After the Storm
Why Area Businesses Need a Disaster Recovery Plan
There’s no doubt that the summer of the tornado, hurricane, and earthquake in Western Mass. got more businesses thinking about the importance of a disaster-recovery plan. But the truth is, it doesn’t take a natural disaster to suddenly shut a company down; a freak fire or flood will do the trick, too. Employers who have developed business-continuation strategies in case of an adverse event — and those who wish they had done so sooner — agree that there’s plenty of value in preparing for the worst.
No one goes to work expecting the roof to come off. Gretchen Neggers certainly didn’t.
She’s the town administrator in Monson, and she recalls the fateful late afternoon of June 1, when a tornado cut a path right through downtown.
“It passed right over our town offices and police station, causing significant damage to that structure,” she told BusinessWest. “It essentially blew the roof off.”
The initial concern, of course, was to see if anyone was physically hurt. The next was how to keep municipal services running at a time when residents would need them more than ever.
“Obviously, that facility houses critical operations,” she said. “All the town’s vital data, our permanent records, everything was housed in that building, and all the essential functions we perform as a town happen there. So it was a challenge to respond to the needs of residents in the community, and at the same time deal with the disaster within our own building.”
One of the town’s first calls was to CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow, which handles a variety of information-technology services for Monson.
“We said, ‘we need to get our servers out of here,’” Neggers said. In the meantime, someone had the sense to do what they could to protect them before CMD was able to move them — in this case, covering the equipment with a tarp and setting up a fan to blow cool air at it.
“We were very fortunate that our data survived,” she told BusinessWest. “There was some blessing in that; had we lost our data, the recovery would have been much harder. We did have some limited backup, but we didn’t have any off-site backup, which is something I now strongly recommend. It was a lesson learned.”
The town offices were relocated, and the town undertook what she called “an intense effort” to get operations up and running in a few days. Importantly, no municipal employees had any paychecks delayed.
“It was something you say, ‘that’ll never happen,’” Neggers said. “Unfortunately, what we learned is that the unthinkable can happen, and you do have to be prepared for it.”
After a summer when Western Mass. was hit with a tornado, the remnants of a hurricane (and plenty of flooding), and even a minor earthquake, companies, municipalities, and nonprofit agencies are looking more seriously at having a plan in place to keep their business operating even if their place of business is no longer usable.
Joan Kagan knows what that’s like. The president and CEO of Square One, whose Springfield headquarters was demolished by the tornado, did indeed have a disaster-recovery plan in place, meaning luck was less of a factor than it was at Monson’s town hall.
“We had completed the first phase of our plan, which was focused on our financial data, which we backed up every night on computer servers down in Connecticut, far from any of our facilities,” she said. “All our our financial data was backed up every night. That allowed us to get back into business right away, and we didn’t lose any of our data. That was critical to us.”
Why? For one thing, “we bill the state electronically for 1,200 kids every month,” Kagan said. “What if we had to go back and recreate the ID numbers and what the services are that we provided that month, so we could bill the state for it? We’d probably still be working on it now. Instead, we were able to get back in business right away.”
For a business like child care, where so many clients depend on those services every day, that continuity is particularly important, she added.
“These are critical services for families, and also, our employees depend on us for their paychecks,” she said. “Some are single or heads of household. You’re talking about hundreds of people who could be impacted if they go without paychecks. But we were able to get payroll out three days after the tornado because we had a backup system. A lot of people lost jobs because of that storm, but we were able to keep everyone employed.”
In this issue, BusinessWest examines the issue of disaster response, and how having a plan — and, just as important, making sure employees understand it and train on it — can make the difference between being helpless and staying in business when there’s no longer a physical business to go to.
Banking on Trouble
Paul Scully knows a little about disaster planning. That’s because Country Bank, of which Scully is president and CEO, has long had such a plan, and trained on it often — which turned out to be extremely fortunate the day a fire broke out at its main office in Ware in 2008, causing no injuries but significant smoke damage.
“It doesn’t matter what the size of your company is; if you could potentially have an interruption in cash flow and business, you have a problem,” Scully said. “You should never think you’re too small to prepare, even if you’re just a two-person company.”
With 44,000 square feet of space rented nearby, stocked with dozens of spare computers, and plenty of server redundancy, every bank office except the one affected by the fire (which had to be cleaned and renovated) was open for business the following morning (a Saturday), with no loss of data for any customer.
“The real key to having a plan is testing it — on an annual basis at mininum — but, in addition to testing it, updating it,” he said. “We do a mock disaster drill every year; we literally make the switch over as if we had just had a disaster. Not only do we switch the operating system over to backup, but we have people come in and do testing at the backup site that day.”
The reasons for repeating the training often are obvious, he said.
“A lot of folks wear different hats, their job responsibilities might change, or they might leave the organization,” he explained. “If Joe was in charge of making sure everyone is accounted for, and suddenly Joe’s gone, then who is the person responsible for that?”
Kagan also stressed the importance of having staff trained in disaster-recovery procedures — “particularly, in our case, with safety measures, evacuating children, which allowed us to avoid any tragedies or having anyone injured. We practice that in our centers and have fire drills once a month, so the staff are trained in how to safely evacuate, and children know how to go to a safe place. That worked to our advantage.”
She emphasized the need for a communication plan after an event. “We make sure that people have their cell phones, that people are in communication and identifying what the needs are,” she explained. “We were able to do that, and the next morning we were able to use our contacts in the community to help us identify space [to set up shop]. The community was very responsive, and from day one people offered us space.”
Dave Delvecchio, president of Innovative Business Systems in Easthampton, recently opened a data center in Marlborough that acts not only as a remote office, but as a disaster-recovery suite for clients. If a customer’s place of business is suddenly rendered unusable, IBS can transfer the contents of the client’s entire network to the Marlborough office, which is equipped with four workstations, in effect providing a location for that customer to continue to operate.
It’s not just disasters business owners should worry about, he said, but everyday mishaps. For tenants in a mixed-use, multi-tenant building, he explained, the odds of a localized disaster — anything from a candle fire to a knocked-out sprinklerhead — go up by a factor of 10. But the past summer’s weather events have really got clients talking.
“We’ve definitely received some cold calls from a few folks about disaster response this year,” he said — as well as a humorous moment the day the Valley trembled. “I was talking with a client one day about potential solutions, and he said, ‘is the floor moving?’ As soon as the earthquake ended, he said, ‘all right, you’ve made the earth move — I’ll sign anything!’”
On a serious note, though, sometimes it takes a disaster for people to realize the importance of their computer infrastructure.
“They don’t have paper-based forms to fall back on anymore. A hotel can’t make a reservation without going online. Insurance companies can’t process claims without going online. Whether you’re a large, regional bank, a single-location business with 10 employees, or a nonprofit agency, we’re finding that disaster planning is meaningful to businesses.”
In Touch and in Business
Charlie Christianson, president of CMD and its sister company, Peritus Security, which offers risk-management services to businesses, echoed the importance of backing up data off-site.
“A lot of people just plug a USB drive into the server and create another hard drive — but all the hard drives are sitting on one site,” he said. “What if the building gets crushed? It’s great on a day-to-day basis if a file gets lost, but it certainly doesn’t protect against catastrophic failures. If a catastrophic event comes through, or an electrical event occurs, you run the risk of losing it all.”
And that means possibly losing business — permanently. After the tornado, the CMD/Peritus offices had no phone connections or Internet access; even cellular service wasn’t active. So the team “triaged,” Christianson said, at a local coffee shop where service was available.
“We started going down the customer list and calling our clients, letting them know how to get hold of us, finding out what they needed, and we started slapping priorities on things,” he said. “You could have people who have been customers for years, and when they can’t get hold of you during an event like this, instead of thinking, ‘maybe there’s a problem with the phones,’ it’s ‘oh, we hope you’re not out of business.’ That’s how quickly people turn nowadays.
“You have to have systems in place on the technology side,” he added, “and it’s equally important to have this stuff written down. Because as calm and cool as people think they’re going to be when stuff hits the fan, that’s not a good time to be figuring things out.”
Scully agrees with the importance of a business-continuity plan. “What do you do if the building isn’t accessible for months? How would you operate? Sure, you may have business insurance, and that may help with cash flow, but what it doesn’t do is satisfy your customer base, and that’s a risk you can’t quantify.”
Some customers would go elsewhere, he said, while competitors would have no problem exploiting the situation and reaching out to welcome them. “I don’t think you can underestimate the the impact of not having a disaster-recovery plan or a business-interruption plan. It’s worth its weight in gold.”
That goes for all kinds of operations, Neggers said.
“A lot of business are regulated — like banking — and are required to have disaster-recovery plans, but I can see why it’s something that everyone should put a lot more attention into,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not something you want to develop after a disaster happens.”
And just having a plan isn’t enough, she said. “Your plan needs to be precise, it needs to be comprehensive, and you need to train on it. What are you going to do if you can’t go to the office tomorrow, if you don’t have your computer, don’t have your files, don’t have your phone? How are you going to perform the essential functions of your business?
“I hope our experience is something that other entities can learn from,” she continued. “We were lucky in many ways because we didn’t lose our server, but you can’t have your critical functions reliant on luck. It’s something I know we’ll take a lot more seriously moving forward.”
Shelter from the Storm
Christianson still marvels at the sudden outburst by Mother Nature.
“Western Mass. never used to have such radical swings in weather. Maybe once in a great, great while,” he said. “But during the course of the summer, we had a tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, multiple borderline tornadic events — it seemed like every two weeks we were having a windfall of activity.
“It certainly kept us busy,” he added. “You don’t like to see it happen to people, of course. But no sooner than we’d get one mess cleaned up, the next thing you know, another storm ripped through, causing damage or flooding.”
It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to get employers preparing for the worst, he said, but it’s an effective reminder.
“You need to step back and think outside your box,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘oh, it’ll never happen,’ because we saw it happen.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org