The Disaster Before The Disaster

Wright-Patt Credit Union decided it wasn’t enough to follow its continuity plan in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lessons learned from a 2019 disaster provided guidance in newly uncertain times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every facet of life across the United States and the world. In the midst of the pandemic,Wright-Patt Credit Union($5.2B, Beavercreek, OH) decided it wasn’t enough merely to follow its continuity plan. To shed light on how and why it’s making the decisions it is, WPCU is documenting as much of its response efforts as possible. Callahan & Associates is partnering with WPCU in this process and is proud to share a sneak peak of this effort.

CU QUICK FACTS

Wright-Patt Credit Union
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Beavercreek, OH
ASSETS: $5.2B
MEMBERS: 404,337
BRANCHES:32
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 11.9%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 8.9%
ROA: 0.79%

On January 1, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) set up an incident management support team to deal with a cluster outbreak of a new strain of pneumonia in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province of the People’s Republic of China. The strain was eventually determined to be caused by a novel coronavirus novel meaning new or never before seen, and coronavirus referring to a type of virus with spikes protruding from its surface like a crown or the corona of the sun. The virus was designated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or (SARS-CoV-2); the evolving collection of symptoms the virus causes in those who are infected with it is referred to as COVID-19.

Those infected report cold and flu-like symptoms chills, fever, body aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Outlier symptoms include sudden loss of taste and smell and lesions on toes and fingers similar to individuals suffering from frostbite.If the virus manages to infect a person’s lower respiratory tract, it can cause the person to suffer from pneumonia in which the lungs air sacs become inflamed and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in which the air sacs are so inflamed the body cannot process enough oxygen, resulting in death.

Determining this outbreak could spread across the entire planet, WHO declared this outbreak a pandemic. While not as deadly as Ebola or contagious as the measles, the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads easily through coughs, sneezes and possibly even loud talking. The virus can affect a person for up 14 days before any symptoms manifest, increasing the opportunity for inadvertent infection. And perhaps most importantly, as a never before seen virus, absolutely no one is immune to it.

By the middle of January, the first case appeared outside of China in Thailand. Shortly thereafter, an individual in Washington State was diagnosed with it.

The first reported cases in Ohio were reported on March 9, 2020.

On March 12, 2020, the executive team at Wright-Patt Credit Union ($5.2B, Beavercreek, OH) declared this outbreak was a Business Continuity Event and activated the plans created specifically to address a development like this.

Now we’re not just making sure everyone is safe. We’re trying to keep them safe for weeks on end. We’re trying to keep them from getting sick so that we can continue to serve our members.

Doug Fecher, President/CEO, Wright-Patt Credit Union

This is the story of Wright-Patt Credit Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, doing everything possible to attend to the needs of their members and their employee partners in a safe, efficient, and compassionate manner.

But this is not where this story begins.

The story of how this credit union handled a global pandemic goes back a little further.

It begins on the evening of May 27, 2019.

The last two weeks of May 2019 were marked by a record-breaking series of tornadoes and thunderstorms. There were 392 individual tornadoes 51 of them considered major or severe that affected 23 separate states stretching from California all the way to New Jersey. The supercells moved slowly, but steadily, east across the country. The storms produced torrential rain showers that led to flooding in many areas and slowed the response of emergency responders.

May 27, 2019 was the last Monday in May Memorial Day. Many of the partner employees at Wright-Patt Credit Union were on the tail end of a three-day weekend filled with boating, barbecues, and time with family and friends. As the weekend came to a close, residents in the Dayton, OH, area went to bed that night with approaching thunderstorms and rain showers. While a little more intense than usual, it was weather that was fairly typical in the late spring/early summer in the Midwest. However,the intensity picked up dramatically after midnight when a pair of tornadoes on nearly identical paths tore through the region.

My immediate family and I enjoyed dinner outside at our picnic table, starting a new tradition to kick off summer with Memorial Day dinner outdoors, said Ivy Glover, Marketing & Community Development Specialist at WPCU. It was very calm and quiet, and we were just out there reflecting on the weekend. Three hours later, we were inside and resting, awakened by alerts to go to the basement. I recall staying awake late, in the basement with the family because we were all afraid.One of my cousins lost his home completely. We saw him on Facebook Live 20 minutes after the storm hit walking around a now empty plat with only a bathroom standing!

Miami Valley citizens awoke to find their city looking like a war zone with trees uprooted, power lines down, and houses and buildings destroyed.

I got alerted early in the morning, said Chris Johnson, VP of Enterprise Risk Management at WPCU and the head of the credit union’s Business Continuity Command Team. The immediate focus was on who was impacted. Our employee partners? Our members? Miraculously, we didn’t have anyone seriously injured or killed.

But even before our Command Team had gotten into the office and gotten together, we had good, committed partners already engaged and doing the right things, Johnson said. Checking out facilities for damage. Making sure everyone would be able to get to work.

After addressing that, it was apparent that we need invoke our plan, Johnson said. And by our plan, Johnson was referring to the credit union’s Business Continuity Plan (BCP), a methodology for preventing and recoveringfrom threats to an organization’s ability to conduct business for more than 24 hours. NCUA requires all credit unions to have some level of BCP strategy in place. Most plans are designed to be broad enough to address a wide variety of potential hazards; additionally, most contain sections devoted to a variety of specific threats from natural disasters to active shooters. Even pandemics.

But let’s not jump ahead.

You could drive less than a mile from our headquarters to see where these tornadoes touched down, said Amy Reilly, Chief Administrative Officer at WPCU. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed. Just one mile away? What would we have done? Would we have been prepared?

On Memorial Day 2019, nearly 20 tornadoes hit the Miami Valley of Ohio, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage. Photo credit: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Wright-Patt Credit Union.

That was a wake-up call, said Doug Fecher, CEO and President at WPCU. You know, you can think you are prepared for a disaster on paper. But until one really strikes, you have no idea if you’ve thought through everything important.

We started immediate communications externally to members, as well as internally to let partners know what we were communicating to members, said Marketing Manager Chris Gardner. The messaging was focused primarily in three areas: service impact which member centers were open and which ones were closed because of damage, power outages, relief efforts for members, i.e. relief loans; and relief efforts for the community, i.e. monetary collections for Red Cross relief efforts, etc.

From an operations standpoint, power outages in the Beavercreek area required some data services to be routed through the back-up data center in Norwood, OH. A few member centers had disruptions in power and water, but these services were restored by late Tuesday afternoon.

As for member relief, WPCU offered a host of services. Affected members were eligible for short-term personal loans, emergency home equity loans, skip-a-payments on consumer loans, and penalty-free share certificate withdrawals. And, as always, members had access to free financial counseling through GreenPath to help with budgeting skills, creating financial plans, understanding credit reports, and identifying ways to alleviate debt. Recovery for credit union members and the citizens of the Miami Valley area in general continues to this day.

After working through all of that, there was no doubt we needed to double down on strengthening our plans, Johnson said.

Before the tornadoes, we obviously had a plan, Fecher said. We tested it. We worked on making it better in a way that was theoretical. We had to imagine what would happen to figure out what our responses would be. But this was no longer imaginary. This was real. This was happening. Only through the stress testing of reality could we understand where the weaknesses were and start to fix them.

For Fecher, this was an opportunity to take a renewed look not just at BCP, but at risk as whole how to measure it, evaluate tolerance, and report it.

We had to find resources to do that, Johnson said. Our risk manager left in early 2019, and this showed that we really had a hole that needed to be filled for us. We hired an outside contractor, and part of the process was to really have them dedicated to updating our plans.

This is not a thing you do because someone told you to do it. It will happen to you at some point. And that can be a very difficult realization.

Doug Fecher, President/CEO, Wright-Patt Credit Union

The good news is the contractor had also updated our pandemic playbook, Johnson continued. We picked that back up and socialized it among people. But we had no hint we would be putting that into play.

But let’s not jump ahead.

The organization’s renewed focus on business continuity planning was evident across the credit union even to employee partners not immediately involved in the process. That was when things ramped up, said Glover. I feellike WPCU has always been progressive in our thinking about certain things and thoughtful in handling action, but we definitely were more active after that point.

It was actually mentioned in one of my interviews, said Aron Hill, Business Continuity Plan Specialist. Something to the effect of you’re here because we had 15 tornadoes that just whipped through the area.’ Itreally brought the attention to having someone specifically to work on business continuity planning.

We are very fortunate that WPCU has grown quickly, Fecher said. And when you grow that fast, you have to realize the expectations at $5.5 billion in assets are a lot different than when you were at $500 million. It is an ongoing wakeup call. Even when your focus is rightly on taking care of members and employees, you cannot forget about this stuff.

This is not a thing you do because someone told you to do it, Fecher continued. It will happen to you at some point. And that can be a very difficult realization.

All of these lessons learned and new circumstances considered went into the revision process, and the team was doing more than just editing and reviewing it. In November 2019, the BCP Command Team conducted their most intense test of the new processeswith an active shooter tabletop drill.

Exercises like that can be very difficult, Johnson said. It’s stressful, and that’s why they have such value. You learn so much. You develop muscle memory, add to who does what.

And even with that progress, there is only so much that can be done.

They say that generals are always fighting the last war,’ Fecher said. And the next war is going to throw something at you that you didn’t expect. With the tornadoes, we learned we needed how to make sure everyonewas safe. And within 24 hours, we know if everyone was safe. But we underestimated what we would be called to do.

Now we’re not just making sure everyone is safe, Fecher continued. We’re trying to keep them safe for weeks on end. We’re trying to keep them from getting sick so that we can continue to serve our members.

Let’s jump ahead.

This article appeared originally in Credit Union Strategy & Performance.

June 30, 2020

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