When disaster strikes

Apr 30, 2018

Are all your processes in place in the event your firm is waylaid by a wildfire, earthquake, hurricane or flood?

Things were pretty much business as usual in early December with sunny skies and strong Santa Ana winds projected in Ventura, California, when a brush fire broke out 15 miles to the east. It never occurred to me that within hours my neighborhood would be on fire and that the corporate headquarters of our company, Rincon Consultants – as well as much of our city – would be under a mandatory evacuation.

The evacuation order for what would become the largest fire in California history lasted three days, followed by several weeks of unhealthy air quality. It’s fair to say that the lives of all our staff were affected by the event, some much more seriously than others.

The Ventura office serves as the headquarters for 10 branch offices spread throughout the state and houses key computer servers, all of which have off-site back-ups and some cloud-based resources. The office is not in a high fire hazard area and never appeared to be at risk from storms or other natural disasters, with the possible exception of earthquakes – this is California, after all. While we are very fortunate to have navigated this event with limited negative effects, we did gain several important insights along the way.

Preparing physical operations. Think of your office without electricity or potable water, inaccessible due to road closures or evacuations and then impacted by poor air quality. In advance of such an event, you must ask yourself the following:

  • Have you identified the highest priority items to evacuate, such as servers and other high-value portable equipment and corporate documents?
  • How will those items be recovered and where will they be taken? Can servers be reestablished in a secure and safe location to offer work continuity within a short time? Where is that location?
  • Can company command and control tools (e.g., servers, databases, email systems, phones) be reestablished in another office or location? How long might that take? Will electricity be available?
  • In the absence of electricity, do you have lighting that will allow you to evacuate key items?
  • Who is responsible and how will communications be achieved in the absence of the traditional office infrastructure? Are all team members’ emergency phone contacts accessible?
  • Are there contractual obligations or client expectations that need to be met regardless of the disaster? How will those key business priorities be managed?
  • How does the disaster affect work programs, deliverables, and critical business concerns?
  • Have you established redundancy in keeping key accounting functions in order, such as billing and payables?
  • During the disaster, as difficult as it may be, are you thinking ahead to the next day, week, month? Early foresight allowed us to plan for and implement an aggressive cleanup response that included air scrubbers along with devising work strategies to assist staff being productive in the aftermath of the fire.

Considering the human impact of disasters. A disaster of any kind is traumatic and can have a pronounced effect on those people who are affected. Managing the need to keep focused on business operations and productivity while being highly sensitive to that trauma is a unique challenge. Some suggestions to help staff through this difficult time are as follows:

  • Utilize proactive communication with staff regarding the disaster. Articulate the need to continue business operations as much as possible while still being sensitive to how circumstances may be impacting each individual.
  • Check in with all employees to determine how events have affected them, assess their ability to accommodate their workload commitments, and transition workloads when necessary.
  • Form a strategy to account for disruptions in employee work hours. Staff impacted by the fires were eligible to take up to 24 hours of paid leave under our personal special leave program as this event was deemed an extraordinary emergency.
  • Keep in mind the importance of redundancy with critical tasks such as processing payroll or producing deliverables on fixed schedules. For us, having staff in other geographic locations cross-trained on essential tasks and functions was especially important.
  • Several schools in our area were shut down for a month as they were in mandatory evacuation zones, suffered from unhealthy air quality, and then had the normally scheduled winter break. How will you support staff with children who can’t go to school for more than a month?
  • Look to crowdfunding to help those who have been financially impacted by the disaster. In our case, two employees lost their homes and staff raised several thousand dollars via crowdfunding on their behalf.

Information technology and creating a seamless experience for sister offices. Prior to the Thomas Fire, our IT team ran multiple drills to prepare for a worst-case scenario disruption in the event of a natural disaster. They devised redundancy measures for key assets, including off-site backups and failover devices. The headquarters being off-line entirely for multiple days, however, was an “even worse” worst-case scenario. This prompted an evaluation of the value of lessons learned regarding IT.

Though we didn’t experience any single points of failure per se, the redundancy our firm judged as being sufficient – an exchange server plus an exchange backup, disaster, and recovery device – only existed at one office. A lesson learned was that we needed at least one more level of redundancy than we had originally anticipated.

Redundancy for key IT staff: who forms the core team and are they available? When our disaster unfolded, our IT manager was out on paternity leave. We had to ask: If a task is delegated to a staff member by a manager, are they familiar enough with the IT configuration to know what needs to happen in an emergency? We have a third-party IT vendor as an added redundancy measure to support IT services. This vendor was able to jump in to supplement efforts, taking our endangered server to a secure location within a couple of hours and getting staff in the rest of the state back online and in communication. This same vendor also provides an emergency number, posted in every office, that can be called 24/7.

Cyber, business personal property, business interruption, and other insurance policies. Be familiar with the particulars of your insurance policies with regard to specific disasters like floods or fires and then make sure your policies are updated to accommodate the value of your equipment plus the time or materials lost. Do you know who to notify and are there any procedural steps that must be followed to initiate a claim in an expedited manner? Ongoing updates and communication of key information to administrative managers will ensure that redundancy covers this important area, too.

A single point of contact or a contact hub. When the disaster strikes a pre-established chain of communication will make spreading the news about what to do much easier. Decide early on who should disseminate information and who will be a point of contact for key staff to streamline communications to the rest of the company.

Set expectations among staff not directly affected by the event regarding how time will be managed, communications forwarded, and projects completed. Figure out ahead of time if expectations need to be re-calibrated or if staff should work any differently because of the situation that has unfolded. If someone is evacuated can their work be picked up by another staff person?

Prepare for the transition back to normality by creating a timeline. Plan ahead by establishing who will be responsible for the timeline and how it will be communicated to staff. The timeline should consider whether there will be impacts to certain portions of the business network but not others.

Conclusion. A little preparation paid significant dividends for Rincon in minimizing operational interruptions during the Thomas Fire – one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region. Decisive factors that permitted us to weather the crisis included built-in redundancy among our key staff and critical IT assets such as servers. Our flexible approach made it possible for employees to log into systems remotely, from home or other locations. Our IT vendor’s excellent customer service also contributed to our ability to minimize impacts from the disaster. A combination of proactive communication allowed management to better respond to the needs of personnel, the company as a whole, and our clients. The importance of defined roles and preparation of corporate and operational management, administrative, HR, and IT staff, cannot be underestimated.

Mike Gialketsis is a founding partner at Rincon Consultants, Inc., an environmental consulting firm with offices across California. He can be reached at mike@rinconconsultants.com.

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