan means hoping never to have to use it. However, municipalities cannot merely hope to be spared mother nature’s wrath. The communities that prepare the most thoroughly for a disaster are those best able to recover, rebuild, and resume community life after the event has ended.

About Jonathan Wiersma

As the General Manager for CivicHR, Jonathan understands the challenges that human resource professionals in local government face when looking to recruit, identify, and hire the best talent in their community, for their community. Jonathan’s primary focus at CivicPlus is on following the trends in the local government human resource landscape, and leading product enhancements for CivicHR to ensure the solution evolves as the needs of local government evolve. Jonathan holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration. He has over fifteen years of experience in software research and development, client service, product implementations, sales, and marketing.


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