HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.—Disaster preparation doesn’t start with evacuation plans, or systems back-up contingencies. It starts with relationship building, according to Brian S. Tishuk, executive director of ChicagoFIRST.

In the event of a crisis, the most important relationship a company can have is with its state and local authorities, he told attendees at the Investment Company Institute’s Operations and Technology Conference and Service Provider Expo.

“The time to initiate these relationships is not when there is a crisis,” Tishuk said. Having a plan, and knowing where to turn for answers, he stressed, can mean the difference between clashing with law enforcement officials in the midst of a disaster, and immediate access inside police perimeters during an such an event.

“You don’t want to find out that your place [for employees] to meet [during an emergency] is off-limits.”

In the financial services sector, such access may be especially critical—whether faced with a natural disaster or terrorist attack—not only to the companies, but to the national economy.

“Trillions of dollars flow through [financial institutions] each day. It is important that there is continuity to operations,” he said.

But financial service companies must also realize that they are only one of several different sectors of the economy, each of which plays a critical role, and each of which in the time of crisis—whether a terrorist attack or natural disaster—will be vying for the attention and aid of emergency responders.

“To get what you want, you have to band together in collaboration,” he said.

That’s the idea between ChicagoFIRST, an organization that counts 24 financial companies within Chicago as its members, and whose mission is to partner with the city and state officials to protect the lives of their workers in the case of a crisis, and guarantee their own resilience.

Tishuk, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, became ChicagoFirst’s inaugural executive director in 2004. The organization’s two-person staff works as a liaison between financial service companies, the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois, to ensure that if disaster strikes, each entity has a plan to follow, and that none of those plans conflict.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Tishuk stressed, it’s a model that can and be customized for any region or city. Ensuring business continuity in the face of disaster takes cooperation not only with government officials, but with competitors, he added.

ChicagoFIRST members hammer out mutual aid agreements so that if one company’s headquarters catches fire, for example, as those of LaSalle Bank recently did, executives and employees have a designated place from which to work. Such planning makes not only for good public policy, but for good business practice. In the case of LaSalle, employees were so successful at minimizing the interruption to daily business, that the company went on to win two contracts for which they had been competing at the time of the fire because clients were so impressed by their ability to keep working in the face of adversity.

When a disaster affects more than one company, for example a blackout or terrorist attack, planning pays off big. Members know that their $1,500 monthly fees go toward communication chains, including blast e-mails alerting member companies to events, a members-only electronic bulletin-board for breaking news, and an information hotline that provides critical data whether it be a road closure, evacuation plan, or news of an anticipated attack.

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