Ann Machado has spent a lot of time preparing for disasters. As CEO of Creative Staffing, a temporary employee agency based in hurricane-prone Miami, she has to. Now, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, 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?"

Not everyone is considering such drastic measures. But business owners all over the country are reviewing their disaster recovery and business continuity plans--or maybe scrambling to put together a plan for the very first time. Here are some low-cost tips and solutions that can help even small businesses without deep pockets prepare for emergencies.

1. What if the phones go out?

Redundancy is a key principle of disaster recovery planning. That means having backup systems and alternative means of communication. One way is to sign up with more than one telephone carrier, says disaster recovery expert Philip Jan Rothstein of Rothstein Associates Inc. 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, CIO of Miami-based call center provider Precision Response Corporation, is a fan of dual-path telecommunications. Put simply, that means two separate bundles of cable are coming into the building at different points. 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 in a crisis, as many people in the New York area discovered on September 11. But cell phones are still a great alternative method of communication says disaster recovery expert Mary Carrido of MLC & Associates. And wireless two-way paging technology, such as the Blackberry worked extremely well during the World Trade Center attack, 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.

2. 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, normally it' s Machado. But if she' s out of town, the senior vice-president and chief financial officer decide together. "We've created concentric circles around the office so people who live farthest away [ from the office] go home first," Machado adds.

At Precision Response, says Hicks, the company follows a so-called T-chart to prepare for an approaching hurricane. At T minus 48 hours, for instance, staffers break out plastic bags to cover PCs and printers in case of leakage. With 8 offices in southern Florida, the company gives employees in the call centers most likely to be hit the choice of staying home during the storm or working in one of the company' s other facilities. If they choose to work, says Hicks, they' re paid extra. Starting at T-48, the company also orders food for workers. "You can' t start ordering food at 24 hours because there' s going to be no food left," notes Hicks. And, finally, the company calls customers to apprise them of the situation and find out how much potential downtime each customer could stand.

3. 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. Take the painful experience of software company BinaryTree after the World Trade Center collapse. Most of the company is based in Red Wing, Minnesota. But BinaryTree' s financial office was in downtown Manhattan--which made it inaccessible when that neighborhood was closed off during the week after September 11. "We can' t get to our checkbook," said CEO Tom Schramski on September 19. "All our receivables are sitting in a locked box [ there] ."

In an age of telecommuting, it' s often easy to have employees work from home when the office is closed. 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."

Large companies often rely on outside IT vendors to maintain a so-called hot site, a backup office with servers and work stations. Hicks suggests a low-cost alternative for smaller companies: Strike an agreement with another company--a business partner, a supplier, even a customer--to maintain reciprocal hot sites. Each company keeps a separate server at the other' s offices to cover essential functions such as payroll or accounting, and can count on borrowing some workspace if need be. "Nobody has to do any out-of-pocket funding," says Hicks.

Often companies like to keep their hot sites far away from the main office to reduce the chance that both would be wiped out by the same calamity. But one of the lessons of the September 11 terrorist attack is that you can' t always rely on air travel to get to an alternate location. "Many of those [ World Trade Center] companies had hot sites and relocation places that were in other states or on the West Coast, and they couldn't get to the site," says Carrido. "Nobody ever thought the entire air transport system would be closed."

4. What do I do about my computers?

Most business owners know that they have to back up their data. But what you do with the backup is just as important. If your computers are destroyed by an office flood, for example, it' s going to be difficult to restore your data if the backup tapes were in the office, too. Keep your backup tapes in a remote location that' s nevertheless easily accessible--perhaps your own house. Rothstein says that he backs up data for his consulting practice weekly and keeps a tape at a nearby relative' s home. He also sends a monthly backup to his parent' s house in Florida.

The same goes for backup servers, Rothstein adds: Don' t keep them right next to your primary server.

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. That's a big difference from five years ago when all technology was installed on the desktop."

And if the computers are totaled--well, Ashley Postlewaite, CEO of Renegade Animation in Los Angeles, is prepared. She keeps a full inventory of company assets such as computers at home, which she updates every six months, so that she could file an accurate insurance claim quickly. "If the last inventory is a year ago," says Carrido, "you can bet only 20 percent of the claims will go through."

One big reason that Machado keeps her disaster recovery plan up to date is that her customers force her to. Many of her largest customers won' t do business without seeing a disaster recovery plan, she says. "They're very concerned about where you're keeping data and how quickly you can restore data."

But a solid, tested disaster recovery plan is just good business sense, she adds. "After Hurricane Andrew, FEMA came into town right away and the contractors came in and 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 magazine.

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