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Refining Hurricane-Response Plans in the Wake of Irma

By Bob Alsan, Sr. Business Continuity Program Manager, Ultimate Software:

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma impacted Florida with major damage to the state. Overall, the 185-mph-wind-packing, destructive hurricane caused 134 fatalities and damages estimated at $64.66 billion. It was one of those rare hurricanes that cut right up from South Florida into Georgia, impacting both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Hotels and resorts with generators quickly sold out. People fleeing Florida (and returning days later) were confronted with massive interstate traffic jams and surrounding gridlocks. Added misery came in the way of gas station fuel lines growing long, and supplies short. One factor for the severe fuel shortage was Hurricane Harvey’s impact to Texas and Gulf of Mexico oil production and distribution, just a couple weeks before Hurricane Irma.

Some companies were better prepared than others, and they ultimately sustained minimal business interruption as a result of better planning. Organizing people, processes, and technology to prevent business interruption is a key role of the Business Continuity program. Years of valuable experience and lessons learned allow refinement of plans for Business Continuity professionals in hurricane-prone areas. The careful planning and exercises crafted by Business Continuity professionals allow for a smoother response and recovery pursuant to hurricane impact. Sharing some of these best practices and tips is crucial for helping others refine and synthesize their plans into resilient and reliable processes.

Reliable Hurricane Plan:

Following the damage from Hurricane Irma, Business Continuity professionals began the task of refining their hurricane-response plans. There was a sense of urgency to capture fresh ideas and lessons learned, so they could be reviewed and implemented into hurricane plans. After all, there were still 11 more weeks remaining in the 2017 hurricane season. As part of their hurricane plan refinement process, Business Continuity professionals instinctively reached out to industry groups, colleagues, and peers to obtain ideas to add to their own.

Iterating plans over time leads to better predictability of what to expect and do. Therefore, progressive elaboration allows for course corrections to hurricane plans. The three vital elements—People, Processes, and Technology—to a good hurricane plan have to be balanced. These key elements also have to be synthesized into the best possible hurricane plan for a company, while maintaining balance among the three areas. Reducing resources in one element (budget, resources, attention, etc.) will lead to dilution of the other two, causing an imbalance of the process. A careful balancing act must be performed while refining hurricane plans.

The best practices and smart ideas should be evaluated and woven into hurricane plans.

Tip: Automated tools facilitate the central collaboration of maintaining and exercising hurricane plans. They remove the burden of one person/team maintaining all plans, by distributing the maintenance load evenly over the participating teams.

These tools empower hurricane-plan owners to maintain their plans as the business changes. This allows crisp information at time of need.

What Worked:

Some of the ideas presented here may already be adopted in a hurricane plan. This checklist will act as a memory jogger to enhance areas of hurricane plans that may be deficient.

Vital Teams:

People are what makes a business run, so invest the time to craft reliable hurricane plans based on solid hurricane teams. Carefully identify your Business Continuity Steering Committee, Hurricane Teams (Operational), Away Teams, and Local Recovery Teams.

Teams essential for hurricane matters.

A Business Continuity Steering Committee helps with general Business Continuity direction and oversight. This is the highest level of Business Continuity teams. Members should be executives from different departments, with authority to enact directives and decisions. This team size should be small, allowing focused resources to easily meet periodically and provide direction.

Hurricane Teams (Operational) help lead and participate in response to impending hurricanes or preparatory exercises. Identified leads (and their backups) should be selected from each department to provide a representative voice and ear of the entire company.

This team is usually large, depending on the number of divisions and departments.  Identifying teams from non-hurricane zones is also important for inclusion and participation. They may be the ones to “cover” operations via work transfer from hurricane impact zones.

Away Teams include individuals with vital roles in the company who are sent “away” from the hurricane impact zones. These key roles are identified by Hurricane Team Leads for their department. Some departments may be able to transfer all of their work to another non-hurricane zone, and don’t need Away Team members. Other departments that require continuity of business from a skeleton crew relocated to a safe workplace should identify Away Team members and backup members. Cross training is a good way to reduce reliance on specific individuals.

Away Team relocation plans need careful consideration. Type of travel (car, plane, train, etc.) determination and coordination with relocation offices is a primary task. Consider identifying a Hurricane Relocation Coordinator(s) to help with this process. They can cut down the urgent travel complications on the Away Team. This role should be based in a non-hurricane zone location. This will allow the Hurricane Team Coordinator to focus on serving the Away Team relocation tasks, while not being preoccupied with hurricane preparedness.

Traffic fleeing Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma.

Tip: This is a difficult team to assemble, as it is usually a voluntary role. Away Team members should be willing to consider leaving home/family and establish pet relocation, caretaker duties, etc. prior to storm impact. They are usually allowed more time to prepare than other employees. Away Team benefits must be packaged and clearly known to team members as an incentive to volunteer to relocate. Details of hurricane-relocation bonus, family travel, daily expenses, travel policy, etc. must all be clearly communicated to the Away Team members. Human resources can help craft and maintain this relocation policy. The policy has to be maintained for normal cost-of-living increase to expenses, and higher expense costs in larger cities.

Local Recovery Teams are needed to recover and restore local operations after the storm passes. These teams usually consist of Facilities, Human Resources, Hurricane Teams, Business Continuity, Information Technology, and other stakeholder teams.

Vital Communications:

Reliable and robust communications are vital for the continuity of operations during and after hurricane impact. Provide robust communication hardware and software options with backup plans for each type.

Tip: Assumption is that the hurricane teams are safe, able to communicate, and that the communications are business-specific. Family communication tools and methods are available, but separate from this topic.

Some considerations for hurricane communications include the following:

Hurricane Communication Plan – should be known by all stakeholders. This plan should list out:

  • Time intervals the teams are communicating. Make sure to allow time between team meetings to allow members to participate in multiple team meetings.

Tip: Schedule your meetings around NOAA updates, possibly a half hour after the scheduled NOAA update, to allow time to organize information to discuss during hurricane team calls.

  • Dedicated dial-in bridge number and code.

Tip: A dedicated hurricane dial-in number and code must be known by all stakeholders. A “hurricane bridge” contact created in the corporate address list, can be shared by stakeholders using their mobile devices. There should be enough capacity to allow all stakeholders to dial in.

A dedicated bridge is essential, in case power outages impact access to online collaboration tools. Also, some online collaboration tools provide a random dial-in bridge for each meeting, which require opening that meeting to connect. Dedicated bridges eliminate that need.

  • Which online collaboration tool will be used for meetings or screen sharing with the teams? Companies leveraging various collaboration tools (GoToMeeting, WebEx, Skype, Sococo, Yammer, etc.) by different departments may lead to confusion at time of need.
  • Vital contact information – all stakeholders pursuant to hurricane response, including internal team members, vital vendors, and emergency contacts.

Tip: Consider all stakeholders to print out vital-contacts list prior to hurricane impact and keep handy throughout the duration of the storm.

Official sources of information to use for hurricane preparedness and response – Examples include NOAA, National Weather Service, local Emergency Operations Centers, etc.

Official Inbound Alert Tool – These duty-of-care-type tools continuously deliver customized alerts about severity of hurricane impacts to company resources. Examples include ANVIL and NC4. Some companies leverage subscription services to obtain specific business-continuity-risk alerts based on office locations.

Official Outbound-Alert Tool – This is the official mass-notification alerts tool that is used to notify employees and stakeholders about important updates. Examples include email and commercially available mass-notification tools. Recipients should know prior to the hurricane from what format to expert important alerts.

Cell Phones – This is the most portable and common means of communication. Consider a backup plan to cell phone communication, in case cell phone service is down.

Satellite Phones – These are more expensive than cell phones and not as flexible, but are good reliable backups in case cell phone service is unavailable.

Walkie Talkies – These are good for communications in fairly close proximity ranges, such as data centers, large warehouses or offices, or multi-story offices.

Wi-Fi/Hotspot Generator Tools – These commonly available devices allow multiple people to access the network in case company internet connectivity is down. There are models for cellular or satellite connectivity.

Social Media – Consider preemptively establishing company social media outlets for hurricane updates and employee communication. Employees naturally provide updates to social media, but this is uncontrolled and not known to all employees. They may provide information that is out of context or information not prepared for a broader employee audience. Having a company hurricane page, with socialized usage guidelines, can help employees rapidly communicate, and offer information and assistance to one another.

Tip: Strong social media usage guidelines must be established and stated regarding what company information should not be discussed, similar to the more common social media policies in company handbooks.

Reliable hurricane plans are refined over time, and revised based on experiences. Sharing best practices and ideas is part of being in the Business Continuity community. Preparing for, and responding to, another hurricane impact becomes easier to manage. Detailed plans with contingency strategies allow robust continuity of operations. Tools that help automate the hurricane response and recovery efforts allow for process symmetry across the enterprise. Therefore, spend time now polishing your hurricane plans, automate where you can, and socialize it to your company. It becomes much easier to manage Business Continuity if the enterprise is speaking the same language and marching to the same tune when a storm arrives.

Tip: One size does not fit all, hence the suggestions here should be evaluated to size up to your company needs. Some sections may act as memory joggers to help you realize existing deficiencies that may need simple course corrections.

Bob Alsan, Sr. Business Continuity Program Manager with Ultimate Software, has 23 years of experience developing and implementing global Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plans. He is certified in Business Continuity and Project Management. His professional Information Technology and Business Continuity career includes working for Fortune 100 and Big 4 Accounting firms based in London, Istanbul, Kiev, Bahrain, New York, Boston, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. Bob participates in RIMS, PMI, BRCCI, BCI, ANSI, ISO, DRI, ITIL, and ASIS memberships, activities, and courses. Contact Bob at Bob_Alsan@ultimatesoftware.com.



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