Small Companies: Big Security Challenge

Dec 15, 2010

When considering protection of key infrastructure, big companies come easily to mind. The energy grid, telecommunications networks, and the big banks are all a part of Canada’s Critical Infrastructure ­Protection (CIP) strategy. The fact is, however, that smaller companies can contribute enormously to the ­necessary resiliency of this very same CIP strategy.

The business base of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SME) needs to be considered part of the mosaic of effective CIP programming across Canada. Consider the numbers. Statistics Canada reports that 97.9% of Canadian businesses have less than 100 employees. This number is larger when we consider family and sole proprietor businesses and the construction industry. The total number of these businesses in Canada is over 2 million and, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), they generate 43% of Canada’s private sector GDP.

The small/medium enterprise is the true lifeblood of many of our cities and towns. Many of these are even vital ­elements of their community’s critical infrastructure. Recent surveys of these ­businesses revealed that few are prepared for long interruptions and have little in the way of resources to do so. Emergency responders must focus on ­critical tasks in an ­emergency. They deal with immediate life and safety issues and cannot be distracted by the long term survivability of these ­businesses.

If these businesses are subjected to catastrophic losses, precipitated by any of the multi-hazard threats facing us all, they may never rebuild or may relocate away from the community. In a recent Angus Reid survey, 41% of the businesses surveyed had previously experienced a significant disruption to their operations: 80% were impacted for five or more days and 46% were affected for more than 30 days. Despite previous experiences with disruptions, only 20% of all businesses agreed that ensuring continuity was a priority, and a further 60% recognized the need but it was further down their priority list.

In May 2009 the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters surveyed their members. The result was that “87% of the companies participating in the survey indicate that their businesses do not have a continuity plan in place to deal with an emergency situation like a pandemic, while 90% are not sure what steps to take to safe guard their operations, including their supply chain.” This is a significant deficiency in our national resiliency. Overcoming this deficiency is critical if we truly want a disaster resilient Canada.

To shore up these capabilities, SMEs must be given the Emergency Management and Business Continuity tools they need to prepare and mitigate their own risks. These businesses stated that their major hurdles to continuity planning were indeed a lack of money, time, and expertise.

The Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness (CCEP) recently launched a web-based program that addresses many of these concerns and helps small businesses prepare for disruptions. The program, entitled B-Ready Now, provides basic tools for customizing plans to the unique concerns of individual businesses.  

This approach was necessary because despite genuine interest from Industry Canada and Public Safety Canada, the mandate of supporting SMEs for emergency preparedness fell between the cracks of their respective programs. It also made sense, since any truly sustainable program for these businesses must first show independence.  

The SME community has been looking for a program that could be adapted to their own needs – provided it is convenient and reasonably priced. Initially trialed through 15 one-day pilot workshops funded by Public Safety Canada, the program will be a fee-based resource with ongoing support tools. Although the workshops were extremely beneficial, it became evident that a new delivery method was needed. Development of the web-based program included reviewing the lessons from the initial seminars and subsequent feedback, and also establishing a small business ­advisory panel.

The B-Ready Now! program is a secure online resource that walks a small business through six steps necessary to develop their own business disruption plan. Users can complete their plan at their own pace at home or at work – supported by webcast tools and templates.

Visitors to the site are given background information as well as some free tools (including an interactive game and an oversight video). They can also complete the first step in their planning – creating their risk profile. This helps determine the need to go further in the planning process. Should the user decide to proceed to the next step, a $250 enrollment kicks in, permitting access to the next five steps. Each step includes a video tutorial and all the tools needed to complete a customized plan. It can be completed by a single person in as ­little as 1 hour with no previous experience in business continuity planning or emergency management.

Despite many past incidents of disasters (ice storm, flooding, wildfire, etc), the vast majority of SMEs remain unprepared for business interruptions. The tardiness is due to lack of motivation, lack of education programs and the perceived complexity of the task. The CCEP product now provides a quick, inexpensive, and easy way to complete a thorough business interruption plan. This, according to the CCEP, is a first and very significant step in building Canadian business resiliency from the grassroots.  

Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian Regional Director of the NFPA and Past Chair of the Board of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness. CCEP annually hosts the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto each June.
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