Crisis management is a business skill and simple fact of life for most of us. Minor crises—from supplier failures to staffing shortfalls to sudden resignations—occur daily, and are dealt with by every manager.
Still, it is only fairly recently that department heads have been asked to maintain formal contingency plans and documents "on the shelf" at many institutions. While such plans have often existed for the organization as a whole, it is now becoming increasingly common to require departments like foodservice to have their own plans in place. Many times, their development and annual update is a formal performance objective for the director.
That is one of many reasons the Society for Foodservice Management (SFM) made "Business Continuity Planning" the theme for its annual Critical Issues Conference in April. There, a variety of speakers and panels offered advice on emergency response, preparedness and planning.
Among the presentations was one by Jim Kerr, director of emergency management and business continuity for New York University. Kerr focused his remarks on the kinds of responses that would be necessary in the case of a pandemic, such as the one that could occur if avian flu evolves into a form easily communicable among humans.
Because any such epidemic immediately means dramatically reduced staffing levels even as most organizations would have to maintain "business as usual," it is a contingency of particular concern to many onsite operators. Other presentations discussed risk analysis, emergency plan development and "Lessons Learned" from real life foodservice case studies.
While much of the attention to the subject is the result of our experiences with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and similar events, it's important to remember that the chance of a regional disaster on that scale is still low for most of us. At the same time, the chance of a significant local crisis at any given time is much higher.
For example, in the course of my visits to readers in the last few years, I found myself at a major East Coast hospital on the day an employee relationship-gone-bad turned into a double murder on the first floor. Then, at a major city school district out west, when my interview with the director was interrupted after the school system received a bomb threat from a neo-Nazi activist. And I was at a B&I account during the August 2003 power outage that blacked out much of the Northeast U.S..
In each case, I watched as FM readers responded: directing staff, implementing emergency procedures, coping with the unknown. Coolness under pressure is the mark of a great manager in such situations, and the individuals in question measured up very well.
In terms of advance planning, flexibility is key. The very nature of most emergencies is that they are unexpected, unpredictable and, usually, un-definable in advance. Contingency arrangements for a flood or an extended power outage are not the same as those for a bomb threat. But there are common denominators that are always called for: up-to-date lists of contact numbers; previously identified coordination points and people; emergency communications systems; clearly specified lines of emergency authority.
SFM and foodservice consultant Donna Boss have done our entire industry a great favor by developing the Business Continuity Resource Guide, a manual and "toolkit" provided to attendees of the SFM conference. Several hundred pages long, it is clearly arranged, filled with useful forms and advice, and organized into more than two dozen sections. It is a great resource for anyone charged with developing a departmental contingency plan. You can purchase copies of it directly from the association. Details on the SFM Website: www.sfm-online.org.
Here are some of the additional resources recommended by SFM's speakers:
Additional information is available from two other business publications of our company:
Occupational Hazards at www.occupationalhazards.com 
Homeland Response at www.homelandresponse.org 
Finally, FM has published a number of articles over the past several years that deal with emergency preparedness and disaster recovery efforts. You can find them on our own website, www.foodmanagement.com, under Articles-->Topic Search-->Contingency Planning.