DisasterTips_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

If a natural disaster or an unexpected emergency struck your business, would you be ready to handle it? Do you know where your emergency shut-off valves are? Do your employees know how to stay in touch with you and each other if your business has to shut down temporarily? If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you're not alone. Experts say that many small businesses do not have a disaster preparedness plan in place because it is not a priority for them or that they've never experienced the toll that a disaster can take. Still, with some dedicated effort and forethought, you can come up with strategies to safeguard your business and stay in operation.

 

Have a plan

While it's impossible to anticipate every likely scenario, small business owners need to think broadly about disasters that could affect them. For example, while your own company might have a plan for dealing with a burst pipe in your own office, you should also prepare for a pipe burst in the business two floors above you—such as backing up your files daily and storing the duplicate data in an offsite facility.

 

One place to start your disaster preparedness is by doing a risk assessment of catastrophes—both man-made and natural—that your business is susceptible to. "At our workshops, we came up with worksheets for small businesses to give them a less complicated approach to plan for their businesses," says Lexie Andrews, project manager at the Center for Business Preparedness, part of the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at Louisiana State University.

 

"We would talk about which threat would be the most disastrous to their business and then we would go into thinking about what kind of mitigation activities they could do in order to prevent a possible disruption from this threat," Andrews explains. For example, having lists of the departments that make up your business, the staff, the equipment, and a plan for running them if staff is not present can keep your business functioning. You should also have a system in place for updating employees and staying in touch during a disaster, such as a call tree.

 

Regardless of the plan your business implements, Andrews says, "Every single employee needs to know that a plan exists, what the plan is, how it's accessed, and how it's implemented when the time comes." Setting aside just one afternoon a week to work on the plan and giving yourself a deadline—for example, before hurricane season begins—can make the task less onerous. If that doesn't work, Andrews recommends a more direct approach to spur employee participation.

 

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"One of the most important things an employee is worried about during a disaster is getting paid," Andrews says. "They need to know what the processes are for getting paid when the entire city is without power. That can be a way to get them involved in putting together a plan."

 

Data back-up options

Assessing the risks in your business will determine the type of solutions to put in place. In the case of data recovery, for example, small businesses have different options to protect themselves.

 

"The first solution is simple straight file back-up. The target audience for this file-based back-up is a very small business that maybe has two gigabytes worth of data," says Johannes Banck, owner of Computer Systems Support & Design, a provider of IT tech support and consulting.

 

"The second type is the image-based back-up, where you're backing up the files and the whole server at the same time," Banck says. "If a server on your site breaks and cannot be repaired, the back-up image can be installed on a replacement server and you can be up faster than a file-based back-up. A small business owner has to ask: how much data is he willing to lose and how fast does he want to be back up."

 

For example, one of Banck's clients is a third party medical health administrator who had a hard drive failure at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning. Banck brought in some hard drives, did an image-based back-up, and had the client up and running by five o'clock that same day. Had the client done only a file-based back-up beforehand, Banck estimates that the recovery and troubleshooting could have easily taken twice as long.

 

Be aware of your coverage

Clearly labeling important parts of the infrastructure of your business can make a big difference when a disaster hits in the middle of the night. "It can be as simple as a critical contacts list on a piece of paper and knowing where your emergency shut-offs are for your gas and water and sprinklers," says Brian Mauriello, chief sales and marketing officer for Connecticut-based American Integrity Restoration (AIR), specializing in commercial and residential property emergency mitigation and repair.

 

Small businesses should be aware of the insurance coverage they have—and that coverage should be put into the preparedness plan. "When an emergency service becomes deployed to your property, the [responders] can automatically know what they can and can't do and what they need authorizations for," Mauriello says.

 

For example, one of Mauriello's small business clients moved from an older converted New England brick building without an emergency extinguishing system into a new location with a modern sprinkler system. "When that sprinkler let loose and blew out water over everything," Mauriello says, "they found themselves without adequate insurance to cover water damage to their computers and documents."

 

Whether a small business maintains its own records or has a firm like AIR catalog and store the information, a speedy reaction to an emergency is vital. "Response time is absolutely critical to preventing further subsequent or consequential damages," Mauriello says. "Deal with it [immediately] because when the clock starts ticking, it's time lost."