Looming Hurricane Shows Why a Backup Communications Plan is Essential

NEWS ANALYSIS: There are still steps you can take to make sure your enterprise has an effective backup communications plan even as Category 4 Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolina coast.

Hurricane Disaster Recovery

Not long after you read this, a major hurricane is expected to make landfall along the Carolina coast, probably near the historic city of Wilmington, NC. It’s unclear at this point whether hurricane will strike as a Category 4 hurricane or will make landfall as a Category 5, but that hardly matters because either way vast areas of the U.S. East Coast will feel the impact.

Even areas hundreds of miles inland be subject to strong winds, while areas in the Carolinas and Virginia will record rainfall measured in feet, not inches.

In the affected areas businesses will largely come to a standstill because employees won’t be able to report to work, roads will be impassible and besides the power will be out. But the amount of time required to return to operation, once the power is on and roads passable, depends to a large degree on the condition of your communications. Each type of communications will be affected differently. 

Wireless communications may be unavailable for a variety of reasons and the type of outage and your location may affect how long those will be affected.

  • Damage to cellular infrastructure: This means the cell towers may be down, power to the cell sites may be out (they don’t all have generators), or the switching equipment may be flooded.
  • Pre-emption of cellular communications: First responders and government officials will have priority use of wireless communications and you may be excluded.
  • Overload of cellular communications: Even when you’re not preempted, cells services will be overwhelmed so your access may be intermittent or nonexistent.

Landline communications may also not be available, but the reasons are mostly different and landlines take far longer to restore.

  • Damage to wireline infrastructure: Aerial lines may be down, switching equipment may be flooded or damaged. However, phone companies are famous for keeping their switching centers and central offices running through even the worse disasters as long as the facilities are intact.
  • Damage to your infrastructure: If your company phone system is out, you may be able to make calls from home phones, but perhaps not using your company system.

You may not have internet access.

  • Even if your data center is intact and running, your internet access may be unavailable for the same reasons landlines are not working.
  • Network Routing may not be functional if your service provider’s routing and switching facilities have been knocked out.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take now that may help you deal with this disaster as well as disasters to come. They don’t need to be massive disasters like the one Florence is expected to bring. Sometimes a major snowstorm or a major heatwave may affect your company in the same way, even if it doesn’t affect the entire region.

First, make sure you have contact information for all of your employees. That should include their mobile and landline numbers as well as the carriers for each. Also get their personal email addresses along with the email addresses of whomever they live with. You may need to determine the welfare of your employees, and it’s possible you can contact a third party to confirm an employee’s status.

While you’re at it, get the physical address (not the mailing address) or your employees. That way, if a particular region is more seriously affected than others, you gain some insight as to whether they will be reachable, and whether they might be able to get to work. You may even be in a position to send help. While you’re at it, see if any of them are ham radio operators for help with health and welfare messages.

Second, confirm that your business communications infrastructure is protected against a likely disaster, which may mean moving backup equipment to a high floor or to a nearby building with better protection. It may also mean testing the backup plan so that you know your alternate provider is still there and working. Confirm that your communications is through a protected fiber link, which should be the case by now, since business communications have been moving to fiber for years.

Third, determine what alternate forms of communications you have available. This will include radios that can be tuned to the local news and weather stations along with batteries to run them. You may want to acquire satellite phones for critical individuals.

Satellite phones are easily found at some electronics and phone stores. They’re also available on Amazon. If you have more than a couple of satellite phones, you may want to distribute them to key employees or employees who live in areas where you have many employees.

Fourth, remember that SMS text messages will frequently go through even when cell sites are generally unavailable for voice communications. Remind your employees of this. Make sure they know to check for such messages periodically.

Finally, determine a meeting point for a critical subset of employees that will be necessary to help the business recover. This needs to be somewhere protected from expected disasters, high enough not to flood, strongly built to resist wind, and away from local disasters such as volcanoes. Then, make sure that someone from senior management goes there to meet your employees when they arrive.

Once all that’s done. Write down a plan to be passed to everyone involved and then send it by multiple means such as email, internal mail notices and U.S. Mail.

Once you’ve completed all that, assuming that the hurricane hasn’t already arrived, practice your plan to make sure it works and then fix what didn’t if you have time. Having a plan won’t ensure that your company survives a major disaster, but not having one will help ensure that it won’t. 

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...