I’ve worked with a lot of firms on disaster plans. And I mean A LOT of firms. Some firms have built truly excellent disaster plans, but very few have built good triggers for their disaster plans. I’ve seen controls to prevent the trigger from being pulled accidentally. And I’ve seen guidelines for evaluating the aftermath of a disaster (and deciding on pulling the
trigger). However, what I almost never see is a real plan to pull the trigger before the disaster strikes. These plans usually just push the decision in front of a manger, but don’t lay out how the decisions should be made. This decision-making process is the subject of
We know the size and shape of potential disasters. They are so recognizable because we regularly see them on the nightly news: a hurricane flooding a town, the aftermath of an earthquake, perhaps a building exploding when a Tornado’s cone touches down. A disaster’s aftermath is easy to recognize, but what does it’s… umm before-math look like? Most announcements of disasters never actually happen. Conversely, some disasters are events that we knew about but failed to understand the true magnitude. If it’s your job to
decide when to pull the trigger on a disaster plan, you’ve got to know what it is that you’re supposed to be looking for or you’ll miss that trigger event and the disaster will overtake you.
Some disasters happen with little warning, such as an earthquake, a terrorist bombing, or an accidental building fire. These have virtually no “before” stage, or at least no before stage that you are likely to know about at the time. We know about the disaster in the aftermath. If you’re the one to pull the trigger on the disaster plan, you will make your decision after the disaster is a disaster. Maybe the disaster struck a couple of hours ago,
and you only found out when you turn on the TV or read your first email. There may be some question about whether the event is over (aftershocks after an earthquake) or its scale (a water pipe blew up, but was asbestos present?), but you have objective (but perhaps conflicting) information on which to make a decision. The trigger is in your hands, and you need to decide what to do about it.
If the disaster you’re facing has a long warning period, the triggering process can be very ambiguous. Take a look back at Hurricane Irene. Before the storm began, you had the obligatory newscasts from the beach: people still sunbathing, the occasional blue skies, and a weatherman with a microphone saying, “It’s hard to believe that the storm of the century will be here in just a few hours!” The governor of New Jersey was yelling at people on the beach telling them that they need to get out of there. When it’s not absolutely bvious that disaster is just around the corner, we all tend to delay making a decision or changing our behavior. Maybe the storm won’t happen, or will be smaller than predicted. If you’re responsible for triggering the plan, and the expenses and disruption that it will bring, what are the physical signs you are waiting for to pull the trigger? Do you wait until the first drops of rain or until the first house is swept into the sea? There are costs if you trigger, and costs if you don’t. Does your plan tell you how to balance these costs?
Let’s take a typical disaster situation and do a walk through and see how we would deal with the events. Let’s say you have a work center that manages half of your IT helpdesk calls. Around your center, the rivers are swollen, and it continues to rain; a flood is predicted near your center by mid-afternoon on Thursday. It’s early Sunday, and you are calling together your team to review the disaster plan. If you choose to activate it, the plan is to move some or all of your staff to a corporate center 500 miles away. That means that any costs the plan incurs… moving/housing/feeding… will need to be paid for. Activating the plan with a minimum staff of 10 for five days will incur a cost of at least $30,000. Since you’re not allowed to put “potential” events into your annual budget, you want to be very sure that it is a real disaster before you run up costs. Let start our hypothetical countdown to disaster:
- Day 5 (Sunday): While the disaster is a long way away, you need to know what you’re going to say to the staff on Monday. Do you just pull your own thoughts together, or should you talk to the local manager… even though this is his day off? You decide to let the manager have a peaceful Sunday, but you do send him an email with questions that you need to review with him before your Monday morning staff meeting, tomorrow at 10am.
- Day 4 (Monday): All the weather reports agree that it’s going to continue
raining, and the rivers will continue to rise. If you’re going to move people out, you need to get them moving pretty soon, or you’re not going to be able to book any flights. Still. The last five times there was a predicted flood, the disaster never happened. You waited out those situations and you were right. Maybe this is another false alarm. If you trigger the disaster plan, you’re going to create downtime as you shuffle people from one site to another. It doesn’t look that bad yet, and you don’t want to look like Chicken Little. From years of experience you’ve learned that almost all disasters are false alarms. Almost. Better sit tight.
- Day 3 (Tuesday): More rain. The center is begining to have workers out, as they deal with problems at home.The big flood hasn’t started yet, but individual problems are making it hard for your workers at their usual work site. The news says that the rains may stop. It’s a close call, but you decide to break with the plan and send just a few managers to the backup site to check out the site and see if
everything works as expected.
- Day 2 (Wednesday): Still, no flood. But there have been increasing problems in staff getting to work. No one is in danger, but many of your workers need to
negotiate low-lying areas between their homes and work. Schools are closing, and
family members may be in high threat areas. The loss of workers is starting to cause a problem. You decide to pull the trigger and send 10 workers to the backup site.
- Not everyone is ready to relocate.
- Workers need to turn off the gas and electric, the kennel cannot take their dog, someone has a sick child.
- You shuffle a few schedules and end up with only seven people who can leave today.
- Your center is in a small city with a small airport, and only full price 1st
class tickets are still available. Ouch!
- Day 1 (Thursday): The rivers are getting close to the flood level, and travel to the work site is getting dangerous, and too many workers are drifting away as they deal with their own flooding issues. Workers are told not to come in that day, and are given instructions on how they will be contacted as the disaster progresses. The backup center is coming on line. Later in the day there are breaks in the levies in one area, and rising rivers in another area. You hear conflicting reports about what’s happening to your center.
Electricity, land lines and most cell phones are out near your center. Your
disaster plan includes communication with your staff… how will you keep in
touch with everyone? The small staff at the backup center has started to ask
questions: How long will we be here; if we stay through the weekend, do we get
paid for those days; I took a child with me, how will I be compensated for childcare; managers want to know if the staff should just work on one shift, or have thin coverage on multiple shifts; users are calling to complain about slow responses when they can n for PC support. No one knows when the rivers will recede. In a couple of days some of your staff is going to want, or need, to go home. To get any more workers you’re going to need incentives…. Higher pay, a stipend, something! How do you get authorization for that? You don’t have confirmation yet, but one manager said that local news showed a mudslide near your center and it looked like the building took some damage. A number of workers may lose their homes. You need to book a flight and see what’s happening yourself, and “show the flag” for your workers.
How this will turn out? Will there be extensive damage at the facility? How long will workers be able to work offsite, especially when they or their families have problems of their own back home? And does your disaster plan give you the ability to authorize all the special expenses that you’re going to need to keep everyone working? A disaster plan is a great first step, but few plans get into the details that you’ll need to make it work in the real world. Take a look at your own plan and see how it measures up. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!