Hurricane Preparedness for Small Business
Posted by Timothy Platt on Sep 4, 2017
Tips for Hurricane Preparedness for Small Business
It’s that time of year again – hurricane season – and as I write this, we’ve got yet another big storm potentially bearing down on Florida (Irma).
Strong storms and hurricanes are a fact of life in Florida – so you’ve got to prepare. It would be irresponsible not to prepare your small business, just as you would do for your home and family. But as you read this, keep in mind that potential disasters that threaten your business come in many forms – strong storms are just one. Many of these concepts apply to other things that can throw your business off track.
With that introduction out of the way, let’s get started. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive “How To” article, but it’s going to highlight key points – things I’ve seen happen while living in Florida for the last 30 years and supporting businesses for the last 20.
Storm Damage Comes in Many Forms
Hurricanes, and other powerful storms, can cause damage in a variety of ways:
- Wind damage – Strong winds are a certainty with a hurricane – a Category 5 storm can pack sustained winds of over 156mph. The sheer force of the wind, along with flying debris can cause extensive damage. Tornados are also a possibility.
- Flooding– Storm surge, which is the pile up of water as the storm’s winds drive water towards the shore, is an obvious impact, but even away from the coast the sheer amount of rainfall can overwhelm local drainage systems and cause flooding.
- Water Damage-Even if outright flooding is avoided, leaking roofs and broken windows can cause water damage to property and equipment.
- Electrical Outage-With all those factors, electrical power loss is near certain. A sudden electrical spike or outage can damage computer equipment. It’s even possible that a fallen power line could start a fire.
With all of the above, the damage can be magnified, because as the storm strikes it’s likely nobody is going to be on premises to take action.
But there are also other potential impacts to consider. These don’t damage your property directly, but still can be a threat to business:
- Employee Health and Safety – When people’s homes and families are at risk, you can expect the effect on the business is the last of the concerns, and rightly so. You may be short-staffed, before, during, and after the storm passes. People’s minds will be occupied with more pressing issues. Expect that one or more of your employees will experience all the impacts outlined above – including water damage, power loss, or flooding.
- Building & Facility Closures – Will your landlord close the building, and when? Will you be able to be present during the hours and days your customers and clients expect service?
- Road closures – Roads may be closed due to hazards and damage. Curfews and road closures may be enforced by law enforcement. Will staff and employees be able to get to work, if they need to?
- Fuel shortages – Any sort of flood or electrical outage will put some gas stations out of action – and those that remain will run low (or out) of gasoline quickly.
- Loss of Internet connectivity – No matter what type of Internet connectivity your business uses, it may be down or degraded. Your provider may not be able to restore service quickly. You (and your employees) may not be able to remote into the office or servers.
- Loss of Phone Service – Phones can depend on connectivity – Internet or otherwise. The phones may be down for a long while. Secondly, one or more cell towers may be down. Cell phones may not work.
- Service Provider Outages – Any 3rd party service providers you use may be impacted as well. Are they prepared? How will they react? When are they shutting down?
Ok, this is a big deal. Let’s switch gears now and talk about how you prepare.
Step 1 – Have a Plan
It’s best to have a plan, beforehand. As the storm is bearing down is perhaps the worst time to attempt to make a plan. But if you don’t have a plan – you don’t really have a choice – it’s an essential step regardless. There are 3 important things to consider: We need a plan for how we monitor, communicate, react, and deal with hurricane related issues (a Hurricane Plan), we need a plan for how we’d perform disaster recovery, in case of damaged facilities or data loss (a Disaster Recovery plan), and lastly, we need to understand how we’d continue to deliver critical services to customers and clients throughout the emergency period (a Business Continuity plan).
The Hurricane Plan is the outline of how you monitor an approaching storm and make decisions before it arrives. It also covers preparations for the impending storm to prevent or eliminate damage. It should outline key points of contact, key decision makers, and how communications will occur – between decision makers as well as the workforce, and suppliers. This point can’t be understated – how will you keep employees informed when they potentially don’t have access to email? Who is responsible for communicating to the employees after decisions are made? These are things that need to be planned in advance.
The Disaster Recovery Plan is a technical plan, and outlines how key systems and data are restored in the event of loss. Think of server backups and the restoration process – whether on premises or in the cloud. This plan is normally referred to as the DR plan.
The Business Continuity Plan details how critical services will continue to be delivered to customers and clients throughout an emergency or outage situation. It should address total outages and minor outages. Often abbreviated as BCP, this plan will consider which services are critical and must be delivered continuously. It should also address from where will you work if your facility is out of action for an extended time.
For the remainder of this article, we’re going to focus on the Hurricane Plan specifically.
Step 2 – Monitor the Storm – Know When to Take Action and Who Makes the Decisions
As the storm forms and approaches stay on top of the latest updates about the expected landfall, and strength of the storm. Use this time to review all plans, and to communicate proactively to the workforce about the business expectations. Make sure it’s clear when the key decision points are. You can’t wait until the last minute to check on your backups status, for example. It may take 48-72 hours for a full server backup to go offsite, in some situations. When will you decide about facility closings? Consider all the relevant lead times.
Step 3 – Communicate As You Monitor
Your customers need to know what is expected. Business as usual, or an outage? Obviously, you will want to be responsible and not start a panic – so this communication may be as simple as informing your customers about current status and the fact that you are monitoring the storm and prepared to take action. If all your customers are local, your status may be the last thing on their mind. But if they are far removed from the potential storm location, it’s also possible they’re not going to have a lot of empathy for your issues.
Your employees need to be kept up to date as well. Are we ready? Are we working? Are we shutting down early? Start the communication early and ensure everybody is aware. They may receive inquiries from customers and clients, and make sure they know what to say. Hopefully when you wrote your plan you considered how employees will get information about the status of the business. Is there emergency contact information readily available for all employees?
Lastly, your key partners and service providers should be informed. Make sure you stay in lock-step with your key business partners. Will they be closed? Will they be open? Are they even concerned? Ditto for service providers. Don’t be surprised when you call for tech support, to find out they’ve closed up shop for the storm. Secondly, you don’t want any “surprises” by finding out at the last minute that a business-critical service you rely on isn’t available.
Step 4 – Take Precautions as Dictated by Severity
Throughout the process, take steps to mitigate damage. As the landfall of the storm, and strength, become more precise, take additional actions as needed.
Consider these items and typical precautions. These vary in complexity and severity, and should be applied with full consideration of likely impact:
- Inventory hurricane emergency supplies and restock if necessary
- Secure objects that might become flying debris
- Move equipment away from windows
- Ensure paper records and documents are protected from potential damage
- Ensure that all vehicles are serviced and fueled. Determine where they can be stored safely during the storm.
- Secure all doors, windows, and other openings against wind and water.
- Move equipment off the floor. If near a window, move it or cover with waterproof plastic.
1/2″ inch of water on the floor can disable a computer. Remember that ceilings can leak, especially with abnormally heavy rain.
- Ensure a full backup set of all critical data is available, and ideally offsite
- Ensure you know how to request support and services from suppliers through the emergency period.
- Ensure you have access to key information that may go offline (such as contact details for all employees and key suppliers).
- Ensure emergency power generators are ready and fully fueled, if applicable
- Consider powering down and unplugging all desktop equipment and other non-essential equipment to prevent damage in the event of a power surge.
- Consider shutting down the servers in a controlled fashion (rather than experiencing an abrupt power outage). The flip side is to consider that you’ll be unable to work remotely if all systems are down. You’ll need to balance risk and productivity of the business.
- Have emergency contact information at the ready, including for your insurance provider.
Step 5 – After the Storm
No plan is complete without considering what we do afterwards. The key points for after the storm – Assess damage at all work sites including roof, water, damage and broken windows. Perform any clean up required. Determine if power and cooling are reliable enough to turn all servers back on. Ensure employees are up to date on facility status, and when regular business hours are expected to resume.
If you didn’t have a hurricane plan, take a few minutes to jot down everything you did, and take into consideration what worked, what didn’t work, etc. Don’t get caught without a plan for next time. Good plans are built through iteration. You make them better every time you learn something new. And maybe start thinking about other potential disasters – fire, flood, earthquake, hacker intrusion, etc.
Lastly, cloud services can be a huge boon to business uptime, especially during events like this. If your business is purely local, maybe it doesn’t matter, but if you are serving customers elsewhere it might be a bigger deal. The beauty of cloud services is that they are in near bullet proof data centers – with a level of reliability, uptime, and redundancy you can’t possibly match. They also have multiple geographic options, and if your services are designed right, they can take advantage of that as well.
Next Steps on Hurricane Preparedness
So, as you can see, there are a lot of points to consider. And what is right for your company depends on what your business needs and your particular situation. We’re here to help – whether drafting up a plan or putting it into motion. If we can help you, please give us a call at (407) 268-6626.
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