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October 29, 2007

A Survivor's Tale: The Rebirth of the Federal Employees Credit Union in Oklahoma City

Written by  Grayson Towler
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By now, you know the story. On April 19, 1995, shortly after 9:00 AM, Oklahoma City endured the most brutal terrorist attack in American history. The blast that laid waste to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was so intense that it shook the countryside for miles. The horrific and shocking image of the disaster seared itself into the minds of millions of Americans. Every floor of the Murrah building became a tragic story. This is the story from the third floor, where the Federal Employees Credit Union (FECU) once stood.

FECU suffered the most fearsome blow of all the businesses and agencies housed in the Federal Building. While other offices in the building were branches of larger federal organizations, such as Social Security and Veterans Administrations Services, FECU was wholly located in the destroyed structure. The 75 million dollar credit union served over 15,000 members worldwide from that office. All information technology and infrastructure, all MIS systems and telecommunications equipment, all records and all files were utterly laid to waste. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks, travelers checks, and cash vanished into the smoldering rubble. The most crippling blow came to the staff — of the 33 employees of the credit union, 18 died in the blast, five were hospitalized, and many of the remaining survivors were too traumatized to return to work.

With only three of the employees of FECU and the aid of many volunteers, the credit union was open for business on Friday, April 21st, at 9:40 A.M., just over 48 hours after the disaster.

KEYS TO RECOVERY

The restoration of the Federal Employees Credit Union was a marvel of disaster recovery. Three factors made this possible: a sound and flexible disaster recovery strategy, the generous support of other credit unions and recovery experts, and a spot of good luck.Though it is difficult to perceive a business which has suffered the cruel and agonizing fate that befell FECU as being lucky, there was a genuine patch of good fortune when it came to restoring the damaged business. Amongst the survivors were CEO Florence Rogers, Vice President and Comptroller Raymond Stroud, and the FECU data processing specialist, Brad Grant. It was by sheer coincidence that Grant and Stroud were both out of town at the time. Florence Rogers was in the building when the blast struck — her survival is a miracle in and of itself. Thus, when the smoke cleared, the Credit Union had suffered an awful loss, but it did have the three key people it needed for recovery there to help restore it.

When the news of the destruction began to spread, it immediately became clear to employees of Oklahoma City's other credit unions that their colleagues at FECU were going to need all the help they could give. Tinker Credit Union, the 850 million dollar credit union which serves Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base, offered the aid of its employees and the use of their recently completed new corporate headquarters. Volunteers from credit unions around the state pitched in to aid. It was their generosity which helped FECU endure the part of the devastation for which not even the best disaster recovery plan could prepare them: the loss of human life.

FECU's disaster recovery strategy did save their systems and data. Crucial to the plan was the off-site storage of all backups at their Disaster Recovery facility. When the blast hit, The Rock Island Group was able to immediately ship a complete set of backups to a User's, Inc., hot-site in Pennsylvania. By the next day, they were retrieving records and data and beginning to restore the information lost in the blast. CEO Florence Rogers gave the go-ahead to the Rock Island Group to bring in their information systems and telecommunications experts to begin the task of replacing the technological base of the credit union, both for short term needs at their emergency site and for the long term as the credit union struggled to rebuild.

It all came together. On Friday morning, the word went out across the media that FECU was back in business.

ANATOMY OF A DISASTER
AND REBIRTH

CEO Florence Rogers was just beginning a meeting in her office with seven other members of the Credit Union on that fateful morning. For her, only a split second separated a day of orderly and satisfying business from a nightmare of destruction and tragedy. The concussive force of the explosion ripped through her office and slammed her into the far wall. Steel beams and slabs of concrete thundered and crashed around her; one piece of debris weighing tons landed inches from her head. When her mind and vision cleared, she looked up. Where there was once an office was now only a treacherous ledge against the far wall. The rest of the office, including her seven friends and co-workers, had disappeared. All that remained was a smoking pit three stories deep.

THAT WAS HOW IT BEGAN

Twenty-five minutes later, the Chairman of the Board declared a state of emergency. Their CEO, Bill Towler, began to set in motion the disaster recovery strategy for FECU's immediate needs by gathering the backups stored offsite and preparing to ship them to a hot-site. User's, Inc., began to ready that hot-site in Pennsylvania and called for the backups to be sent.

Brad Grant, who was spending a week on duty with the Army Reserves, called Oklahoma City to try to reach the Credit Union before he heard about the true nature of the damage. When he could not get a response, he called their corporate headquarters. "I just need to reach the computer room," he told Bill Towler. "Brad," Bill answered somberly, "there IS no computer room."

When the reports and pictures began to appear on the media and the full, horrible extent of the devastation became evident, members of the credit union community in Oklahoma began to respond. Tinker Credit Union CEO Ken Sorrels was quick to offer their new corporate facilities as an emergency site for FECU. The training facility at those offices fortunately had six teller areas and terminals ready for use.

At 4:30 of the same day, an emergency session of the board was called. In attendance were the members of the board, the CEOs of seven other local credit unions, the CEO of The Rock Island Group, and FECU's CEO Florence Rogers, bandaged and bruised from the explosion. It was here that the strategy for the oncoming days was established.

Everyone in attendance at the board meeting had much to offer and their own specialized understanding of the challenges which FECU would have to overcome. Matthew Stratton, Tinker Credit Union's Vice President in charge of marketing, took charge of the media requirements of informing the public and press of FECU's status. The credit union executives began to organize their volunteers and arrange for the personnel necessary to provide FECU with a functional staff. It was decided that The Rock Island Group, which was removed from the personal trauma that all members of the tightly knit credit union community were enduring, would be best suited to handle the facilitation and organization needs of FECU's recovery. That left Florence Rogers in charge of overseeing the direction of FECU, and of dealing with the pain, suffering, and death of her coworkers, their families, and the credit union's members.

Timely action on the part of Tinker's Matthew Stratton and his PR team was crucial to FECU's revival. They organized the press releases, running radio commercials and an advertisement in the Daily Oklahoman to report that the credit union was coming back on line and that their members' needs would be met. Members who feared that their money was lost were reassured by the advertisements that FECU was going to continue to be able to serve them. Businesses such as supermarkets which initially feared that the FECU checks were no longer viable were quickly and quietly informed that the credit union could still honor its payments.

The outstanding charity and goodwill in the form of volunteers from other credit unions were truly magnificent. The community responded in the one area where even the best disaster recovery plan could be of no help. The remaining members of FECU have all voiced their gratitude for the superb support of their colleagues. It is important to realize, however, that even such a generous outpouring of aid would not have been sufficient to do what needed to be done to restore the business had an infrastructure not been created to channel that energy properly into the efforts of recovery.

The Rock Island Group took it upon itself to provide that infrastructure and to maintain a focus on FECU's business needs while respecting the charged emotions surrounding the disaster. The problem required a flexible approach. CEO Bill Towler encouraged the credit union executives and employees to not ask for what they thought they needed in terms of supplies or services, but to determine what results they wished to achieve. With that approach to set the tempo, he and The Rock Island Group professionals set out to determine what steps should be taken to achieve those results.

The formula was a success. The credit union executives went through The Rock Island Group for their equipment and planning needs, allowing for a single, focused approach instead of the chaos and inefficiency that would have resulted without such a strategy. FECU was able to get a telecommunications system in place before they opened, fielding such difficulties as the training of volunteers on a new system and problems with the reassignment of the 800 number services before the credit union opened for business on Friday. In order to allow them to act as liaison with the federal agents at the blast site, FECU made CEO Bill Towler an official agent and officer of the credit union. As a result, FECU was freed of the burden of dealing with law enforcement agencies directly, instead allowing them to retrieve their mail after it had been reviewed by federal agents as possible evidence, and to recover and inventory cash, checks, and records from the demolished building.

The 48 hours leading up to the re-opening of FECU were hectic and emotionally charged, but nothing could have prepared the credit union executives and volunteers for the intensity of Friday the 21st. The phones were ringing off the hook throughout the whole day, and 500 members visited the emergency site. Not only were the employees of FECU and the volunteers struck afresh by the impact of the disaster because of their own experiences in returning to work, but they had to cope with the fact that over 90% of the workers in the Murrah Federal Building were members of the credit union, including virtually all of the missing and dead.

It fell upon the shoulders of Florence Rogers to manage the trauma of her people, the volunteers, and the members of FECU. She and the trauma counselors from CUNA Mutual Insurance Group had their hands full the entire day dealing with the tears and pain of those who had lost family or friends in the tragedy. The first day was the worst — the members flooded in, shaken and confused, many sporting fresh bandages from explosion related injuries.

As the credit union continued its business in the following days at its emergency site, all those involved in its recovery faced new challenges. The media team worked to keep the public informed of developments and to reassure members against their fears that the credit union would not be able to stay in business. The volunteers worked nonstop, arranging their schedules with their co-workers to make sure that FECU was always covered. Their exemplary performance ensured that the credit union was always fully staffed, even when all of the full-time employees of FECU were away from work.

The Rock Island Group professionals continued to organize the recovery from the logistical side. Stan Chase, president of The Rock Island Group's Telecommunications Division, had to re-train the volunteers every day on the constantly mutating phone systems at the emergency site. The Disaster Recovery Division handled the courier duties, mail delivery, and retrieval of money and items from the blast site. Meanwhile, the Information Technology Division of The Rock Island Group began to set up the new, longer-term location for FECU at the former Tinker Credit Union building in Bethany, Oklahoma.

Florence Rogers slowly but surely began to get her people over the worst of the tragedy. In addition to overseeing the reconstruction of the FECU business infrastructure, she and her executives dealt daily with the human loss. They attended funerals nearly every day, barely able to pause for reflection after one service before they had to arrange for another. They kept the CUNA trauma counselors up-to-date and in touch to deal with the needs of the wounded business.

Through it all, the credit union stayed open for business. They lost virtually everything they had on that terrible, senseless morning when the Murrah Building caved inwards upon itself. What they had left was this: a plan for disaster recovery, the aid of many fine friends and volunteers, and the will and heart to rebuild even after such a crippling blow. For the Federal Employees Credit Union of Oklahoma City, it was enough.

LESSONS FROM THE BLAST

The story of FECU is almost unique in the history of disasters facing American businesses for both the severity of the loss in assets and information and for the unexpected toll in human life. The credit union's experience therefore provides us with insights and lessons about dealing with extreme disasters. Some of the lessons are:

  • The fact that FECU had a disaster recovery plan and kept its computer backups offsite cannot be understated in its importance to the credit union's revival. Had the business not made backups, or had it kept them in the same building, it could never have recovered from the destruction it faced.
  • In a case where trauma plays such a large role, it is wise to allow an outside source to handle as much of the logistical needs of the business as possible. The first priority of the executives has to be the physical and mental well-being of their people and customers.
  • Media management becomes vital in a case where customers of a business might be confused about the well-being of that business. In such a high-profile situation, the fact that the attention of virtually all the customers was guaranteed to be focused on the media worked to the advantage of the public relations team.
  • Maintaining communications for the executives, the consultants, and the trauma counselors was absolutely essential. Initially, FECU and its allies had to scramble together enough cellular phones to meet that demand, since all telecommunications for the credit union were demolished.
  • A few elements of the recovery could have been handled more efficiently. It would have been wise to allow time for the backups to be copied before having them shipped to the hot-site. Though none were lost in the transition, if any had been damaged or lost they would have been irreplaceable. The executives at FECU also would have preferred to have obtained replacement computer equipment for their system more quickly than they were able, saving them the inconvenience and cost of keeping the remote hot-site operating.
  • The CEO for a business in the midst of a disaster such as this must not be flooded by details of the daily operations of the business. The Chief Executive Officers of the other Oklahoma City credit unions took turns acting as Florence Rogers' assistant during the crisis. She needed the aid of those assistants to address the practical requirements of the credit union, thus allowing her to oversee the recovery from the proper perspective without becoming bogged down.
  • Though it is difficult to see past the shock and horror of such an event, a business must always look to the future. FECU consulted the professionals at the company about purchasing new computer and telecommunications systems not just to replace the old ones, but to improve upon them. Though it is instinctive to want to restore things to the way they were before a disaster as much as possible, it is more intelligent for a business to use the opportunity to upgrade its technology when replacing that technology becomes necessary.

Grayson Towler is a creative specialist for The Rock Island Group.

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