Hurricane Preparedness for Businesses Part One: Disaster Recovery Planning

As the nation kicks off Hurricane Preparedness Week, FOXNews.com talks to two disaster recovery experts to find out how to guarantee that you and your business are ready to weather any storm.

This is the first installment of a five part series offering answers from Tom Serio, director of business continuity management for Office Depot, and Jon Toigo, CEO and managing partner of Toigo Partners International, on the following topics: Disaster Recovery Planning, Protecting Your People, Protecting Your Data, Investing in Disaster Planning and How to Create a Disaster Recovery Plan for Your Business.

Part 1: Disaster Recovery Planning

Q. What is disaster recovery planning?

Tom Serio: Disaster recovery planning is about business survival.

A contingency plan can ensure that your business operations won’t come to a halt when faced with unexpected events. It comes down to having a program to avoid preventable disasters and for coping with events you can’t avoid. Having a sound and well-tested plan; one in which your employees have been fully trained; can enable your business to successfully “weather” any storm. If you’re prepared, you can face any disaster, whether it’s a hurricane, fire, or flood; or a technology disaster that could happen any day, such as a computer virus or a power outage.

Q. Why is it important?

Jon Toigo: Simply put, not having a plan or back-up system can mean the end of your business.

A company denied access to its’ critical data for longer than 48 to 72 hours may never fully recover. And, with experts predicting a very active storm season this year, it’s critical for businesses to prepare for a potential disaster now.

Q. What are the most common planning mistakes?

Serio: The most common mistake is not planning for a potential disaster. That could be due to the fear that management won’t support it because it will cost too much, or because you think your business is too small to be affected. But remember, up until now you’ve invested in building your business – financially and emotionally – so now’s not the time to cut corners. Plus, disaster planning does not require a million dollar solution. You just need a common sense plan that protects you, your employees and your business.

The second mistake is a lack of adequate testing. In reality, testing is the only way to spot gaps in planning and employee training. Testing helps you adapt to changes in the business and its technology infrastructure that naturally occur over time.

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Q. What should be a small business owner's main goals?

Toigo: The number one rule in disaster planning is to protect your most valuable assets: your people and your data. Secondly, you’ll want to make some plans for when, where and how your people will get back to work.

Q. What are the top three things that should be done to prepare?

Serio: 1. Update your business contact lists, establish a clear process for communication and plan how you will contact one another in different scenarios. We learned this the hard way last year when employees in affected areas scattered across the country. When building your contact list get as much information as possible – relatives’ contact information, alternative communication devices, etc.

2. Back-up all of your critical data and move the media to an off-site storage facility.

3. Rehearse and test your plan. Build teams of two or more people to handle key functions in an emergency. And, practice, practice, practice through regular drills.

Q. How do disaster recovery plans differ for various types of businesses?

Toigo: Disaster planning and recovery is not an issue where the size or type of your business matters.

Although disaster planning is not a one-size-fits-all concept; to give structure to your recovery plans and help prioritize recovery goals, you need to determine the critical business processes. This helps you define the technology that supports your data. With those things done, you can figure out what data to back up and begin planning for how you will restore your business to productivity in the wake of a disastrous event.

Q. Do small businesses differ from corporations in terms of disaster recovery planning?

Serio: Disasters mean the same thing for every business: an unplanned interruption in normal business function and process for an unacceptable period of time.

As a matter of fact, it’s the small — and medium-sized — businesses that tend to be more vulnerable precisely because they don’t think they are. The truth is, it’s a lot easier for small businesses to prepare and get the job done.

To do so, identify your goals for recovery, including how quickly your key business processes need to be back up and running. Then create the appropriate recovery strategies.

Most companies – small and large – need specific plans for the recovery of: 1) the applications and their data that support key business processes; 2) voice and data networks; and 3) user work areas.

Q. What are some resources business owners can use to create their own disaster recovery plans?

Toigo: As of May 22nd, businesses and businesspeople can log on to www.officedepot.com and download a free copy of Office Depot’s “Disaster Preparedness: Advice You Can Depend on to Weather Any Storm.” The guide is filled with information about how to ready your business for a potentially disruptive or disastrous event.

I also recommend business owners visit The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s site Ready.gov, which was designed to launch a process of learning about citizen preparedness, and Disaster Recovery Planning.org and the Data Management Institute – two informative online resources for disaster recovery and data protection planning.

If they haven’t already, small companies should also familiarize themselves with The Small Business Administration, which provides disaster relief loans to qualifying businesses after disasters.

Q. What are the major challenges business owners can expect to face during this process?

Toigo: One of the largest challenges business owners face is the notion that disaster planning is a difficult and costly process. In actuality, disaster recovery planning is not nearly as complex as one would think and there are a number of simple and affordable tools available to protect businesses.

A simple $1.00 piece of back-up media such as a writable CD could mean the difference between business disaster and business survival for a smaller firm. Depending on the amount of critical information you need to protect, there’s a wide array of affordable media available such as DVDs and portable disk drives that quickly connect to your computer’s USB port. Just be sure to take a copy of your software used to make back-ups to a secure off-site location once it’s created.

Q. What are some lessons you've learned from your own disaster recovery experience?

Serio: With our headquarters based in South Florida, we know first hand the importance of being prepared. Last year alone, Office Depot survived four major hurricanes at its corporate headquarters and across nearly 100 stores in the Gulf region. Thanks to our disaster preparedness, many of our stores were reopened quickly.

Office Depot has established comprehensive Crisis Management, Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity programs that mobilize and support every aspect of our business, and we’re constantly looking for ways to improve and strengthen these plans.

Last year, Office Depot was the go-to place for charging cell phones, laptops, etc. at stores in disaster areas. To help support our stores for the upcoming Hurricane Season, we have diesel fuel for generators available from external vendors and have added "quick connect" boxes at locations within coastal regions for expedient generator hook-up.

We’ve also reinforced our corporate campus with backup generators to fully power each building and are implementing improved facility recovery plans, including enhanced preparations, concise damage assessment procedures and "strike zones" for improved contractor positioning.

Tip from the Experts:

Tom Serio: "Plan, plan, plan. Make sure to have a sound contingency plan in place, but you’ll also need to be flexible as a disaster unfolds in order to get your business up and running quickly."

Jon Toigo adds: "Build your plan to focus on what you want to protect, and don't get mired down in all of the threats that are out there. The simple and affordable strategy is to work to protect people and data first, then build straightforward procedures for replacing systems and networks and user work areas that can be tested to ensure you've covered all your bases. Testing is the real key; it trains a cadre of personnel to act rationally in the face of a great irrationality: a disaster."

Check back Tuesday for Hurricane Preparedness for Businesses Part Two: Protecting Your People.

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