Severe weather in any season can present devastating impacts to businesses that neglect to make the necessary preparations. A major part of preparation is staying on top of the weather forecast and having an emergency plan that lays out what to do based on said forecast. Winter presents its own challenges, with extreme temperatures, blizzards, ice storms, dangerous roads, power outages, and more.
As a meteorologist at StormGeo, a professional weather partner, I have years of experience supporting businesses all over the U.S. as they navigate every type of severe weather scenario. In an effort to help more businesses, I’ve compiled my top tips for loss prevention professionals looking to minimize closures while protecting employees, customers, and product.
What Is the General Forecast This Winter?
Our number one tip is always to know the forecast. The main areas of concern this winter across the US are:
- An enhanced risk for frequent winter storms along the Pacific Northwest
- Higher-than-normal snowfall across Southern Canada, the Great Lakes, and Ohio Valley regions
- Elevated risk of periods of extreme cold alternating with warmer periods over much of the Central and Eastern US, creating potential for a very volatile winter season
While this general forecast is helpful, it’s crucial that businesses have a forecast that’s customized to their specific location and weather-related needs. For example, a store below elevation in a town that is mostly above elevation will need to be more prepared for floods because of snow melt, even though the local news forecast might not mention flooding.
If you’re monitoring multiple locations, a dashboard with a map view showing each location, including supply warehouses and high-priority vendors, is a useful resource. This makes it easier to focus on the areas with the highest risk from weather or security threats. Map dashboards can include multiple layers for radar, windspeeds, and the probability of a power outage.
Know the characteristics of your locations, and those of vendors you rely on to create a “Plan B” in case you or they are impacted.
How to Be Last to Close, First to Open
A major challenge to responding to a storm is uncertainty in how to interpret the forecast and correctly identify the impacts to your business locations. Making the wrong recommendation can mean under-preparing or over-preparing for a winter event — a costly mistake. If you over-prepare and close locations too early or unnecessarily, you lose out on sales and the opportunity to be available for your community, not to mention the additional costs for any resources used to prepare ahead of the event. Under-preparing creates potential for greater damage to facilities and loss of inventory, and puts associates at risk.
A structured process for responding to threats will increase safety for associates and customers, and reduce damages to facilities and inventory. When prepared in advance of a winter event, structured response plans reduce the uncertainty of how and when to act, giving your team more confidence in critical decision making when time is tight.
When responding to weather threats, we recommend a five-step process:
- Threat Identification — Whether monitoring a few locations locally or thousands of stores across a national footprint, site-specific forecasts can identify any weather that may threaten the organization. Identify threats early and often. What appears to be a small blip can quickly avalanche into a larger threat overnight, so contact your weather partner if you’re unsure.
- Identify the business impacts of the risk — How exactly will this weather event impact your business, and what actions will need to be taken? Do associates need to be alerted? Will the storefronts or warehouses need to be secured? Your emergency plan should have steps for different actions depending on the type and severity of the weather event.
- Response modeling — This is a term meteorologists use to refer to translating the forecasts to understand the likelihood that a weather threat will occur. Weather partners will often do this for businesses, so it’s important to ask for that information during briefings.
- Trigger response actions — Once you know the probability and timing of the weather threat, you can execute your pre-determined response actions based on the expected conditions.
- Post-event feedback — After every weather event, discuss with staff what went right, what went wrong, and what could be improved, and update the emergency plan accordingly. The best data for creating an emergency plan is experience, so talk to local businesses who may have gone through similar weather events in the past. A weather partner can also shed insight on past events.
The Right Response at the Right Time
Once you have a forecast you can trust, follow the ‘trigger points’ in your emergency plan that detail the actions to take before a weather event arrives. These defined actions will help alleviate any second guessing and mitigate potential disruptions due to a mistake or missed critical action windows. Most organizations have triggers set up for weather events with long time windows, like hurricanes. Triggers can, and should, be factored into response plans for all highly impactful weather, like winter storms and wildfires. The most common winter storm response actions and suggested time triggers are:
- Stock up on storm supplies (water, batteries, generators, blankets) well ahead of the public rush (approx. 48+ hours before estimated storm arrival).
- Depending on how frequently the areas experience temperatures below freezing, you may need to shut off water to the building and drain the pipes (12-24 hours ahead).
- Secure stores by salting sidewalks and pre-place back-up generators and fuel (6 – 12 hours ahead).
- Close the doors and send employees home before it’s unsafe to travel (no later than a couple hours ahead).
- The hardest of these to anticipate is the public’s response to the threat. Most people begin shopping for supplies 24-48 hours before a storm hits.
Having this plan in place will help keep your business safe and ready to stay open as long as possible and reopen as quickly as possible after the event passes.
Planning for Recovery
Retail businesses are among the first expected to be open following a weather event. As soon as a weather event passes and roads are safe, these steps should be followed to ensure you can re-open quickly:
- Conduct a damage assessment.
- Coordinate with supply trucks to restock.
- Check-in with employees. Prior to the storm, employees should be informed of how they can report their status (by text, phone or website) and get information on returning to work safely.
- Coordinate with neighboring stores to send employees to assist while local employees are actively recovering.
Finally, as you consider how to handle a weather event’s impact on your business, include regular drills to prepare staff, test your emergency plan, and determine gaps. A good plan is useless if no one knows how to use it when disaster strikes, so communicate with employees and vendors regularly to ensure things will run smoothly.