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Running The Emergency Drill, Again

Yesterday’s attack on the Boston Marathon was another reminder that a good manager must be ready to respond to all sorts of emergencies, all the time.

In a true life-or-death crisis, all you can do is react. Often the reactions are heroic, like that of a teacher who tries to protect her students from a gunman, or an office worker who helps frightened and injured strangers navigate the blackened stairwells of a burning building.

Most of the time, however, there is enough physical and temporal distance that we can consider what steps, if any, to take. We rely on our prior experiences to guide us. An inescapable fact of modern life is that most of us have had considerable experience responding to crises.

I was in Los Angeles on a business trip when the news broke of the twin bomb explosions near the Marathon’s finish line. I had stopped at my hotel room for a few minutes between meetings, and was about to leave again when the headline popped up on my computer screen.

I immediately started going through my mental checklist. Were any of my employees or relatives in Boston? No; though we have clients there, we do not have a Boston office. Our people were all in their regular offices except for me and our West Coast manager, David Walters, who had flown to L.A. on Sunday night to join me at Monday’s meetings.

Knowing that our people were physically safe, I next considered their emotional well-being. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 traumatized a lot of people, particularly in the New York area. Images coming out of Boston were apt to trigger some very unpleasant flashbacks. While some employees might find comfort in the familiar surroundings and companionship at work, others might want to be near family members.

I decided, together with our New York senior manager Eric Meermann, to give New York staff the option to go home early. Personnel at our other offices could hold the fort if called upon.

Getting our people home safely and as conveniently as possible was the next consideration. Apart from a stepped-up security presence, New York’s mass transit was not affected by the Boston attack. In any case, most of our Scarsdale staff members live in the suburbs and commute by car; they would have no trouble getting home. But any threat, real or merely perceived, to the transportation system in New York yesterday could have caused significant disruption with little or no notice. Getting people home sooner rather than later seemed like a good idea.

It struck me that another good idea was to avoid crowded venues like Grand Central Terminal if possible. In all likelihood nothing would happen there (and, of course, nothing did happen there), but the Manhattan landmark draws a large crowd every rush hour, making it vulnerable to security-related disruptions if not an actual attack. So I was happy when one of our Manhattan-dwelling staffers who took his car to work offered a ride home to anyone who wanted it. I advised him to leave early, in case stepped-up surveillance at bridges and tunnels might create congestion.

In some emergencies, such as the impending arrival of a major storm, we focus on making sure our equipment is secure and our data is backed up. That was not necessary yesterday. In any case, our technology manager, Jeffrey Joseph, works from our Florida office, and our backup servers are in Atlanta. Half our personnel work outside New York. Even if something did go wrong in the metropolitan area, we would continue to operate.

Yesterday was April 15, the deadline for filing income tax returns and extensions. This might have posed a problem for clients in the Boston area, but nowadays we do most clients’ tax filings electronically - and, as is our firm’s policy, we were finished with all our April 15 items last week. So I quickly concluded that no clients’ tax affairs were at risk as a result of the explosions.

Also, in case you are wondering, yesterday’s Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts extended the deadline for that state’s income tax returns, but did not change the April 15 federal deadline. Federal tax returns are no longer mailed to the IRS processing center in Andover, Mass., so the old practice of automatically extending the federal deadline has fallen by the wayside.

Once I concluded that our clients’ taxes did not require any special attention, my immediate concerns were satisfied. We will touch base with our Boston clients during the next few days to make certain everyone is safe. There was no reason to add to the congestion on Boston telephone circuits yesterday.

In fact, one of the lessons to draw from this experience is that when cell towers get overloaded, text messages - which require much less bandwidth - are the best way to get information through. I made a mental note to keep this in mind in the future. Every catastrophe, natural or man-made, offers such tidbits.

It took less than an hour to satisfy myself that my team was doing everything it could to protect the people for whom we are responsible. As I headed off to my West Coast meetings, I felt I had done my job as a manager.

That is, until the next time I have to run my disaster-response drill.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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