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Tina Casey headshot

Does Your Business Pass the Waffle HouseTest?

By Tina Casey

FEMA, the Federal Office of Emergency Management, estimates that up to 40 percent of businesses never re-open when a natural disaster strikes their community. One obvious part of the problem is the extent of physical damage to the property, but in many cases supply chain disruptions and lack of preparedness can be the leading causes.

According to Laura Walter of EHS Today, Waffle House, a chain of, you guessed it, waffle houses, stands out as a business that is well prepared for natural disasters and supply chain disruptions, so much so that FEMA director W. Craig Fugate coined the term "Waffle House Index" as an indicator of preparedness.  Waffle House addresses disaster planning from a number of different angles, so it's instructive to take a look at the company's operations and identify some key common denominators. Any business that bounces back quickly from a disaster is a resilient one and resiliency is a key tenet of sustainability. So what can your business learn from Waffle House?

Communicating with Employees in a Disaster

As noted elsewhere on Triple Pundit, communication is a top marker of solid disaster planning. This holds true on a macro level, regarding effective government emergency response. It is also essential for individual businesses. Walter cites Panos Kouvelis, a professor at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, who stresses that Waffle House checks with employees before a disaster hits to make sure they know who is available to work in the affected area. Reporter Jeff Hullinger of Atlanta-based 11-Alive TV expands on that thought, noting that Waffle House has been known to reach out to employees with four-wheel drive vehicles to help ferry supplies, and it brings in employees from outside the disaster area so local employees can take care of their families and property. The lesson here is to make sure you know what your employees can do in an emergency - and make sure they are motivated to do it.

Operating on a Shoestring

Another important feature of disaster planning is the ability to operate at less than full capacity. According to Kouvelis, Waffle House will open with a limited menu when necessary, and that actually forms the basis of the "Waffle House Index." If a community hit by disaster has a Waffle House open with a full menu, the index is green. Open with a limited menu means yellow, and closure means red, indicating that the community is in serious trouble. Referring back to Mr. Hullinger again, Waffle House waitresses have been known to show up for work even when local public safety officials can't make it, so if your local Waffle House can't open then you know things are pretty bad out there.

Employees as a Resource

Knowing what kind of vehicles your employees drive is one way to catalog the kind of extra help they can provide in an emergency. Knowing that your employees are trained and educated to respond is another way. When the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan this spring, businesses were able to weather energy shortages by calling upon their employees to conserve energy by taking simple measures like using the stairs instead of the elevators. Here again Waffle House shows the way, with a focus on energy and water conservation measures that includes simple measures like turning off lights in unused back rooms.

Disaster Planning Help from FEMA

FEMA recommends a couple of disaster planning toolkits that can help you measure your preparedness and take steps to make improvements.   The American Red Cross Ready Rating Program is a free self-assessment program that promotes long term improvement through yearly membership renewals. ReadyBusiness offers handy downloadable brochures, checklists, and other materials including advertising.

Business and Long Term Disaster Mitigation

Aside from factors within a business owner's control, a number of crucial external elements can also come into play including land use restrictions, building codes and infrastructure. That's why it pays for businesses to get involved in community decision making, not only at the local level but on up to federal policy. This is particularly true of federal energy policy, as dramatically illustrated by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe as well as the BP oil spill and other energy-related disasters. Waffle House recently took a step toward adopting a lower-risk form of energy by installing solar hot water heaters at one of its locations, and perhaps that's the beginning of another stage in the company's long term disaster planning and risk management strategy.

Image Credit: Waffle House by mcsquishee on flickr.com.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey