There's a brush fire bearing down on your small business. You've been told you have one hour to evacuate — which means you have one hour to come up with and execute a disaster preparation plan.
This is a scenario similar to what thousands of small business owners face each year. Luckily, that's enough time to take care of a company's most valuable assets, its employees and its data.
Disaster prep is one of those tasks that many small business owners keep planning to get to, but keep putting off. And it certainly may not seem like a priority at a company that's contending with slumping sales and cash flow during a recession.
While it's understandable that some owners don't get around to disaster planning, they're courting danger.
"This is wrath of God stuff," said John Toigo, a disaster recovery consultant based in Dunedin, Fla.
Without disaster planning, "there's no way I'd be able to recover my retirement," he said, referring to the fact that so many owners expect to some day sell their companies and live off the proceeds.
Minimal preparation — the kind you'd have to resort to if a disaster were in fact on the way — can be accomplished in an hour. And you can do much more if you have the luxury of an entire day.
Toigo said the first thing to be done is to put together a list of contact phone numbers, physical and e-mail addresses for everyone on the staff, and to be sure everyone has a copy. Staffers should provide several different ways that they can be reached during an emergency.
Luis Yepez, vice president of Mainstream Global, a Lawrence, Mass.-based computer reseller, said owners should also let employees know they're concerned about their staffers' welfare.
"Stress the important, that you care about their safety, their well being," he said.
Just as crucial is to let employees know that you're prepared for the contingencies, that you've thought about how you're going to get the company up and running. In other words, you've thought about how you're going to protect their jobs.
Yepez noted that it's also important to know how you're going to stay in touch with your clients, customers and vendors. They need to know your situation because what happens to you affects them.
The fact is, though, if you're doing eleventh-hour disaster prep, you may not have thought it all out. But you can talk to staff and e-mail your business associates and let everyone know so they won't be left wondering about what's going on.
Because of the number of options for backing up data, it is now a relatively simple task that can be done quickly and cheaply. Toigo noted that it's easy to pop a flash drive into the USB ports of your computers and back up all your information including customer and vendor lists, your firm's books and inventory lists and the projects you're working on (this is something you should be doing on an ongoing basis anyhow). You can also e-mail data to a non-work address for safekeeping.
If you can't back up your data, grab your server and take it with you. If you have laptops, of course they're very easy to transport.
Besides getting your data backed up, you should also be grabbing important documents that will help you if you have to submit an insurance claim. That includes policies and, if they're easy to find, invoices to prove how much you paid for computers, furniture and other equipment. Though you may need to reference these documents at work, you should keep copies off-site as well.
You may not have time to physically prepare your office, warehouse or store within that one hour, but you should turn off utilities.
If you have a day to prepare, then clearly there's more you can do, including creating a more detailed communications procedure for your staff, and taking more steps to protect your premises. Disconnect your servers and other important office machines and get them off-site. You have time to take more of your most critical paper files with you as well.
If there's the threat of flooding, you should get as many items as high up as possible — empty out at least the lower drawers of your filing cabinets. If you can put plywood over your windows to protect them from wind, do so, or at least use masking tape. If you can't board up the windows, move as much furniture and other items into the center of the rooms.
The alternative to disaster prep is what Yepez had to go through when the company, which he owns with his brother, was badly hit by a flood in 2006. Yepez, who now gives talks on disaster prep to other small business owners, said the company wasn't prepared for the extensive damage it suffered — including the loss of its data.
Now, he said, their data is backed up and they have a backup plan for serving their customers even if their warehouse is unusable.
The Internet is a great resource for disaster prep suggestions for small businesses. The Institute for Business & Home Safety's site, http://www.disastersafety.org, and the federal government's guide at http://www.ready.gov/business go into some detail, that even at the last minute might prove helpful. The Small Business Administration also has information at http://www.sba.gov/beawareandprepare/business.html.