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Winter Journal

Volume 31, Issue 4

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Part 1

Like many major companies, Universal Studios spent over a year defining their vital business functions and making adequate preparations to protect them. This company’s business functions are different from most; they consist of not only movies and television programs, but a theme park and flourishing tourism business.

Because of the nature of its business, MCA INC./Universal Studios has many unique consideratons in designing a disaster recovery plan. the Studio, in fact, is a separate city unto itseld, with its own fire department, security force, construction crews, transportation systems, restaurants and hotels. All planning resources must be carefully coordinated in order to serve most efficiently the employee and guest population, estimated between 50,000-100,000 at any given time on the 420 acre site.

Their current disaster recovery plan was two years in development and is now in a three-year implementation process that will be constantly updated with annual drills and the continual training of new team members. It was developed through Corporate Risk Management and then turned over to the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Universal City Studios for implementation.

MCA’s plan accounts for the importance of offsite backup facilities. Film, tape and critical records are backed up and stored out of state in underground vaults. Furthermore, the plan includes a separate emergency radio network system, and their telecommunications is working on a corporate-wide 800 number. Software packages are backed up and stored offsite for resumption. Contingency planning software has been purchased to record and store all inventory of personnel information and critical records in a free-standing portable computer for use in the E.O.C.

In addition to recognizing the importance of asset protection and business resumption, Universal Studios stresses life safety as its highest priority. Employee safety considerations are comprehensive, as all response team members receive training in first-aid, C.P.R., fire extinguisher use, search and rescue and other emergency skills. In the event of an emergency, the studio would be able to maintain approximately 72 hours of food stuffs and bottled water for stranded employees.

The concern for personal safety is not limited to employees, but extends out to the general public. The Studio currently employs 12 registered nurses for the Studio and Tour operations. Training is conducted on a regular basis and all tram drivers and tour guides are encouraged to obtain C.P.R. training. C.P.R. training is also available to individual employees on a regular basis.

The studio also has abundant and diverse transportation resources: four wheel drive vehicles, maxi-vans and crew cabs for personnel, heavy equipment for removal of debris, water trucks for water storage, fuel trucks for fuel storage, generator vehicles, and honey-wagons.

Another rather inadvertent asset that MCA has, simply by virtue of the industry, is the diversity of languages spoken by the employees.

Tour Operations reports that 30 to 40 tour guides speak more than one language. These tour guides represent interpreters for five languages.

MCA INC./Universal Studios is constantly updating and testing its plan.

The employees, as well as the surrounding community (including the local fire stations and other rescue forces) are involved in occasional mock diasters, which can be quite realistic and convincing with the special effects and stunt people.

The test begins with the initial disaster and concludes, not when the rescue operations have been demonstrated, but only after the “victims” have been transported to the hospital.

Part 2: The recovery plan unfolds

As one of the biggest names in the movie industry, part of MCA Inc./Universal Studios’ business is to thrill its audiences with catastrophes of epic proportions on the screen. However, while it is easy to call it a day after concocting an inferno for next summer’s blockbuster release, it may not be so simple to resume normal business activities the day after a real-life disaster. MCA, like several other organizations discovering that proactive planning is the key element of corporate survival following a disaster, is currently in the process of implementing a new plan for the Studio. Part 1 took a cursory look at some elements of MCA’s disaster recovery plan. Part 2 will provide a more in-depth examination of the plan and some of its prevention measures.


Should any disaster strike, an advisory panel of the Senior Corporate Vice Presidents and CEOs from each of MCA’s critical divisions would lead the recovery effort. Dan Slusser, Senior Vice President and General Manager, oversees the plan as a whole, directing and coordinating the recovery effort of the entire organization. The recovery plan itself is then divided into two major functioning units. The data processing plan, handled by George Brenner, Vice President and Director of Corporate Information Services, focuses on business resumption for all data processing-related aspects of the organization. The protection and recovery of the physical facilities, as well as coordination of the corporate-wide recovery, is handled by Paul Holehouse, Director of Corporate Emergency Preparedness.

Another facet of MCA’s implementation process involves the construction of a new facility that will serve as the primary meeting location for employees and management following a crisis. Plans are underway to replace the current Emergency Operations Center this coming October with a new 8,000 square foot facility. In addition to all of the equipment that is now in the temporary facility (which includes property-wide utility maps, an uninterrupted power source, a backup emergency generator, incident status boards and portable radios), the new one will have a state-of-the-art training center and applications for the critical information. The mobile unit, or secondary location, is situated in the parking lot area. Should the prime location be immobilized, this site, sufficiently equipped with essential supplies and materials, can be utilized. The unit consists of tents and tarps, which would be more likely than a building to survive what is the biggest threat to MCA, an earthquake. Backup data centers are also located in this area.


In preparing for a disaster, Universal Studios is divided into three teams: the studio itself, the tour, and the amiptheater. Within each of these teams are eight divisions to address the following areas:

  • first aid
  • food and water
  • resources (including transportation)
  • damage assessment (including risk management and the actual recovery effort)
  • security team
  • communications team
  • emergency operations team

Each division, which on average consists of 12 people, receives the same training in each of the three departments. Thus, if a partial disaster should occur and only one department was impaired, people from the other teams could easily step in and assist in the recovery process. Furthermore, each of these individual teams tie in to one central, comprehensive corporate plan. While each unit is specifically trained to focus on its own unique hazard area, they can also all function together as one unified group for a large-scale catastrophe.

MCA is also secured outside of the organization by an agreement with their critical vendors, approximately 50 in number, guaranteeing that MCA will be supplied with computers and computer paper, plywood, food, water, and other essentials that may be needed during a disaster.


MCA’s corporate headquarters includes over 200 buildings that are divided into assessment and mitigation inspections. In addition to retrofitting old equipment, another aspect of the new plan entails stricter earthquake mitigation procedures for all new construction and modelling. For example, all cabinets must be anchored to the walls, sway bar protection for tape and film storage racks is mandatory, and all large-plate glass areas are coated with mylar to protect from broken glass.

MCA also provides its personnel with easily accessible phone numbers to contact in order to either prevent or alleviate the potential devastations of a disaster. The 5,000+ phones on the property are all equipped with the following information:

  • building address and location
  • a direct line to the fire department and paramedics, which are located on MCA’s property
  • a security number
  • a safety hotline, which directs all calls around the clock to a team that will investigate any questionable event or situation on the premises

Although the studio covers over 400 acres of land and 200 buildings, the recipient of any phone call can quickly pinpoint the caller’s origin on a digital display. In addition to these numbers, MCA has an active rolodex file of all contact numbers for critical service areas.


Like most other businesses, Universal Studios incorporates offsite storage into the overall disaster plan to complement the recovery process. Their facility, inconspicuously located a safe distance from the data center, is a reinforced underground site. While it predominantly serves to store duplicate data, bonded courier service is also available from the offsite location as scheduled and on an emergency basis 24 hours/day, every day of the year. The facility will also handle the movement of tape files to and from their designated disaster recovery site.

A weekly system backup that is taken Sunday evenings is sent offsite early Monday morning, and on-site nightly application data backups are taken and also sent offsite the following morning.

MCA Inc./Universal Studios’ disaster recovery plan is making great strides as the implementation phase progresses at a steady pace. Although the plan should be completed within the next two years, the people at MCA realize that implementation is merely the first phase of an ongoing process that involves updating the plan, equipment, and facilities, as well as frequently testing and maintaining the plan to ensure that their organization could survive any disaster.

“The most critical aspect of the entire plan,” adds Paul Holehouse, “is the management commitment to continual employee Team Training and to motivate employee preparedness at home as well as at work.” And as the creators of many of your favorite disasters on the big screen, MCA knows--while a disaster scenario can provide added drama and thrill to movies and television, it can also result in the downfall of a business that is not prepared.

Part 3

Storage of Emergency On-Site Supplies at MCA/Universal Studios


Once the disaster has occurred and the dust starts to clear, an organized plan must take over to provide the needed emergency supplies to assist the disaster teams with search and rescue, food and water distribution, and the construction supplies necessary to secure critical areas and barricade condemned buildings. Priority of resources will change depending on the time of day the disaster occurs. Flashlights, batteries, portable toilets, lumber, plywood, plastic sheeting, food, water, raingear, blankets, and pre-packaged hygiene kits will be just the start of possibly a three to five day shelter management plan. (A year after the San Francisco earthquake, there are still shelter camps for displaced persons in the Bay area!)

As part of MCA’s Corporate Disaster Plan, a reserve of emergency items, such as food, water, and temporary housing, is available based on a given percentage of the maximum occupancy of the entire facility. The management at MCA has to consider visitors and guests as well as employees and, consequently, must anticipate the potential need for an undetermined amount of extra emergency supplies. To account for the added numbers, MCA has devised a plan that will first utilize those resources available on a daily basis. Once those are depleted, people can tap into supplies furnished in an emergency on-site facility, which is to be used exclusively for disaster scenarios.


In case of a large-scale disaster that may debilitate vital resources and facilities, MCA has a 40 foot Matson trailer that they have stocked with emergency supplies. It is specially designed to sustain severe shaking damage that an earthquake would probably incur. Internally, Universal personnel has battened down all equipment with earthquake bracing, straps, and other securing devices to ensure that everything will stay intact if the facility is moved or shaken. This trailer, which has been remodeled by Universal’s prop-makers and special effects crew to accommodate the particular needs at the Studio, can be moved to a different location by crane or forklift.

After purchasing the trailer, the Art Department designed an accessible storage facility that clearly displays all the equipment to be used for distribution. This was done by constructing the interior of the facility with plexiglass and wire baskets that are all clearly identifiable for immediate access.

In the assessment of needs, MCA staff determined that it would not be necessary to store food in this facility since it is currently stored in several locations to stock the various eating establishments on the property. Should a disaster strike, all perishable foods would be distributed first. Once this supply was exhausted, the food and water team members would allocate and distribute the stored food. Water is stored in 55 gallon drums on wooden pallets for easy distribution both in the storage facility and in multiple locations on the property.

Communication equipment inside the storage facility includes bullhorns, beepers, a full emergency radio network with remote suitcase repeaters, portable radios, and cellular telephones. The facility also houses a police and fire scanner and will function as a ham radio operators dispatch center.

The storage facility will primarily be used for distribution of equipment to disaster response teams and is equipped with a backup generator with enough fuel for the first 24 hours. In addition to the main disaster supply storage facility, smaller storage areas are strategically placed around the facility with team members instructed on how to use and distribute the contents within.

Additional supplies in the emergency facility include employee coveralls, boots, breathing apparatus, medical supplies, extrication equipment, a vault containing duplicates of keys to critical vehicles needed in the event of a disaster, emergency lighting, generators, emergency radio network equipment, building utility plans, and manuals identifying the operation of all equipment housed in the facility.

Universal Studios Hollywood recently hosted the annual conference for the American Society of Amusement Parks Security & Safety and, as part of the agenda, conference attendees toured the supply trailer as shown above. The facility has been toured by the local and state Fire Department and local disaster preparedness organizations. The emergency supply storage facility is on the Universal Studios Hollywood tram route, a location that is both easily accessible and also free from overhead obstructions or other barriers that may inhibit immediate entrance to the trailer. All tour guides have incorporated a brief description of the Corporate Disaster Plan as part of the tour experience.

As most people are now well aware, a disaster plan is a continuing process. The development of new technologies and lessons learned from disasters worldwide are continually incorporated into MCA/Universal’s expanding disaster recovery plan. The best defense in the event of a major disaster is the education of the public and employees in emergency preparedness. The Studio hopes that this supply storage facility and its contents will show both the staff at Universal as well as the general public a positive visible approach in the overall effort involved in creating and implementing a disaster recovery plan.

Margo Young and Richard Newman are staff writers for the Disaster Recovery Journal.

This article adapted from Vol. 3 No.2, p. 29; No. 3, p. 16; No. 4, p. 50.