How Implementing an Emergency Ebola Response Informs Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery

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Amanda Schwartz

In 2014, I was the Project Director for an emergency response program to battle the Ebola epidemic, which at the time was raging through West Africa. Because the world had never seen an outbreak of this magnitude before – at the peak of the response there were fears that up to 1.4 million people’s lives were at stake – our response was complex. We were required to make inconceivable decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis with limited information in an environment that was unpredictable and high-risk.

I was recently reflecting on that experience when I was working with a client’s executive leadership team to craft a Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery (BC/DR) plan aimed at ensuring its business operations could continue, or if necessary, quickly recover, in the wake of a disaster.

As I led this effort across the company, I was struck by how often I reached back to my experience responding to the Ebola epidemic to inform our planning process. Here are three lessons that I had learned in West Africa that I kept coming back to:


1.       Communication, Communication, Communication

There were a lot of moments during the Ebola crisis when I did not have any answers. At any given time, dozens of people across multiple countries were relying on me for critical information: How many Ebola patients did we expect to treat? Where should we send our next cohort of volunteer clinicians? How much money could we spend on supplies?

I learned quickly that our response worked much more effectively when I shifted my strategy to one of overcommunication. I scheduled multiple check-ins or updates with stakeholders every day in various formats, even if all I was sharing was that there was no new information. Our work environment became calmer.

As you plan out your BC/DR plan, think ahead about when, what, and to whom you will communicate the status of your recovery efforts, especially your staff and your customers. Determine in advance what time thresholds might inform this communication plan, and make sure you have identified what platform(s) you will use to communicate, especially in the event of a widespread power or internet outage. 


2.       Know Who Your Decision-Makers Are

As in many high-stress situations, decision-making during a disaster is an imperfect art. You may have limited information, emotions are likely to be high, and the clock is ticking. If you have a clear system for decision-making in place, you can increase both the efficiency and the efficacy of the decisions your team is making. I cannot count how many times I felt confident in our Ebola response during high-stress moments because I knew who and how we would make tough decisions.

During the BC/DR planning process, consider asking these questions:

·         Who on the team is responsible for making decisions?

·         Who on the team is responsible for identifying critical decisions that need to be made?

·         How will you document these decisions?

When you take your team through training exercises on your BC/DR plan, emphasize the importance of this system.


3.       Identify the “Non-Negotiables”

During the course of our emergency efforts in West Africa, we had several crisis events arise that nearly paralyzed our entire response. At each of these inflection points, we faced our hardest decision: could we keep our clinical services running? I remember frantic late-night conversations where we struggled to make this decision in the face of our moral imperative to work faster. I recall desperately wishing we had agreed on the prioritized list of requirements that had to be in place to keep our operations running – our ‘non-negotiables’ – long before we were faced with high-stress choices.

Creating your BC/DR plan is an essential opportunity to work with your team(s) to identify and build consensus on what your company’s ‘non-negotiables’ are. What operations, systems, and processes are critical to keeping the doors of your business or organization open? How will you prioritize bringing these systems and processes back online during your recovery effort? Each year that you revisit and update your plan is an opportunity to calibrate your ‘non-negotiables’ with your strategy and to share it with your team.

While implementing an Ebola emergency response program was certainly a unique experience, there are lessons from it that are not. If you prioritize establishing a robust communication plan, strong decision-making system, and consensus on the ‘non-negotiables,’ your BC/DR plan will achieve its planned goals and your leadership team will be confident in the face of crisis.


Amanda Schwartz is an associate at Forum Solutions where she leads and manages high-priority, complex projects and partnerships. She is passionate about building innovative solutions for scaled impact.

Forum Solutions is a management consulting company that works with Seattle’s business and nonprofit leaders to build and implement effective strategies for transformative growth and sustainable results. Forum offers clients the right skills for every job: strategic expertise, lean execution and agile resourcing – improving businesses at any level – from the executive suite to the individual contributor.