It’s a big operation with a lot of moving parts.” That’s how Jason Jackson, Wal-Mart’s director of emergency management, describes his team. It’s also a great description of his employer. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is everywhere. And everywhere is exactly where Jackson and his team have to be.

“We have such a big footprint, that we are going to deal with something every day,”Jacksonsays. And he’s ready.

 Jacksonleads a team of 38 people in four units: response and recovery  operations,  alarm operations, business continuity, and preparedness. The majority, 25 people, belong to the alarm operations group, which monitors burglar, panic, and fire alarms as well as the corporate emergency hotline. Alarm operations responded to more than 300,000 alarms last year. The response and recovery component handles  the emergency operations center, which is staffed 24/7. Business continuity covers all planning, including continuity of operations, disaster recovery, business impact  analysis, and hazard-specific planning.  Preparedness is charged with the implementation, validation, testing of plans as well as training. He  says  the  four  groups are “very carefully” integrated and each of the four senior managers who report to him has “a good understanding of each other’s business.”

WhenJacksonjoined Wal-Mart about 18 months ago, his staff was significantly smaller — 20 alarm operations people and him. “We’ve grown quite a bit,” he says. “When I started, it was all about identifying needs and areas for improvement.”Jacksonfound them and took action.

Making Changes

With operations in 32 countries, and thousands of employees participating in the business  continuity program, standardization is critical, Jackson says. “A lot of what we are doing is creating structure through which the plans, training programs, and processes are provided for the business units to develop their own plans.”

With such exacting plan requirements, Wal-Mart must use a business continuity software package, right? “Not right now,” saysJackson. “It is something we are currently reviewing.” For now, it’s Word and Excel and “a lot of paper.”

“One of the challenges we have,”Jacksonsays, “is that we have such a big information systems team and they want to do everything in-house.” 

Wal-Mart has the country’s largest private computer system. “It is an interesting challenge for us. One of the things we really stress is core competencies, and is it a core competency of ours to develop an application [for business continuity]? I don’t think so, but we’re in the process of deciding to go with an industry software tool or something developed in-house.”

So what other changes hasJacksonmade? He got a watchdog.

Jacksonstrives to “get out in front” of potential crises,  and he says having a “watchdog” lets his team do just that. “The watchdog position is a job that was designed to do nothing more than identify business disruptions,” he says. The watchdog monitors a number of local and national new reports, e-mail reports from entities like the EPA, FDA, National Weather Service, and USGS, as well as bulletins from private sector security reporting companies. When the watchdog senses trouble, he alerts the team and then goes back to scanning.

“We do this with weather all the time,” he says. “We contact the [store] managers as quickly as possible so that if they need to evacuate, they can be prepared and aren’t just hearing it from the sheriff’s office.”

Tools of the Trade

A seasoned shopper, Wal-Mart’s Director of Emergency Management Jason Jackson, shares his best BCP buys: For emergency notification, Wal-Mart chooses SendWordNow. “It’s been a great success for us,” saysJackson. “We are able to reach out to people all over the world quickly and easily.” Wal-Mart also uses weather-related services from EarthSat, WeatherBug, Hurricane Consulting Inc., and PC Weather. “It’s some really neat stuff that lets us stay out in front,” he says.

Buying In

So how hasJacksonwon support for the watchdog position and other new initiatives?Jacksoncredits overwhelming C-level executive support but says it is still “hard to for us to develop that quantitative return on investment when we’re trying to prove a negative. We did this mitigation method and as a result we didn’t get impacted. That can be a tough sell.” Demonstrating value by providing exceptional service and being proactive has also helped. “We were able to show value especially through the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. That has been a real plus. Our customer base grew significantly, as did their use of our products.” Products? Not  only doesJacksonsee fellow  Wal-Mart employees as his customers, he also provides a BCP product line consisting of a number of regularly e-mailed reports. “We have a weekly pandemic flu report that goes to all   company officers, safety and security directors, people division directors, and other managers who request it,” he says. “Last year when the news people got tired of talking about Katrina,  they  jumped  on the bandwagon  with pandemic influenza.

Unfortunately, what it caused was a lot of unnecessary panic. We were getting a lot of calls from managers and directors who were concerned and wanted to know what the actual truth was.” Since “we already had a pretty good bead on what was going on,” the team issued a report. “What that did was take our calls to zero. People had the information they needed. It wasn’t sensationalized. It was bullet pointed and summarized in a way that they understood it. And it provided them with the information they needed and places to go for more information that was valid. It became a wonderful weekly tool, and it has been tremendously successful for us.”

"We do the same thing with situation reports during a disaster. If people feel they have a good source of information that’s coming to them on a regular basis and they know when the next report is going to come out, they won’t go looking for information elsewhere.”

Real-life Response

In a crisis, the corporate emergency phone number ensures corporate stays in the loop no matter where the incident occurs. “All emergency procedures at the store level and in traveler’s notes reference back to a single number, which is the company equivalent of 911,”Jackson  says. When there’s a crisis at a store, managers first call local 911, then they call the corporate line. In the last four months,Jackson’s team has responded to an employee being shot in the parking lot, a Molotov cocktail crashing through a store window, another store burning down, a plane flying into a Wal-Mart facility, and an earthquake. “And that’s just off the top of my head,”Jacksonsays. “You name it and we get it.” But even with that breadth and depth of experience, WalMart can still be surprised. “The tsunami,” saysJackson. “We certainly hadn’t anticipated that, and I will be the first to say that we did not have a tsunami plan.”

“When it happened, I was at my in-law’s house, and half of the management staff was out of town” for the Christmas holiday.Jacksonwas asleep but his watchdog woke him up with a call from the EOC.Jackson’s group used its emergency notification tool to “immediately contact all security officers for all corporate entities globally and to reach out to all impacted companies in the region.Jacksonsays the tool was “a great success. We were able to reach everyone and make a determination that they were okay very quickly.” But that sense of relief lasted “about an hour,”Jacksonsays. “That’s when our corporate 911 number got a call from the parents of one of my peers who is the director of global procurement security. He was vacationing with hiswife and two sons inThailandwhen the tsunami hit.” In  fact, the Wal-Mart executive, his wife, and two young sons were on the beach. “He ran with his family and lifted them up a ladder to safety, but he was swept out to sea.”

A Reuters photographer happened to take a picture of the wife and sons; that photo ended up on television. The executive’s parents saw it, found the Wal-Mart corporate 911 number on their son’s itinerary, and called. “That immediately changed our response,”Jacksonsays. Turning to the emergency notification tool once again,Jacksonbrought together all key players on a conference call. With the players in motion, they were able to locate  the executive, who had been rescued, revived, and hospitalized. With that news, Wal-Mart called the man’s wife. “We were the first ones to tell her that her husband was alive,”Jacksonsays, “and we were able to reunite them within 12 hours.” In this case, “it was not about having a tsunami plan in place,” he says. “That wouldn’t have helped us. It was more about having that emergency structure, an emergency communications system in place, and managers that were capable of dealing with the crisis at hand.”

And then Came Katrina

Jacksonsays the tsunami taught him “greater respect for Mother Nature.” And just in time. Wal-Mart was hit hard by the hurricanes of 2005.

“The only wonderful thing about a hurricane is that you can usually see it coming,”Jacksonsays. He and his crew did see Katrina coming and had more lead time than most thanks to a focus on “hazard identification.” They were preparing for Katrina while it was still just tropical waves based on reports from private weather companies and modeling software.

Those tools “gave us the information we needed to make strategic  decisions  about  placement  of  teams  and resources,”Jacksonsays. “A lot of companies wait until the TV weatherman is flapping in the wind out there on the beach. For us, when the weather guy is out there, that’s when the customer rush starts and we have to be prepared.” When a hurricane is on the way, Wal-Mart has three top priorities: employee life safety, reconstitution or continuity of operations, and community support,”Jacksonsays.Jackson’s team pushes information to store managers who inform employees and help them prepare themselves, their families, and their homes.

There is also an 800- number employees can call for recorded information or a live operator. The team also ensures that Wal-Mart stores have the items the community will need to prepare for and recover from the storm. And, finally, they stage recovery teams who spring into action as soon as wind speeds dip below tropical storm force.

In Florida.  Katrina  closed  15  Wal-Mart  facilities. Fourteen  were  re-opened  within 24  hours,  which  isJackson’s recovery time objective. Then the storm turned toward theGulfCoast. “We knew before the National Weather Service announced it that storm was shifting, so that gave us a jump on shifting our resources for that second impact.” Of the 173 Wal-Mart facilities impacted, more than 100 sustained damage. Of these, 66 percent were back up and running with 48 hours.

“Katrina was an extreme situation, and we didn’t really meet our RTO,”Jacksonsays. But today there are only six Wal-Mart stores still closed, five inNew Orleansand one inMississippi. “With the sheer level of devastation, we couldn’t get in some of those places,”Jacksonsays. But that doesn’t mean he was wondering about the condition of the facilities. “We encourage store managers to check with local emergency management before a disaster. They’ll provide keys to the store, food, coffee, and a Wal-Mart hotline number. We had police departments calling in reporting on our facilities, and we didn’t ask them to do that.” Much has been reported about Wal-Mart’s generous donations in Katrina’s wake.

“The donations were part of the plans from the beginning,”Jacksonsays. “I don’t think people really used to think about retail as a necessary community resource until all of a sudden they didn’t have water and diapers and dog food. Retail’s value skyrockets when you have nothing.” Response and resources were managed in the EOC, which usually houses 60 in a crisis but swelled to more than 200  post-Katrina. Jacksonsays  all key decision makers are present so that decisions can be made in “minutes, not hours or days.” The call center fielding calls for the emergency line was expanded too. “Within 24 hours our ISD team set up an 80-person call center in a training room. In four weeks, the center answered 43,000 calls, from Wal-Mart employees and customers.

“It was neat  being  able  to  help  customers  too,” Jacksonsays.  “We weren’t  expecting  them  to  call.”  But then again, Jackson and his team are always expecting the unexpected.