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October 25, 2007

Disaster Preparedness is Key to Any Telecommunications Plan

Written by  Peter A. Howley
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Imagine if your company's telecommunications services were knocked out for just one week. No incoming calls or orders, no faxes, no outgoing communications. Most businesses would be crippled; many would not recover. It's a situation that many Los Angeles-area businesses faced after the recent January earthquake. Preparation for a disaster, such as an earthquake, fire, flood or power outage, can make the difference between a struggle to survive and a smooth recovery.

"We were devastated by the earthquake," said Ed Herzoff, Vice President and co-owner of Sherman Oaks Camera and Sound, Inc. in Sherman Oaks, Calif., whose building also suffered damage from fire and water. "We simply cannot function without our telephone system. The telephone is our primary vehicle for staying in touch with our customers - for order taking and customer service. Without it, we may as well shut our door."

Key to any business' disaster preparedness plan is a contingency plan for telecommunications. Covercraft Industries, Inc., also located in southern California, had a contingency plan in place for its computer system but, since the earthquake, has learned the value of disaster preparedness for its telecommunications system as well. "Prior to the earthquake we had not put a lot of thought into a disaster recovery plan that covered all aspects of our business," said Michael Patrick, Director of MIS at Covercraft Industries, Inc., whose Northridge office handles service calls and does design work for its automotive accessories manufacturing plant in Oklahoma. "For a few days, our customers couldn't get technical support. Without phone service, we cannot provide customer service - a vital aspect of our business. This one disaster could have crippled our whole operation."

A disaster preparedness plan is important for every aspect of your business, and especially for telecommunications. Once you establish a plan it's important to make your employees aware of the overall plan and their role in it. Periodically set aside time to conduct practice drills to ensure your plan works. The plan should also be evaluated and updated periodically to ensure that it still meets your business needs.

Safeguard Your Telecommunications Equipment

Power outages can have a big impact on telecommunications equipment, both during and after a disaster. If your building suffers a power outage, your telephones may not be operational. Though your telephone lines will likely be up and running, telephone systems need power to operate and may not be working. This is also true for cordless telephones and fax machines. Once power is restored, you should check the following:

  • Call-forwarding and other feature programming on all of your telephones. This programming can be erased during a power outage.
  • Burglar or fire alarms that ring into an alarm company. Since their call programming can be affected by power outages, call your alarm company(s) to make sure these services are functioning properly.
  • Some telephone systems have emergency power capabilities. If your telephone system has this feature, it's important that you understand its capabilities and limitations. You may want to investigate auxiliary power sources such as an uninterruptible power supply or battery back-up, either of which can be coupled with a surge protector.
  • If you have on-premises telecommunications equipment that uses software voice mail or call accounting system, back-up the software so valuable information about your system's configuration is not lost if it goes down. Keep copies both on and off-site.

Safeguard Your Telecommunications Services

Immediately following a disaster such as an earthquake, most companies struggle just to get their phones answered since employees typically cannot get to the office or the office itself may be severely damaged. For example, immediately following the Los Angeles earthquake, one Los Angeles-area business could not open any of its five local offices. In this case, they were able to contact their telemanagement firm which immediately directed the local telephone company to forward calls from the five local offices to the client's corporate location, allowing the client to quickly recover and serve its customers even while its local offices were closed.

Also following the recent Los Angeles earthquake, another company, Covercraft Industries, Inc., was forced to permanently relocated to another office location when their building was determined to be structurally unsound. Though their telephone lines were working, the company's telephone equipment and service had to be forwarded to the new location. "We contacted our telemanagement firm to coordinate the installation of our telephone system and get service up-and-running," remarked Patrick. "Within one day of moving in, our calls were forwarded to our new office! It could have taken days for the telephone company to get to us." Patrick added, "We saved time and effort and were able to spend our energies getting back on our feet. Though there was major clean-up work to be done, we could continue to offer our customers service and conduct business."

In the event that your building is closed or your communications system is incapacitated, plan for an alternate telecommunications solution to ensure business operations continue. Below are various telecommunications services which can help your business to quickly get back on its feet:

  • A voice mailbox can answer calls to your main business telephone number. You can then retrieve these messages remotely and return the phone calls. Voice mail can also be used to let callers know your office is closed and when you expect to re-open. If your company already uses voice mail as part of its communications services, it will be relatively simple to set this up. If your company does not currently use voice mail, you can contract with a voice mail service provider for the mailboxes you will need.
  • If your business uses an 800 number for critical functions such as order taking or customer service, this number can be terminated, or rerouted, to another telephone number. Have a plan in place to also provide for answering those calls.
  • Your main business telephone number can be "call forwarded" to another office location, depending on anticipated call volume, or to an employees home. Calls can even be forwarded to cellular phones. "Call forwarding" is an optional feature offered by the local phone company. As part of your plan, you may want to have call forwarding permanently installed on your main business telephone number so you can easily activate it and forward calls in the event of an emergency.
  • Don't forget to forward your fax number! A simple solution is to identify a fax service near your office through which you can send and receive faxes (many copy shops offer this service).

In any emergency, the ability to place long distance calls can be greatly restricted. If you are calling out of an area where disaster has struck, you may get either a fast busy signal or have a delay in getting a dial tone at all. Having network redundancy gives you a better chance of completing these calls.

If you are attempting to call into a disaster area, you may get a recording stating that "all circuits are busy." It is important to keep in mind that when a disaster hits an area, there is frequently an avalanche of telephone calls into the area from people calling to check on the area's residents. This can, and usually does, quickly overload the public telephone network. To prevent this large inbound call volume from hindering recovery efforts, local telephone companies and long distance carriers may implement telephone traffic controls to restrict inbound calls so more outbound calls can be made.

Disaster Recovery Can Be Time Consuming

The disaster recovery process generally is much longer than the duration of the disaster itself. Not only are businesses hurt by the disaster, but they often suffer repercussions for months afterward. Depending on the severity of the damage, it can take a business months to recover. During this time, your ability to communicate with the outside world, including current and prospective customers, may be the key to whether or not you stay in business. In 1992, many businesses in Chicago, Ill., learned this firsthand.

In April, 1992, office workers in approximately 100 buildings in the "Loop" - Chicago's major business district - were evacuated from their buildings due to a flood caused by a puncture in the tunnels that run under the Chicago River.

As the flood disaster unfolded, most businesses who were forced to evacuate focused on ensuring their phones were answered while they were away from the office. Some businesses, however, were very hard hit by the flood and were not fully operational again for several months.

Employees at William Levine, Inc., a company located in downtown Chicago, had just half an hour to vacate their building when the flood hit. They were unable to enter their building for 10 days after the flood, during which the building had no power because all power lines were submerged underwater in the basement. "No one knew how long we were going to be out of our building," said Richard Landman, telecommunications manager for the company. "After two days, we realized that we needed to do something, so we worked with our telemanagement company who provided us with a voice mailbox - at no charge - to which we could forward calls from our 800 number. Since 95% of our calls come in over the 800 number, the voice mailbox allowed us to handle the majority of our company's calls even though we could not be in the office to fill the orders."

Although employees at William Levine, Inc. were able to get back in their building after about 10 days, theirs was among the ones hardest hit by the flood. It took about three months before they were fully operational again. During that time, Landman talked to his telemanagement company almost daily to get advice. According to Landman, "We couldn't have done anything without them. I talked to them often to keep them apprised of our situation and to get advice because conditions in our building kept changing. For example, we experienced numerous power outages for a few months after the flood and were worried about how this would affect our phone equipment. Our telemanagement company advised us to turn the phone system off at night to protect it from power surges. While this meant that we did not have phone service after hours, it was a short-lived situation and helped us avoid potentially costly repairs to our phone system."

It Doesn't Take a Major Disaster To Interrupt Telecommunications Services

It's important to keep in mind that it doesn't take a grand scale disaster to interrupt your telecommunications services. As New York City businesses learned in mid-February, seasonal events, such as snow storms, can shut down subway services and other transportation routes, making it impossible for businesses to cover their phones.

But disasters affecting telecommunications only can impact your business too. It is all too common these days for a long distance carrier to experience its own "disaster," such as cuts in their long distance fiber optics cables or software malfunctions.

For example, in 1993 alone, there were 38 outages. Keep in mind that currently there are four major and many smaller long distance networks in the United States.

Hundreds of carriers, aggregators and resellers sell long distance calling time on these networks. When choosing a long distance provider, it's a good idea to safeguard your company's ability to place long distance calls by selecting two vendors; making sure they carry calls on different networks.

Using more than one long distance vendor provides network redundancy. If one long distance carrier experiences a network outage or overload due to a disaster, long distance calls can be placed on the other network, thus reducing the possibility of downtime.

Other disasters specifically affecting telecommunications services include telephone company outages of the equipment used to process your local and long distance telephone calls.

One such incident occurred in 1990, in Stamford, Conn., where the local telephone company's call processing equipment failed completely. Approximately 50 percent of all the businesses in Stamford were unable to place or receive telephone calls for several days as a result!

Also in 1990, AT&T suffered a major fiber cut in New Jersey that affected the entire country's ability to place and receive long distance calls.

Having a telecommunications manager - either in the form of an on-staff resource or through outsourcing to a telemanagement company - can help a great deal when your business loses its communications capabilities.

It's important to have someone who is knowledgeable about the impact of the disaster on your telecommunications systems to help guide you through recovery efforts.

Expect Disaster and Plan Accordingly

Disasters can happen anywhere, any time. Recent large scale disasters include: the 1989 San Francisco and 1994 Los Angeles earthquakes; problems caused by sub-zero temperatures and snow on the East Coast and in the Midwest in 1994; fires in the Los Angeles-area in 1993; flooding in the Midwest in 1993; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York; the flood in the downtown area of Chicago in 1992; the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and the fire in California's Oakland Hills in 1991.

Keep in mind that disasters do not have to be widespread or make the front page headlines to have a big impact on your business.

Our firm learned this lesson first-hand in 1991, when our San Francisco, Calif., headquarters building caught fire. We had a disaster recovery plan in place, which greatly accelerated our recovery efforts. Because of this, the event was virtually invisible to our clients. That's the ultimate measure of success for a disaster recovery plan.
The bottom line is: disasters happen. Smart companies make it their business to have a disaster recovery plan in place. By ensuring that telecommunications equipment and services are protected and contingency plans are in place, prepared companies reduce the risk of interruptions and major loss. If a disaster does strike, being prepared can make the difference between a smooth recovery and a slow terrifying struggle to survive.


Peter Howley is Chairman, President and CEO of Centex Telemanagement, a publicly-held telecommunications management company, headquartered in San Francisco, Calif.

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