Winter Storms Underscore Need for Real World Emergency Preparation

News Analysis: Emergency planning advice usually assumes that things will work as planned. The real secret to emergency planning is to assume that nothing will work as planned.

It's no secret that those of us who work on the U.S. East Coast have been subjected to a cycle of major winter storms that have hit about every four to six days. The Midwest has had a similar cycle that seems to alternate between the upper and lower Midwest.

As those storms hit with blizzard conditions or with sticky, wet snow, freezing rain and high winds, the results are basically the same: Power goes out, employees get stuck in commuter hell, phone service is spotty and cell service vanishes. The only real differences are in how skilled the regions are in getting back online after one of these events.

Of course, other regions have their own emergencies. In the South, it's hurricanes from June through November. In the West, there are massive Pacific storms that bring mudslides, followed by droughts that bring fires. And, of course, there's the occasional earthquake just to stir things up. But right now it's the East Coast's turn to be pounded, and businesses around the region are struggling to stay on top of the repeated, and relentless, attacks from the weather.

What many IT managers are finding out is that their plans for handling an emergency are inadequate. Whatever they've planned for, the eventuality is worse. Power outages last longer, telecom services go down, phones are out and cell service is available mostly to first responders.

To make matters worse, your employees can't get to work. But they can't work from home, and they may not have anything resembling a public WiFi location to work from even if your IT systems are running. In some cases, your employees may not be available at all, either because they're stranded by the thousands on the highways or because they are effectively unreachable for other reasons.

So if it's really important that your systems stay up, you have to do the best you can to make sure you have the triad of things that are necessary to do that. This triad is Power, People and Communications. While it can turn out that your disaster planning, no matter how carefully done, will prove fruitless, you might as well maximize your chances.

Start with looking at your power situation. If you're using two providers and two grids, then you double your chances that one of them will stay up. But you also double your chances that one will go down. So study the track record of each of your power providers for that specific grid.

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...