Ann Machado has spent a lot of time preparing for disasters. As CEO and founder of Creative Staffing, an employment agency based in hurricane-prone Miami, she has to. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, she's factoring in a new set of risks. Like chemical warfare. "Do you stay in the building and have a lockdown?" she wonders. "We don't keep canned food here. Should we keep canned food?"
Like Machado, business owners all over the country are taking a new look at disaster-recovery and business-continuity plans. Here are some low-cost tips and solutions to help you prepare for emergencies.
What if the phones go out?
Redundancy -- having backup systems for critical technology like telephones -- is a key principle of disaster-recovery planning. One solution is to sign up with more than one telephone carrier, says disaster-recovery expert Philip Jan Rothstein of Rothstein Associates Inc., in Brookfield, Conn. If AT&T service fails, maybe your MCI lines will still be able to handle calls. But check with your carriers to make sure that they don't share infrastructure. Otherwise, both services will probably be down simultaneously.
Bill Hicks, chief information officer of Miami-based customer-relationship-management provider Precision Response Corp., is a fan of dual-path telecommunications. Put simply, it's two bundles of cable, each installed in separate locations in a building rather than together. With dual path, he says, it's less likely that the road crew working on the street in front of your building will take out your entire telephone system at once. "If you're in a major office park, it should be free," Hicks says. "Most carriers are offering this as part of their regular service."
Cell-phone networks tend to get overloaded during a crisis. But cell phones are still a great alternative method of communication, says disaster-recovery expert Mary Carrido of MLC & Associates, based in Port Orchard, Wash. And wireless two-way-paging technology, such as the BlackBerry, worked extremely well during the attack on the World Trade Center, allowing people to send E-mail and even access some software applications remotely, Carrido and Rothstein say.
Even if your phones are fine in a disaster, those of your key customers or suppliers might not be. So get the home phone numbers of essential customers and suppliers, Rothstein advises.
What if I need to evacuate the office?
First of all, have an evacuation plan and practice it. Fire departments don't always require fire drills in low-rise buildings, says Carrido, but it's possible to insert a clause in your lease to ensure that your building stages regular fire drills.
It's also a good idea to figure out in advance who has the authority to close the office. At Creative Staffing, it's two of the company's three top officers. But if only one officer is available, that executive has the authority to make the decision. "We've created concentric circles around the office so people who live farther away go home first," Machado adds.
What if I can't get back into my office?
Again, think redundancy. A branch office might be worth its weight in gold during an emergency that closes the main office. Also, consider splitting up key business functions so that they're not concentrated in one location, says Carrido. Machado says that her own house could serve as a substitute office in a pinch. "I rewired my house," she says. "I can now put 12 computers in there if I have to."
Hicks suggests that small companies strike an agreement with another company -- a business partner, a supplier, even a customer -- to maintain reciprocal hot sites, such as a backup office with servers and workstations. That way, each company would keep a server at the other's offices to cover essential functions, such as payroll or accounting, and could count on temporarily using the other's work space if need be.
What do I do about my computers?
Store your backup tapes in a convenient place other than your office -- perhaps your own house. Rothstein says that he backs up data for his consulting practice at least daily and at a nearby relative's home keeps a tape made weekly. He also sends a monthly backup to his parents' house in Florida.
The same goes for backup servers: Don't keep them right next to your primary server, says Rothstein.
The Internet offers another kind of backup solution. "All our applications are Web-based, and that's going to be really critical for any kind of disaster-recovery plan," says Hicks. "[Employees] can go to any PC, anywhere, to access that application."
And if the computers are totaled -- well, Ashley Postlewaite, founder of Renegade Animation, in Burbank, Calif., is prepared. She keeps a full inventory of company assets, such as computers, at home, and she updates it every six months so that she could file an accurate insurance claim quickly if necessary. "If the last inventory is a year ago," says Carrido, "you can bet only 20% of the claims will go through."
A solid, tested disaster-recovery plan is just good business sense, Machado adds. "After Hurricane Andrew, FEMA came into town right away, and the contractors came in. We had a big ad in the yellow pages, and we were able to answer our phones, so we picked up a ton of business," she says. "There's a lot of business that comes after a disaster, but you've got to be able to function."
Emily Barker is a senior staff writer at Inc.
Check the Fine Print
John Kneeley, CEO of Martin Progressive, learned the hard way about his business-insurance coverage. Until September 11, Kneeley's technology consulting company was located on the 77th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Luckily, all his employees got out of the building with only a few minor injuries. But Kneeley discovered that what he had thought was insured and what was actually covered by his company's insurance policies were two very different things. "Tell your readers they need to understand how the 'buckets' work in insurance," Kneeley told reporter Kate O'Sullivan. "We thought we had a lump sum to draw from for office furniture and technology and business-continuance. It turns out our business continuance and our computers fall into the same bucket. We don't have enough to cover the cost of our computers, so that means we have zero left in the bucket for our continuance."
And that wasn't the only insurance problem facing Kneeley. "It's very confusing," he says. "So you should let people know not just what insurance you need but what different things cover."
We took Kneeley's words to heart. Lisa Chadderdon, a producer at Inc.com, has put together a detailed online report that not only explains common mistakes business owners make with their insurance coverage but also suggests actions you can take to get the coverage your business should have. The advice ranges from the very practical (keeping detailed records of all your business transactions so you can get claims paid quickly) to the technical (knowing the difference between replacement-cost valuation and depreciated settlements for property damage). Read our report at www.inc.com/keyword/1201insure.
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