In mid-July, New York City experienced yet another catastrophe. A steam pipe exploded in mid-town Manhattan, killing one person and injuring many others. Beyond the human loss of life and injury, there were hundreds of businesses immediately affected by the blast and about 100 – including many small and mid-size businesses -- felt the impact for weeks.

The steam pipe explosion was only one of numerous natural or manmade disasters that are likely to wreak havoc on businesses this year. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and even terrorist attacks may be launched with little warning. In the steam pipe explosion alone, economists estimate tens of millions of dollars of lost revenue. Con Edison, New York City’s main provider of power and heating, said that it would pay customers for damaged goods, equipment and fixtures, but not for lost business.

What will these businesses do? What plans does your business have in place in the event of such a disaster?

Having a business continuity plan to help ensure the survivability of your business is essential these days. And that plan must include a strong technology component, as so many businesses rely on data stored in computers and on online processes for ordering supplies and selling to customers.

Depending on your type of business, your recovery options are going to be vastly different.

For retailers, if you have no access to your retail store and rely on foot traffic, it is going to be difficult for you to make any money or have a viable solution for the loss of your income. For professional service firms, which don’t necessarily have customers physically come to a particular location, the concern is more often with preventing the loss of essential data and getting the business up and running again in order to service customers as quickly as possible -- even if that means running the business from another location temporarily.

A complete business continuity solution includes many non-technology factors:

  • plans to replace executives, managers, and employees that might be lost in a disaster
  • taking care of the families of affected employees and more
  • insurance (of all forms and all types that you might need)

But technology plays an increasingly important role in business continuity and needs to be a central part in any plan. Here are some guidelines for what your business needs to take into consideration to properly prepare for the unexpected.

Back up your data. This is the number one item on your to-do list. Having your data backed up and stored off site ensures that if you have no access to your business and/or if it is destroyed in a disaster that you can still have the vital records you need (employee, customer, inventory, financial, contracts, etc) to run your business -- even if all of your computers are destroyed.

Customer contact. Being able to contact customers and keep them informed can help your business as it is going through difficulties during a disaster and when it recovers post-disaster. Maybe your physical business is closed, but you are able to sell more items online. Or you partner with a nearby retailer who compliments or even competes with your business. Capturing customer information at the point of sale is a way to ensure that customers (loyal or one time only) can be informed about your new arrangements.

Telecommunications. Your telephone system is very important and, if you need to leave your office and have no way to access it, you can be in trouble. One solution is to utilize a managed telephone service provider which would provide voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony. For very small companies, a virtual PBX type phone system could be a good option as well. In the event of an emergency, using either a VoIP system or virtual phone system, you can access and/or re-configure your telephone system from a Web browser.

Service agreements. Depending on how important it is for you to keep certain technologies up and running, in the event of a disaster, it’s important to analyze the agreements (such as leases or supplier contracts) you have in place. In a disaster, what are your obligations? What does it say in the contract as far as the other party's obligations? If you need to move to a new location, can your current vendor service you? If not, how soon can you requisition the services of a new vendor?

Disasters that result in business interruptions are going to occur. Your business goal should be to mitigate damages to your business when a disaster does strike.

Ramon Ray is an author, speaker, technology writer and former small business technology consultant. He publishes, a website that helps small and medium-sized businesses strategically use technology as a tool to grow their businesses.