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When disaster strikes

19 January 2008 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

This article was originally featured in bizSanDiego.

You just got the reverse-911 call. Your house is under threat of fire. You’ve got 15 minutes to pack your things and go.

What do you take? What’s most important? And where in the heck did you put it?

Now, imagine that it’s your business, which can pose even more complications.

If you don’t already know what to do when disaster strikes, it’s probably too late. And when the disaster is over, your business may be too. California businesses face all manner of threats: earthquake, floods, landslides, fire and terrorist attacks. “You need to have a plan of attack,” says Ed Sullivan, a business continuity expert for Southern California at Jefferson Wells, a consultancy and risk management firm. “If not, you won’t recover.”

Sullivan notes that following the September 11 terrorist attacks, among the businesses at the World Trade Center that had disaster recovery plans, a full 100 percent were operational within three days to six weeks. Among businesses that lacked plans, only three percent were back—more than a year later. “Many, many, many of those businesses will never come back, and that’s just a failure to plan,” he says.

Here’s a checklist of how to plan for disaster recovery for your business:

1) Know which records are essential to the business. These might include: sales contracts, invoices, accounts receivable and payable, payroll, employee information and tax statements. Intellectual property and technical documents proprietary to the business are also critical. “It’s absolutely essential to know what records to have,” says Monty Dickinson, San Diego president of SCORE, a non-profit which counsels small businesses.

2) Choose a location for back-up records. This location needs to be offsite, in case your main building is destroyed. The back-ups can be contained in several forms: disks, emails or computer mainframes. The information should be downloaded weekly to stay current. How far should the back-up location be? It can be across town, the country or even the globe, depending on the level of disaster planned, said Andrew Lochart of St. Bernard, a content management company based in Rancho Bernardo, which offers data centers in Orange County, Atlanta and London.

3) Designate an alternative location for your employees. If disaster strikes, employees need to know where to go. That may be another office location or their own homes. The company also needs a way to communicate with employees once disaster hits, so they know: what is happening, where to go, how to work, what to do. If employees must work from home, make sure they have the equipment, phone, email, Web site, intranet, video or other technology to stay in communication.

4) Know how quickly the business needs to recover. Determine how long the company can survive without functioning. That may be days, weeks or months. The longer a business is shut down, the greater the operational and financial risks. This timeframe is the goal that the company needs to set for recovery efforts. “Look at the cost of not being able to do business over time,” says Sullivan of Jefferson Wells. “That tells you how quickly you need to recover.” Ultimately, “Businesses need to focus on getting back to doing business,” he says.

5) Test the plan. After implementing the disaster recovery plan, test and update it. Inform employees of backup plans, communication centers, alternative office locations and course of action. During a disaster, most employees are not thinking about how to save the business. They need to save themselves. Planning ahead will give everyone clear instructions. Then review and update plans regularly, to account for changes in your business systems, strategy and technology.

Many business owners think that disaster could never happen to them. But experts say no business is immune. “If you think about it after the fact,” says SCORE’s Dickinson, “it’s too late.”

Helen Kaiao Chang is a ghostwriter, editor and journalist. She can be reached at www.ghostwriter-needed.com.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang

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