All too often, companies either rely upon personal knowledge and skill to recover from emergency situations, or they write a multi-volume encyclopedia of recovery procedures. When disaster strikes, neither approach lends itself to rapid response.You simply cannot rely upon any particular individual to be available during an emergency. Neither can you expect your staff to read through pages and pages of process documentation while chaos reins. There is a better way: Think in terms of recovery phases and align your documentation and recovery efforts with them.

There are three recovery phases: resolve, respond and rebuild. Let's look at them in chronological order.

The resolve phase

The resolve phase is all about making the decision to deal with potential disasters and taking action to prevent them. Here are some of the key questions that need to be answered during these efforts:

* Who needs to be involved in developing the disaster recovery plans?

* What are the organization's critical business processes and supporting equipment?

* How long can each of those processes be unavailable without crippling the firm?

* Are there options for replacing or outsourcing some of those processes?

* What risks does the organization face?

* What steps can be taken to mitigate risks?

There is a tendency to jump right into documenting emergency response procedures. However, at this juncture, the time is better invested in managing business processes and organizational risks. Document the current state and provide procedures for on-going pre-emptive action to mitigate risks.

In any growing business, processes will change, people come and go, equipment gets replaced, and products evolve. As these changes take place, risks will mutate and migrate. Put procedures in place to adequately monitor, document and maintain the environment.

For example, the information technology group should have a clearly documented back-up regimen, regular network-wide maintenance procedures and, of course, constant security screenings.

Having targeted documentation in place to guide every department in preventing disasters will avoid many common emergencies such as small fires, water damage or security violations. When a disaster does occur, it is likely to be smaller and more easily managed than it would have been had preventative measures not been taken.

Checklists are wonderful tools for reminding people what needs to be done and guiding them along a series of steps. They are also easy to sign and file away as verification that the work was done. Develop simple one-page checklists for all disaster prevention activities.

Now that steps are in place to prevent disasters from happening, it's time to turn the organization's attention to what to do should a disaster occur despite those efforts.

The respond phase

The respond phase is the toughest of the three phases. There could be pure pandemonium during an emergency response situation. The responders will either know what to do in advance, or they will be crushed by the weight of the events. Here are some key questions that need to be answered during the response planning:

* Who needs to be included on the disaster response team?

* Who declares a disaster?

* How will the response team communicate?

* How will information be disseminated to all employees?

* How will police, fire and other emergency officials be engaged?

* Where will people operate, and with what equipment?

* How will customers, suppliers, partners and other parties be notified, if necessary?

One of the things that makes disaster planning complex is the wide variety of situations that must be addressed. A disaster could be as simple as a small fire that sets off the sprinkler system, causing water damage. A disaster could also be catastrophic, as in a major industrial accident resulting in the complete destruction of a facility, along with loss of life.

Don't treat this respond phase as a one-size-fits-all. Start by documenting basic response procedures, the people to be involved and the contact information for everyone that might need to be notified. This makes a good foundation that everyone can understand.

Often, the biggest problem during a crisis is communications difficulties. Create contact lists. Store them in multiple locations using multiple formats, both electronic and printed.

Move on to documenting procedures for setting up replacement equipment within the current facility or nearby. Don't make the mistake of assuming that because back-up data is stored offsite, there is nothing to worry about. If equipment is damaged or the facility cannot be occupied, the back-up data will be useless.

Finally, address the doomsday scenario arising from complete destruction of a facility. This is an unlikely scenario, but should not be ignored. At least document a process for contacting all employees at their homes should they be unable to enter or get to the facility.

The primary advantage of this approach is that the documentation for dealing with the most common situations will be brief and targeted. First responders will know exactly what they need to do in managing the most likely emergencies.

It is important to gain control of the small emergencies quickly so that they never have the chance to become major disasters. In the unlikely event of a major disaster, the plan should engage more people inside and outside the organization. More senior managers will also need to be involved to help manage the effort.

Once the immediate emergency situation is stabilized, attention turns toward rebuilding and returning to normal.

The rebuild phase

The rebuild phase could be as simple as replacing a damaged piece of equipment or as complex as reconstructing an entire facility and its contents. Here are some of the key questions that need to be answered during rebuild planning:

* Who needs to be involved in the rebuilding effort?

* Who will be responsible for damage assessment?

* How will the insurance claims be handled?

* What will be done to maintain productivity levels?

* What adjustments will be made in working conditions and hours of operation?

This phase is impacted by a number of criteria. For example, is the facility owned or leased? Is it wholly occupied or shared? Is equipment owned or leased? Is machinery off the shelf or custom-designed?

The answers to these questions and many related ones need to be documented. Key contacts must be identified. In a post-disaster situation, many suppliers are ready and willing to help, but time is of the essence. It is important to engage them as soon as possible.

The full extent of the damage must be assessed not only for insurance purposes but also because long lead-time items must be ordered as soon as possible to minimize downtime. This is where good documentation for all corporate

assets is invaluable. It will simplify insurance claims and ordering of replacements.

Ideally, the respond phase and the rebuild phase will overlap slightly so that the recovery time can be shortened. Having separate people and documentation for these efforts will simplify and speed up both efforts.

Putting it all together

Don't think about disaster recovery planning as one overwhelming activity. Think of it as three phased activities: resolve, respond and rebuild. Each activity is unique, requiring different skills, targeted documentation and thorough planning.

Multiple copies of the document set should be printed and placed in multiple locations. Also, provide electronic access to a set stored at an offsite location, in case people need to view the information remotely.

The end result should be a set of documents that provide quick reference material to responders. This enables the person in charge of the recovery effort to direct team members to specific documents, rather than having them wade through a tome.

This three-phased approach, when done properly, will prevent many common emergency situations, minimize the impact of actual disasters and speed the return to normal.

Vin D'Amico is a technical writer with Writing Assistance Inc. (, a national staffing company in Plymouth, Minn., that supplies technical writers and specialists in Web content and training development.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access