Preparing for the Worst

Tornadoes. Blizzards. Ice storms. Floods. Fire. Most recently, even notable earthquakes. Oklahoma inclement weather and natural disasters are often the only time the Sooner State makes the national news, and the images of the horrific human toll are indelibly carved into the minds of state residents and viewers all over the world.

While the human cost is the clear tragedy of nature’s frequent fury in the Great Plains, there is another, virtually immeasurable and rarely spotlighted victim as well – Oklahoma businesses. With infrastructure damage, days, even weeks without power or access to office space, smoke and fire damage and countless other potentially devastating effects, businesses statewide are constantly at risk of lost time, lost productivity and potentially crippling loss of revenue.

“We’re not sure about the data,” says David Hall, an insurance professional with State Farm and vice president and Chair of the Disaster-Resistant Business Council at Tulsa Partners, an organization that assists businesses prepare for continuity in the wake of disaster. “When [disasters occur], a lot of people think in terms of businesses like Walmart that have an extensive amount of resources. But 85 percent of businesses have 10 or fewer employees, and small businesses don’t have the resources and don’t have any way to get advice. They can’t go hire a contingency planner. That’s the space we work in. Towns come back when small businesses come back.”

Through seminars, workshops, references and resource materials, Tulsa Partners assists businesses statewide learn how to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

Karen Smith, executive director of Tulsa’s Child Care Resource Center, which provides references and support services to childcare providers, knows first-hand the importance of having a continuity plan in place. She had worked with Tulsa Partners on a project when she decided CCRC should go through the process of preparing a plan. In the middle of working on it, the crippling ice storm of 2007 struck.

“We identified our weaknesses and what was covered and what we still needed to get down,” Smith says.

“We learned we weren’t prepared,” adds Melinda Belcher, CCRC Resource and Referral Coordinator/Technology Administrator. “The storm took out everything. There was no electricity so there was no way to access our computer files or to check messages. We weren’t able to deliver services.”

That experience prompted Belcher to push ahead and process a continuity plan to address numerous possibilities.

“We need a plan for on-site and going off-site, and it’s an ongoing process,” Belcher says. “We’ve learned from every instance. I hate to say it, but it often takes something happening to learn from it what you need to prepare for.”

In December 2011, a fire damaged several floors in CCRC’s office building. While the business suffered no fire damage, there was smoke damage, and access to the offices was extremely limited for three weeks.

“We were better prepared,” Belcher says. “We had learned we needed to work on our phone system and we were able to set up remotely for our call center. That worked seamlessly and was a good first sign.”

Smith says the call center was the first priority.

“Several different organizations have free business continuity plan templates, and there are also free planning templates from the Red Cross and FEMA.”

“The call center for emergencies is what the public needs,” Smith says. “The other services we provide get put a little lower on the list because the providers we support will not be thinking about those other services, such as workshops.”

While CCRC learned valuable lessons from their experience with the ice storm and subsequent advancement on a continuity plan, it remains a work in progress because of, among other things, the number of possible occurrences.

“I’d tell businesses to have a plan and to keep stuff off-site – think about what you need to continue working,” Belcher says.

Smith adds that one good step is to include investment in a continuity plan in a company’s budget. “You can’t expect to get everything immediately, but it’s a good idea to plan some in the budget and to think about it.”

Of course, different types of businesses have different needs, priorities and capabilities. There is no cookie-cutter solution, as each individual business must evaluate its own needs, resources and plans to mitigate for many potential situations. Tulsa Partners provides numerous resources and hosts workshops such as “A Day Without Business.”

“Several different organizations have free business continuity plan templates, and there are also free planning templates from the Red Cross and FEMA,” Hall says. “Find what you like, find what works for your business – whatever you do, it will be better than doing nothing.”

Among Hall’s suggestions is to view resources at www.disastersafety.org, a website of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

“You can put a plan together in a day, but it needs to be updated annually,” Hall says. “An old plan is no plan.”

Kaye Broom is well aware of the constant evolution of a worthy continuity plan. The office manager at Guy Engineering Services, Inc., says the company began developing its plan after a flood in the basement of the company’s building where the company’s server was kept.

“After that we took a hard look at our infrastructure, and part of our plan is that server in the basement, which is better protected against tornadoes, for example,” Broom says. Of course, basements are prone to flood in certain conditions, so another part of the plan is a device to measure the success rate of a basement sump pump and to then text staff members if the pump system starts to fail.

As another part of the plan, a tape backup system has been replaced by a more sophisticated one, further backed up by data in the Cloud.

“We started looking at all of the ‘what-if’s,’” Broom says.

Additional steps Broom has taken include negotiating with several local companies that can provide mobile office set-ups, complete with electricity, work stations and cell phone connectivity. While perhaps expensive for very small companies, some companies offer a subscription service similar to insurance, Broom says.

Currently, Broom says the company’s biggest continuity plan challenge is the power and software needs required by their CAD operators – something mobile office units and potential off-site locations do not seem to offer locally, Broom says. “We haven’t found anyone with mobile work stations that are compatible with the needs of CAD, and that’s scary because it’s a big part of our business.”

Broom has gone so far as to make mitigation suggestions to the company’s CAD software provider. Meanwhile, she has advice for other business owners as well.

“It’s very necessary to meet with your insurance broker and find out what is covered and what is not,” Broom suggests. “You need to make sure you have appropriate coverage, such as loss of profit.”

Flood insurance is also something important to look into, since it is not often included in comprehensive policies locally.

“The worst thing you can do is nothing,” Hall concludes. “There are resources available and any degree of planning is better than none. Many small businesses can’t survive an extended period of time out of operation.”

For more information, resources and recommendations, visit Tulsa Partners at www.tulsapartners.com.

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