Thursday, April 17, 2008

Develop Your Emergency Plan, Part II

In the first installment of this series, I discussed disaster planning for individual employees. This week we will delve into the more devastating crises associated with prolonged utility outages.

Electricity and telephone are the primary utilities that keep your business alive. In a scenario where your physical operations (offices, building, warehouse, etc.) are structurally sound but public utilities are unavailable, you need to have a plan.

The Wonders of Emergency Electricity
An emergency electricity supply can come from an installed high-capacity generator plant. While this is the solution of choice for Florida's Publix Supermarkets, they can afford these $300,000 behemoths. These massive diesel powered generator plants are more than capable of providing all the electrical power you require, but the price tag can be staggering. In addition, they require massive underground fuel storage tanks that hold upwards of 500 gallons of diesel and require special permits to operate. The cost of filling and maintaining adequate fuel levels is also a significant cost consideration, but fortunately you get your fuel from private tanker services. No matter how expensive, these enormous generator plants guarantee your business continuity with almost immediate effect.

Smaller gasoline powered electrical generators are available from most hardware stores. These smaller units will rarely generate enough electricity to power a large enterprise, but should easily handle smaller operations. Furthermore, you will need to keep them well supplied with fuel, which may be difficult to come by during prolonged and wide-spread power outages.

The third option is to rent generators from companies like Aggreko. They can typically offer generators ranging in size from 10 kilowatts to 2 megawatts! These generators can be used for applications ranging from simple standalone power packages up to 100 MW power stations for electrical utility grids. Costs vary widely, depending on how much power you need and where you need it. I remember in 1998 after Hurricane Georges devastated Puerto Rico, a number of my hotel clients hired Aggreko to provide emergency electrical power to minimize their loss of business. Aggreko had electrical power restored three days after the storm passed. The hotels continued operating under emergency power for more than three weeks waiting for the utility company to make repairs.

The most important consideration when designing an electrical back-up system is calculating the total electrical load of all mission-critical electrical equipment. So, if you cannot live without air conditioning, you will spend more on your generator solution. Personally, I recommend that you hire an electrical engineer to calculate your office's total demand load, and a corresponding mission-critical electrical demand load.

An experienced electrical engineer can have that information for you in a matter of hours, depending on the size of your offices. Now, when you contact a generator company you know the total number of watts you need to operate your business and can purchase accordingly. Do not ever allow the generator sales representative to calculate your electrical loads. Let's assume every salesman is always 100% honest, I would prefer to have a trained professional's opinion.

Call the Phone Company, the Telephones Are Out
Chances are that electrical failures will stop your phone systems from working anyway, however, you need to prepare for a failure of the physical telephone lines. A telephone outage will usually also include your internet access.

Turning to wireless voice and internet providers (i.e. cellular telephones) is a viable option. With the incredible market penetration of cellular telephones, it is simply a matter of creating a cellular telephone directory of all your employees. So, for direct voice communication, cellular telephones provide an immediate solution.

However, if cellular telephone towers have also been damaged this option may not present itself. In extreme situations, you can rely on satellite telephones. There are companies that rent satellite phones for as little as $10 per day, plus per minute charges. Iridium also provides data via satellite. As with all per minute communications, those minutes can add up quickly. From personal experience after Hurricane Wilma, cellular telephone communications were mostly back up within a week of the storm. If you cannot handle being out of contact for a week, you'll want to make plans for acquiring a satellite telephone.

Data is an entirely different issue. Cellular providers have been offering wireless internet services for some time now. Typically, these solutions are PC cards that connect to a laptop. Wireless data plans start around $60 per month and can offer faster than dial-up speeds.

In addition, many cell phones now come equipped with mobile internet access. While working online with a cell phone is cumbersome and nothing short of infuriating, in a pinch, it can make all the difference. Those with Blackberry's or Treo's (or any other palm-top computer) are already familiar with the in's and out's of mobile internet.

As a last resort, you may also wish to setup an out of town telephone number that employees can call to listen to company information (via the answering machine's outgoing message) and they can also leave messages ("This is Joe. I'm OK.").

Utilities Conclusion
That about covers all the easy options available when dealing with these issues. I realize that some of you have noticed that I did not tackle the problem of water and sewer utilities, but since the only real application for these two items in the standard business is limited to the bathroom, I suppose you can always rent a Porta-John.

I hope this article has gotten you thinking about disaster planning and the importance of proper preparation. It's better to have these plans and never use them, then to not have them and need them. And if you live on the coastlines, you have no excuse whatsoever. Get ready!

Click here to read Part III.

If you would like some help developing your disaster recovery plans, contact us. Since we're from Florida, we know all about disasters.

R-Squared Computing - Business Technology Experts

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