The people at Orient Expressed thought they were ready for anything. “We knew that we would be able to contact each other in the event of a disaster,” says catalog director Mary Malone. “We all had cell phones, we knew where our families were.” What more did anyone need in New Orleans? They found out when Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005.
Ordered by the city to evacuate in 24 hours, the two dozen staffers secured their homes, then tried to do the same for the company. Then they left.
The storm all but destroyed New Orleans. And it should have wiped out Orient Expressed, because phone service was limited, the city was under martial law, and the staff couldn’t return until October.
But the 30-year-old children’s clothing and gift merchant survived — largely because it had all calls rerouted to Signius, a phone service run by The AnswerNet Network.
“Not only did they take all of our orders, they took all of our phone calls,” Malone explains. “We could even call them to find out where other people were.”
And that made Malone an evangelist for back-up call centers in general, and for Signius in particular.
But it was a close call, and the company realized that it needed a formal business continuity plan (a program for handling catastrophes) instead of the informal one it had.
What did it do? For starters, Orient Expressed has outsourced its Website and relocated its backup server to a location further inland, away from the flood zone.
In addition, it now uses a printer located outside New Orleans. Each department head knows what to do and who to contact in case of an emergency. And the company continues to use Signius for after-hours calls and in case of emergency.
And Orient Expressed is not the only business to see the value in advance planning.
So has Rossi Pasta, a gourmet pasta marketer that sells through a store, a catalog and a Website. The firm was flooded in 2004 when the Ohio River rose 22 ft.
Owner Frank Christy and his family and staff acted quickly, and the business survived with only minimal damage. But the firm has since beefed up its business continuity plan.
“After the flood, processes were defined and written down,” says general manager Brian Hausman. “We wanted to ensure that each area was protected and that the recovery process started quickly.”
For one thing, Rossi Pasta moved its manufacturing and distribution to a single facility — away from the river.
“The core of our company is now well above flood stage,” says Hausman.
It also has moved its back-up server to a secure location and sends backup tapes offsite daily. And the company keeps its emergency contact list and procedures up to date, reviewing them regularly.
Finally, Rossi Pasta moved its retail shop to a smaller location. It’s still on the river — a prime tourist destination — but it has been remodeled so that the staff can remove or disconnect everything in about 10 minutes if it has to.
The plan may not be perfect — as of August the company still didn’t have a backup phone service. But Hausman is confident that Rossi Pasta is well prepared for another emergency.
How do you protect yourself against the unpredictable? By creating a plan.
Gary Pudles, CEO of The AnswerNet Network, says there are really only a few things to worry about during an emergency: loss of power, telephony and data systems, and inability of staff and management to get into the office.
“Every problem can be lobbed into one of those areas,” he says. Loss of power? Make sure you have backup power. “The remedies are not that complex, but the costs can be.”
That’s what often makes disaster planning so difficult, he adds.
“Business continuity programs tend to be cost factors,” Pudles explains. “Every time you buy a piece of hardware or software [to back up data, for example], it affects the bottom line. You could spend millions of dollars on business continuity tools and processes, but a small multichannel retailer probably can’t afford that kind of thing.”
How do you prioritize?
“You have to look at the expense versus the reward,” says Pudles. “If your car is worth $10,000, you shouldn’t buy $100,000 worth of replacement insurance.”
A small cataloger might limit itself to setting up a special phone number so that somebody answers during a disaster and says, ‘We’re currently experiencing an emergency. May I take your name and number and have somebody call you back?’
But a firm that depends heavily on a Website for business needs a high-availability backup server in a safe location.
If your primary server goes down, it will immediately go to a copy in a different location, “so you’re still up and running,” says Ellen Rome, vice president of sales and marketing at STORServer, a manufacturer of business continuity appliances.
Applications and data that do not need to be accessed all the time can be stored less expensively, she says.
“I go into a lot of [IT] shops and I ask them, ‘Are you confident you can recover in the face of disaster?’ And I get nervous chuckles,” says Rome. She also advises businesses to test their backup systems to ensure that they can quickly retrieve data and stay operational in the event of a power or facility loss.
And your plan? It shouldn’t be too bare bones — or too complex. “I just can’t emphasize enough: Don’t make it overcomplicated,” warns Frank Bell, the facilities manager for Tessco Technologies, a wireless communications provider that was flooded in 2002 when a nearby fire hydrant broke. “Too many companies go nuts with it,” Bell says.
In some cases, the planning and attendant crisis solutions can cost more than an actual disaster would.
Bell adds: “Invariably your plan isn’t going to address the specific disaster that you have. In our case, it was a broken fire hydrant, and I defy you to find anybody whose continuity plan says, ‘Have you checked with your fire department to see if the local fire hydrants are in good working condition?’ It’s not going to happen.”
Tessco’s business plan, which was revised after that incident, consists mainly of ensuring that all data is regularly backed up, duplicated and stored off site daily. If another disaster hits, the merchant just has to flip a switch.
The company also has strategic agreements with vendors such as Verizon so that phone service will continue no matter what.
Finally, Tessco makes sure that each department head is listed by function, not name, as people change but positions don’t.
The marketer also has an emergency Rolodex, a list of all employees, vendors, and partners to contact if a catastrophe occurs. Tessco keeps its plan online and each department head has two hard copies, one kept on his or her person or at the office and one kept at home.
If your business does not have a written plan, or if you are looking to revise an existing plan, the “Ready Business” section of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) both have good sample business continuity and disaster preparedness plans on their Websites.
You can download the Ready Business Sample Emergency Plan, which provides spaces for things like emergency contact information, emergency planning, coordination, critical operations, evacuation procedures, emergency communications, cyber security, and records back-up, by going to www.ready.gov/america/_downloads/sampleplan.pdf.
Finally, FEMA has developed an Emergency Management Guide for Business & Industry, which is broken down into four major sections: Establish a planning team, analyze capabilities and hazards, develop the plan and implement the plan. Each section contains detailed recommendations for creating and maintaining a comprehensive emergency management program. You can check out and download the guide by going to www.fema.gov/business/guide/index.shtm.
Natural disasters can destroy businesses and result in loss of life. But you can limit damages and injuries and get back to normal quickly if you’ve planned ahead.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a freelance business writer based in Wilton, CT.
A business survival plan
Back up data daily to a server located in a secure site, at least 50 miles away from your primary location or any flood or tornado zones.
If you manage your Website inhouse, have a backup server and someone who can administer the site in the event your primary location or power goes down.
Make sure each department head has an emergency contact list with the names and numbers of all employees, vendors, and partners — and that all employees know where to go and who to contact in case of a facility shutdown.
If your business takes orders over the phone or has phone-based customer service, implement a backup phone service. This might be an emergency call center that will take calls and orders and give out critical information in the event of an emergency.
If your business does have to shut down — even briefly — immediately post information, including an emergency call-in number, on your Website and inform your call center, if you have one, so that customers, employees, vendors and other concerned parties know what’s going on and how to contact you or get information about their orders.
Distribute your plan to all department heads and post it online (securing the information with a password so employee information is not exposed).
Review your plan regularly and test it if you can.