Disaster Planning By Businesses Not Just For Major Disruptions

April 20, 2009

The harsh weather of spring, including hard rains, flooding and tornadoes, has already hit parts of the Midwest and the South. It’s a reminder to small business owners everywhere that they need to be ready when disaster strikes.

Preparing for disaster might not seem like a priority to a company owner who’s trying to bring in sales and cut costs during the recession. But the kind of planning that goes into mitigating the impact of a disaster can also help your company’s operations when all is well.

Donna Childs, whose financial services firm was dislocated by the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, said disaster planning is often neglected since “most small business owners feel overwhelmed because they see disaster preparation as a huge task.”

A disaster doesn’t have to be an extraordinary event wrought by nature — fires and vandalism can disrupt a business as much as the weather can. And it doesn’t have to damage or destroy your premises; a road that washes out and prevents you from getting to your building can do plenty of harm to your sales and profits.

The way to ease disaster prep anxiety and get the job done is to break it down into manageable components and tackle them one by one: protecting your data, creating a backup communications network, setting up an alternative power supply.

Childs, who has written “Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best,” a guide to disaster planning for small business, noted that many of the problems that occur in a disaster are also ones that could happen in the best of times. For example, she said, “a power outage can happen on a standalone basis, but it commonly follows a major disaster like a hurricane.”

So, if your company has backup generators to help it through summer brownouts, it can also keep running if a hurricane or tornado knocks out power.

Childs said she had done disaster planning for her company, Childs Capital LLC, before the 9/11 attacks. She was ready to relocate because she had thought about the possibility of a fire in the subway station near her office that conceivably could have prevented her from entering her premises.

“The plan I put in place addressed that but it helped us to get through something unimaginable,” she said.

Similarly, every company should be thinking about backing up its data for the most mundane reasons: an employee accidentally deletes an important file or a hard drive crashes and the data cannot be salvaged. Having an offsite data backup and recovery system is a good way to be sure your data is retrievable, and this will also make it easier for a company to keep operating after a disaster.

Companies that are service providers and don’t need to rely on stationary equipment in a specific location probably will have the easiest time disaster preparation. Laptop computers and smart phones equipped for Internet access allow business owners and their employees to take the company with them. They can stay in touch with each other and with customers and, depending on the kind of work they do, keep their operations going.

Childs said the benefits of disaster preparation go beyond ensuring that a company can get back to work quickly if the worst happens. She said owners can use their plans as a selling point with potential customers who want to be sure they won’t suffer if disaster strikes. This is particularly important for companies with far-flung clients or customers.

“To the extent you can show you have a disaster plan in place, you’ll be more competitive to win their business,” she said.

Another way to make disaster planning easier is to put together a checklist of what you need to do, decide which items are a priority and start addressing them, delegating as much as you can to employees (for example, creating and maintaining a contact list that will let you know how to reach your staff and customers).

If you’re not sure what should be on that list, there are disaster planning books, and the Internet also has resources. Many of these address how to prepare your premises for hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters so you can try to mitigate the damage that might occur.

The Institute for Business & Home Safety has a checklist on its
Web site, www.disastersafety.org, and the federal government also
has guides at www.ready.gov/business, and the Small Business
Administration Web site,

Insurance brokers can also be a resource, and so can other small business owners in the same area or in line of work.

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