This content is part of the Essential Guide: Disaster recovery strategy guidelines: Preparation and response

Lessons in business continuity and disaster recovery planning

When crafting a business continuity and disaster recovery plan, you have to anticipate the unexpected. Here is what we can learn about BC/DR from two high-profile disasters.

A catastrophic event can tax even the most comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery planning. The recent wildfires in California and the 11-hour power outage at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in mid-December 2017 are prime examples of incidents that can render an organization's BC/DR efforts inadequate and probably useless.

So, what business continuity and disaster recovery planning lessons can be learned from such events, and how can organizations improve their BC/DR plans?

California wildfires

Runaway wildfires exacerbated by high winds, such as those that recently made their way through southern California, are virtually impossible to address. Often, the most an organization can do is ensure all company personnel can be safely evacuated from the affected area and that technology is available so employees can work from an alternate company location not in harm's way.

But what do you do if an employee's home is destroyed? Will they be back to work the next day? Or, will they be caught up in efforts to protect their families and recover their belongings?

Regardless if your organization has only one office or a dozen, make sure your employees can perform their work from another location, such as another company office, hotel room or home. This means an investment in remote access to your critical systems and technology infrastructures.

Start following your BC/DR plans before the emergency arrives at your doorstep. Don't assume the fires will spare your organization. They may, but why take that chance? Evacuate any office in the fire's potential path, initiate remote access and have employees relocate as quickly as possible to alternate locations that are deemed safe.

Make sure your systems are able to operate remotely and that you have sufficient network access and bandwidth, as well as sufficient remote access software licenses to support remote working.

If there was ever a good reason to have cloud-based systems and DR capabilities, the California wildfires make a very strong case. With those kinds of resources available, employees just need internet access to resume operations.

It's essential to business continuity and disaster recovery planning that systems and data are regularly backed up to secure locations, whether cloud-based or physically in another area.

Have a succession plan in place in case employees take a leave of absence to take care of their families and personal activities, such as finding a new home. Succession planning should not be limited to only the most senior executives. Everyone in an organization has a specific role that contributes to running the organization. This is the same kind of approach that should be considered in cases when an outbreak of a contagious disease occurs.

Finally, arrange for alternate workspaces. One approach is to work with a company that has ready-to-use office spaces available for rent. If your organization has multiple offices, ensure each one can accommodate additional people for short periods of time. Contact local hotels to see if they can make rooms available in an emergency.

Atlanta airport power outage

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport power outage was caused by a fire in one of the three electrical substations serving the airport. In a press release, Georgia Power stated, "Georgia Power has many redundant systems in place to ensure reliability to the airport and its millions of travelers -- power outages affecting the airport are very rare."

But the redundancy in place failed, causing thousands of passengers to be stranded and hundreds of flights canceled.

It seems like no matter how much redundancy is built into power systems, the chance that they can fail is always present.

It seems like no matter how much redundancy is built into power systems, the chance that they can fail is always present. Despite all the precautions Georgia Power took to protect the airport, there was still an 11-hour outage with all the downsides. Aside from losses to airport businesses and thousands of annoyed travelers, perhaps the biggest risk was to the reputations of Georgia Power and the airport.

So, what business continuity and disaster recovery planning lessons can we learn from this event?

The airport and Georgia Power must quickly meet and determine ways to better back up power distribution systems to the airport. Clearly, whatever was in place didn't work. Power substations may need to be repositioned and redesigned; more sophisticated fire detection and suppression equipment may be needed; an improved ability to rapidly switch across multiple power feeds may be indicated; and greater isolation of power substations may be required, so losing one does not bring down the whole power infrastructure and the airport.

Greater use of emergency communications equipment is needed to provide information to stranded passengers. Lack of regularly updated information about the event is probably the biggest single complaint of travelers in such a situation.

Arrangements for emergency supplies of food and water should be developed. While Chick-fil-A provided meals to passengers on the day of this power outage, such assistance by an outside business is not guaranteed.

There needs to be a plan in place to move passengers to a location away from the airport, where power and communications are available, so they can make alternate travel arrangements. This may not be easy, especially if taxis and car services are at a premium, not to mention hotel rooms.

For businesses of all types and sizes, the message is to invest in power protection. Uninterruptible power systems, which provide power for limited durations, enable employees to power down critical systems and safely evacuate the office.

The above are just a few business continuity and disaster recovery planning changes you can make to protect your organization and employees. Before making any investments, analyze the risks you may face and any impacts to the organization if such events occur, and then make your plans accordingly.

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