Insights from the frontlines

The Business Continuity Institute

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Richard Dodd explains how Walgreens’ business continuity programme and its communications and alerting technology helped protect lives during the November 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests of the Wilson-Brown verdict

Ferguson, Missouri, will long be remembered for the civil unrest that followed the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer. Despite the media attention focused on Ferguson, it is otherwise like many communities served by Walgreens drugstores. There is a Walgreens store located within five miles of 75% of Americans, so Walgreens’ communities and customers are as diverse as the nation itself.

From August to November 2014, the Ferguson situation became so heated that curfews were imposed, the National Guard was summoned and incidents of violence, arson and theft occurred. Many businesses temporarily closed their doors. Walgreens, as always, did all it could to keep its customers and employees safe while trying to maintain service to the community.

By preparing well in advance and drawing from past experience, we developed and implemented contingency plans to address various scenarios that could have adverse consequences for our enterprise, our team members, and our customers. When civil unrest erupted, our resiliency planning and use of new communications technology helped keep our team members out of harm’s way, minimised property losses, and allowed us to reopen stores quickly to serve critical pharmacy needs for the residents of Ferguson. Most importantly, sound business continuity strategies and plans helped protect the safety of team members and shopping patrons during the rapidly evolving events.

To recount our experiences in Ferguson, I’ve outlined several key lessons learned that we would like to share. Hopefully, the insights we gained will give others a few simple strategies and tactics to consider when faced with similar challenges in the future.

Lesson one: Businesses have to care

We all routinely develop business continuity plans to prepare for business disruptions; but for Walgreens, business continuity is much more. Our corporate culture is one of clear commitment to the people and communities we serve. Each Walgreens store is more than just a number on a balance sheet. Every store serves a community that relies on us daily for life-saving prescriptions and healthy living choices.

Despite the fact that we have more than 8,000 locations across the US, every store team has a personal stake in the well-being of the community. This personal connection is one that has endured since our founder Charles Walgreen started the company over 126 years ago. One of our core cultural beliefs is to ‘love customers’, and our mantra reads, “I engage with customers and passionately innovate to exceed their needs.”

We also profoundly value our team members. These dedicated men and women work tirelessly every day to improve the customer experience, and most live and raise families in the communities they serve. Businesses must be equally committed not only to protecting their physical assets to maintain productivity, but also valuing their most important resource – the employees who make their business successful.

Lesson two: Be prepared

As is the case with natural and human-caused incidents, we’ve seen civil disturbances before and probably will again. For example, when thousands of well-organised protesters held mainly peaceful demonstrations leading up to the NATO Summit in Chicago in May 2012, we developed contingency plans for early warning, response and recovery from any potential acts of vandalism or violence directed at our stores in the downtown Chicago area. While plans and protocols were in place, we implemented a process using available resources and technology. This included two-way radio communications, cellular phones and increased security personnel at some locations. In the end, there were 45 arrests and several of our stores suffered minor property damage (cracked windows), but overall we were pleased with the outcome and satisfied we had prepared for the worst. Ferguson would be an entirely different story.

Early on, Walgreens committed to being even better prepared for potential outcomes in Ferguson. In the three years since the NATO Summit, we have implemented sophisticated cutting-edge business continuity communications tools that gave our emergency planners the ability to customise, streamline and expedite warnings, responses and recovery communications for the entire enterprise.

Lesson three: Plan, train, exercise

On 10 August, 2014, shortly after the shooting incident leading to the teenager’s death, protestors gathered in the streets of Ferguson. The initial demonstrations were mostly peaceful, but by late evening, the situation took on a decidedly different tone. More than a dozen businesses were looted, including Walgreens stores. Tensions were increasing between police and some members of the community.

As the likelihood of violence escalated, we began updating our contingency plans based on the following three factors:

  • Regions – we identified districts in two of our geographic regions as ‘high-risk’, a total of ten stores comprised the target list.
  • Messages – we created a series of separate communications for the following eventualities: to warn stores of possible disturbances; to notify store employees to be ready to evacuate immediately; and to instruct store employees to shut down the stores and close early.
  • Recipients – we decided to include only key district and local staff in communications. We were able to keep local store team members well informed of tactical operations on the ground, while using other more traditional means to communicate with corporate stakeholders. The purpose was to maintain confidentiality of tactical plans, while still maintaining a common operating picture for our internal and external stakeholders.

As a Grand Jury deliberated over the question of indicting the police officer, many in the community were fearful the decision might spark more unrest. Anticipating the risks, our management team held multiple calls each day with members of the corporate support team, and district and store managers in the highest risk zone to keep everyone engaged and ensure plans were completely clear.

During the weeks while the Grand Jury heard testimony, we worked closely with local authorities and the community to learn and share information. We used that information to further refine our plans and keep local stores well informed as the situation unfolded.

Recognising plans alone would only take us so far, we took the additional step of holding preparatory calls and walk-through drills to practice the actions each team member would be required to perform if violence erupted. Our goal was to be fully confident that everyone who had a role in the response phase was ready to take action if the time came. The intent was to create ‘ownership’ of the plan by those most responsible for its execution, because we were fully aware that any indecision or miscommunication could potentially jeopardise the life-safety of employees and customers.

Lesson four: Technology matters

The verdict announcement came in the early evening of 25 November, 2014, when St Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. As Walgreens staff and the rest of the country anxiously watched, crowds gathered at the courthouse grew increasingly vocal. Some in the gathering expressed grief and disbelief, while others showed outrage and anger at what they believed was an unjust decision.

After quickly assessing the situation and the mounting anger and resentment directed towards law enforcement by many of the protesters, and acting on the advice of local authorities, we made a decision to notify stores in the highest risk zones to cease operations and close for the evening, and notified other stores in the area to be prepared to evacuate. The ability to expedite notification through our automated system was key to protecting our team members and customers. Using new technology, we were able to complete and verify outgoing communications to over 200 people instantaneously.

In contrast, during the NATO Summit, emergency contact to store management and key support staff was a manual process. It required large numbers of people working through a time-consuming procedure to contact each store individually, and the process had to be repeated for each subsequent notification or message.

Today, we rely on an intelligent cloud communications platform which also enables each individual contacted to acknowledge receipt of the message so our security operations centre can report accurate, timely status for each affected group.

The walk-through calls in preparation for Ferguson paid off, and team members carried out orderly shutdown and evacuations swiftly and without incident.

If notifications had not been made in a timely manner, evacuations would have been delayed by precious minutes. This was particularly significant due to the fact that protesters had blocked Interstate 44 within minutes of the verdict, potentially cutting off egress routes for many employees and customers. During the night, rioters set fire to at least five businesses and many more were vandalised and looted. The large number of protestors and imminent danger to firefighters posed by angry mobs further hindered efforts to extinguish the fires. As a result, many properties were destroyed or severely damaged, including one Walgreens store.

Lesson five: Be flexible during recovery

After the worst night of rioting, protests continued in Ferguson for several days, making initial damage assessment difficult. When our crews were finally able to fully inspect the vandalised store, we discovered extensive fire and smoke damage. Clean-up and infrastructure repairs had to be made adding to delays in construction and re-equipping of the store’s fixtures and systems. Fortunately, our communications alerting system was ready to be used to send messages and alerts to keep team members informed about reconstruction progress and other important information related to the recovery.

Reports indicated that more than 14 people had been injured in the initial riot following the verdict in Ferguson. Because of our ability to efficiently communicate with our employees, Walgreens stores were unoccupied during the height of the disturbance, thus none of our team members or customers were injured. Thanks to our excellent facilities and construction teams, and thanks also to our company’s commitment to serve the community, the most severely damaged stores were re-opened by late December.

Making a commitment

Leveraging the talent of our team members across the entire enterprise and the expertise of key team members on our corporate support team was crucial to our preparation and response to this incident. However, even given the amount of planning and expert execution, our ability to quickly implement our plans could have been significantly hindered without certain key systems and technologies. The expedient response saved lives while significantly shortening our recovery time and enhancing our ability to resume service to the community.

“We understand the importance of providing access to pharmacy services and are very pleased to re-open our store on Florissant Road in time for the holidays,” said Scott Haynes, Walgreens market vice president in St Louis in the 22 December 2014 edition of the St Louis Business Journal. “This reinvestment in our store and in the community reflects our commitment to remain a good neighbour and support the people of Ferguson who have been loyal customers and friends for many years.”

Richard Dodd is director of business continuity and occupational health and safety at Walgreens based in Illinois. He is responsible for all aspects of Walgreens’ business continuity programme, including emergency management and crisis management, across the enterprise.

Continuity coverThis article first appeared in the 2015 Q2 edition of Continuity – The Magazine of the Business Continuity Institute. To download your free copy, just click here.