ArticleRisk Assessment Management

Protecting Communications Before Disaster Strikes

By October 30, 2008 No Comments

by Judy K. Bell, CEM

Disaster Survival Planning Network

In today’s business environment, communications and information technology equipment transcend all organizational boundaries. Plans to restore both need to be an integral part of every organization’s business recovery plans. Some businesses believe they cannot afford the time to create recovery plans, then find out later that they cannot continue to operate when disaster does strike. Take the time now to build an effective communications plan.

Step 1: Inventory Existing Communications

Begin by taking an inventory of all existing communications at each location, as well as all facilities that link multiple locations together. If the information is extensive, record it in a database that can be easily updated, listing telephone or identification numbers and locations. Prepare a summary of the quantities of each type of service currently in use. It should include all centrex or PBX stations, single line business phones, datafax, essential service lines, foreign exchange lines, public telephones, cellular, radio, and faxes.

Record what facilities are used to connect all locations. Identify the quantity and type such as copper, fiber, microwave, or other transport elements.

Step 2: Determine Vulnerabilities

Every business is susceptible to communications failures. Identifying what those vulnerabilities are before they can affect service and reducing or eliminating them should be a significant part of the planning process. There are four major areas to check.

Structural – Evaluate how structurally sound the building is which houses the communications equipment. Look for known hazards that could damage the equipment such as water pipes located directly over critical equipment. Check if there are any air-conditioning units mounted on the roof. If so, make sure they are secured. If earthquakes are a major concern, obtain a seismic evaluation of the building to determine its likelihood to withstand damage. If there is a cable vault, check to make sure it is clearly identified, and the right people know how to gain access to it if necessary.

Evaluate all the buildings in the immediate area. If they are owned by other businesses, determine how their damage might affect your business. If there is a potential risk, check with them to find out what their recovery plans are. Of particular concern in today’s environment are businesses that store large quantities of hazardous materials. They have the potential of disrupting businesses in the surrounding area if a spill occurs.

Equipment – If the communications equipment is sitting on a raised floor, make sure both the floor and the equipment are braced. Examine the cabinets, consoles, terminals and power equipment to make sure all are properly secured. Survey the area surrounding the equipment to make sure non-structural hazards such as bookcases and filing cabinets will not topple onto the equipment, causing damage.

Some people like to use the telephone closet as a place to store boxes of old records, creating potential fire hazards. Others use it as a convenient place to sneak a quick cigarette. Both situations are a disaster waiting to happen.

Lack of adequate back-up power has proven be the true Achilles’ heel of disaster plans. Time and again businesses discover what should have been on uninterrupted power supply (UPS) too late. Horror stories abound of total departments that could not resume their functions because they were missing this vital resource.

Thoroughly test the UPS. Determine what is hooked up to it, and how long the batteries will last. If emergency generators are installed, check how often are they tested, what they are hooked up to, and how long they will operate before additional fuel is needed. Test emergency generators at least monthly with a full load to ensure their continued operation at the time of an emergency. If the fuel line depends on an electric pump, make sure it is hooked up to the proper source.

If the communications equipment requires temperature control or water cooling, check how the heating, air conditioning, or water supply system operates, and whether it is connected to emergency power.

Facilities and the Network -Determine how many different routes the facilities take to get from one location to another. Make sure there is more than one transport path for critical voice and data links. If the business is served by an on-site PBX system, check to see what capability it has to reroute calls to other locations. Equally important is the ability to remotely access and reprogram the communications so that calls can be terminated elsewhere if one location is damaged or inaccessible.

Both the hardware and software elements of communications equipment have vulnerabilities. Applications, operating systems, emulation and protocol conversion software, network diagnostics and network management software as well as network attributes and routing tables should all be backed-up regularly and stored off-site.

Step 3: Maps

Draw a map of each location plotting where the manholes, feeder routes, cable vault, distributing frames or terminals, operator consoles, and PBX equipment are located. Identify on the map the quantity of foreign exchange (FEX) lines, direct inward dial (DID) trunks, data lines, PBX terminations, and tie lines. Differentiate what terminates on equipment at that location versus what is provided by the local telephone company central office or other vendor. Plot where all essential service lines, public telephones, and any other vital communications equipment is located.

Indicate what equipment has back-up power, and how long it should last. If the business will be relying on suppliers to augment fuel levels, list who they are and how they can be reached. If only some electrical outlets are equipped with uninterrupted power supply (UPS), make sure they are labeled.

Step 4: Identify Critical Communications Needs

Every group within the organization will have different requirements to transmit and receive information following a disaster. Top executives will be making critical business recovery decisions while employees are trying reach their families. Plan for all of these needs by picking the right alternatives for each to use.

First determine who will be responsible for ensuring that communications will function properly after a crisis. Next, decide who will coordinate the overall business resumption planning, and form an interdepartmental committee with representatives from all key groups.

Have representatives identify what their own organization will need to communicate during the disaster. Have them prioritize each of their critical functions so that they identify in advance when they will need what. Make sure they consider any additional requirements if a disaster occurs after-hours and people must be contacted to report to work in advance of their normal shift.

Using the communications inventories determine what existing equipment can be used to meet each group’s needs. At this point consideration should be given to the kinds of disasters anticipated. If an unexpected event or a single location crisis occurs, chances are the public telephone network will not be congested, allowing normal communications to be used. However, if it is a regional disaster, communications that are not dependent on the public telephone network may need to be activated. Care should be taken in picking alternatives, recognizing that no single solution will be completely free of vulnerabilities.

Many businesses plan to use radios. It is important to identify how many people will be using each frequency. Also, radio transmission is a slower way of communicating information, so the volume of information to be passed should be closely evaluated. Consider using fax machines or e-mail to transmit damage information instead of conveying everything via voice. If cellular phones are to be used, be aware that cellular calls are on a separate network only when completing cellular to cellular calls within the immediate area. As soon as cellular phones are used to call to normal telephones, they are transiting the public telephone network, which may be congested due to overloaded conditions. If security of communications is an issue, both radio and cellular transmissions may be subject to interception by outside parties.

Alternate transport routes can also be used such as satellite and microwave services. In the case of satellites, it is important to identify in advance which circuits are on the satellite. For microwave, check with the vendor to find out how quickly they will be able to respond if antennae shift out of adjustment. With both alternatives, check ahead for other users on the same system, making sure there will be enough capacity to handle all requirements. In many cases, alternate communications may not be immediately available, but they can be relied on a few hours after the event. It is better to know that in the planning stages so other arrangements can be made.

Step 5: Request Additional Funding

After evaluating the needs of all groups, identify if there will be any shortage or mismatch of equipment, and develop the best solutions. Remember that following a disaster there will be immediate requirements for communications equipment to perform functions such as rescue and damage assessment. As time progresses and those needs are met, that equipment can be redeployed for other uses. Careful allocation of equipment based on time of need can reduce the amount of equipment required.

If funding is required, submit a budget request clearly stating what both the costs and the benefits will be. Make sure the equipment actually gets installed and is tested regularly so it will be ready for use.

Step 6: Document the Plans

Assemble all of the communications information into a concise, easy-to-use format. Include information for each location depicting exactly which communications groups will be using. For example, emergency response team members may be strategically positioned with radios near first aid and triage areas. Security may use a separate frequency on the same radio system, and all response personnel may have a mutual frequency to relay information to an emergency operations center. Identify who will be on which channels, and where they will be located.

In the case of departments and key executives, each plan should identify which communications they will be using.

Step 7: Prepare Checklists

Determine which communications equipment will need to be tested for damage immediately following the disaster. Prepare a checklist that is easy to follow spelling out precisely what tests are to be performed. Have someone totally unfamiliar with the equipment walk through the instructions on the checklist to make sure it is correctly written. Appoint an alternate for back-up, and train the alternate on all tests. If vendors are required to perform the diagnostics, contact them in advance to discuss how quickly they will be able to respond.

Step 8: Perform Periodic Tests

Schedule regular exercises that will incorporate all communications plans. Pay particular attention to what may need to be changed because information flows become congested or ineffective. Revise your plans after each test. Regularly review all of the information to update personnel moves and other changes that occur.

Judy Bell, CEM, is the author of the book “Disaster Survival Planning: A Practical Guide for Businesses”, international speaker and president of Disaster Survival Planning, Inc.

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