Posts Tagged ‘Everyday Disaster’

What Is Your Risk Tolerance?

Monday, July 20th, 2015
It is all relative

It is all relative

Marketing guru Seth Godin posted a blog entry today about the paralyzing consequences of irrational fears, such as shark attacks (which, notwithstanding television news stories, are extremely rare events). He advises that it is “better to prepare for a hazard both likely and avoidable instead”. His comments were in the context of taking on challenges by setting aside irrational fears but, of course, are exactly consistent with the advice given in Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses. It is a mistake to focus your attention on high-severity, low-frequency risks, such as hurricanes and earthquakes as the fear can be paralyzing. Better to prepare for the “everyday disasters”, such as human errors, computer crashes, fires and the like. This approach provides an immediate benefit against a more imminent threat at a more reasonable cost. And it gradually builds resilience against the more severe, but less likely, threats.

Attorney Brett Dawson offered his take on risk tolerance at a legal workshop for small businesses at the SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) “Learn to Soar” program in Rochester, NY earlier this month. I have pages of notes from that workshop to capture his helpful insights from years of advising small business owners. He said that many business owners tend to dismiss risks as “unlikely as being struck by lightning.” But, in fact, 2500 people are struck by lightning each year in the United States and 60 of them die. While being struck by lightning is not likely to happen, it is not a non-zero risk, the point being, if there is a risk, however negligible, that you can eliminate, do so, as there is no benefit to assuming it.  Whether your point of reference is a shark attack or a lightning strike, a pragmatic approach to risk tolerance is best.

Ice Storm Disables Small Businesses in the Northeastern States

Monday, December 15th, 2008
Beautiful but destructive

Beautiful but destructive

A recent ice storm left 1.25 million residents of the Northeastern United States without power this past weekend, a powerful reminder of the need to prepare for the “everyday disaster”. The affected area stretches from Maine to Pennsylvania, with the Governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire declaring emergencies in their states and calling up the National Guardsmen. Utility crews from as far away as South Carolina are joining the effort to restore power with the expectation that some homes and businesses will be without power until next week. For small businesses facing the threat of power failure, your contingency plan should address the following needs:

Continuity of telephone communications.

Analog lines work if your area is experiencing a power outage as the lines are powered by the phone company. For small business use, it is rarely cost-effective to implement redundant phone circuits. If the telephone service fails, it is most likely due to a service outage, not to the actual hardware. But even if it is the actual hardware, since nearly everyone has a cellular telephone, it is the natural backup solution for your land-based circuits. The question is how to automatically connect land- and cell phone-based service so the cell phone service would take over if the land lines fail. The problem is that once the land lines have failed, it is not possible to forward land-line calls to the cellular phones. The second issue to consider is the likelihood of failure of cell phones in a major power outage as towers to relay signals will be depleted of reserve power.

The solution is developed by thinking in reverse. You give out the cell phone number as your general contact number. You program the phone such that any incoming call is forwarded to your land-based phone when the cellular phone is switched off. If your land-based line fails, simply switch on your cellular phone. Thus, in a localized disaster that displaces you from your office (such as the terrorist attacks of 9-11), the cell phone provides service. In a broader disaster such as a large-scale power outage, when cell phone stations are depleted of power with which to relay signals, use your analog phone to receive and make calls without interruption. (Remember that the phone must be directly connected to the analog line; a hand-held phone will be disabled by a power outage.)

Continuity of voice mail.

Sign up with a voice mail provider that delivers your messages over the Internet via e-mail. In fact, you should sign up with an integrated voice and fax service. This service often costs less than a regular phone line. Single providers of only voice mail or fax delivery via the Internet are usually not cost-effective. Since the Internet has been designed to automatically re-route traffic if one or many paths no longer work (the opposite of the “cascade effect” that disables electrical supplies across a wide grid), as long as you can connect to the Internet from somewhere (such as from a battery-powered laptop), you can receive your e-mails and hence, your voice messages and faxes. If both your land-based phone service and your cell phone service fail, your calls or faxes are forwarded to your integrated service number. You could even configure your system in such a way that it automatically sends you a short notification message with a summary of your voice or fax message to your cell phone or pager. It is a service you will enjoy during normal operations as it reduces unnecessary calls to your cellular phone.

Protection of computers and data.

Even when electrical power is available, there are quality issues, like peaks in voltage as well as micro-outages. Since IT equipment is sensitive, use an uninterruptible power supply unit (UPS), which is usually a surge protector, together with a small buffer battery that would supply energy for about 10 minutes after the electricity supply is terminated, enough to finish important work and to shut down the system. Most units support an automatic shutdown before the battery is completely depleted. Some buildings supply self-generated backup power. Please note that this power is usually much “dirtier” than power from the outlet. Under these circumstances, you must use a UPS unit, preferably one that is designed to smooth out erratic electricity supply.

Certain high-rise apartment and office building have back-up generators that provide low levels of power for up to fourteen hours after termination of the central electrical supply. Many workers and residents of these buildings mistakenly believed that a volt of electricity is a volt of electricity irrespective of whether it comes from the central utility or a back-up generator. During the recent power outage, they used their home and office computers with electricity delivered from a back-up generator, without the benefit of a UPS unit, and damaged their computers in the process. Also, remember to turn off appliances and equipment during a power outage as power supply may be erratic when it is initially restored.

Basic measures of preparation.

Of course, all of the basic measures for preparation apply (keeping battery-operated radios, extra batteries, non-perishable foods, flashlights, bottled water, etc.) for both your home and your office. It may seem obvious, but a glance at the people queued up at stores for such supplies on the evening of August 14, 2003 (when a massive outage left 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada without power) suggests that these measures were not obvious to everyone. It also bears repeating that measures recommended for small business contingency will yield immediate benefits to your business in terms of improved operating efficiencies, even if disaster never strikes. Finally, remember that each suggestion put forward for small business contingency solutions can be applicable to home and to personal needs.

Illustrating a Lesson

Thursday, September 11th, 2008
Look carefully to see what is not obvious

Look carefully to see what is not obvious

I recently did a live radio interview with Tron Simpson of KCMN-AM in Colorado Springs, which took me back to my last visit to Colorado Springs a few months ago. The occasion was the annual small business awards luncheon hosted by the local Small Business Development Center. I was flattered to have been invited as the keynote speaker and after the luncheon, I led a three-hour workshop on small business disaster preparedness. I had been invited by Matt Barrett, the Director of the SBDC. Matt and Assistant Director Lisanne McNew were most gracious hosts. On my return home after the program, I had an experience that perfectly illustrates the concept of everyday disasters and the importance of having good processes in place.

My return flight departed Colorado Springs for Dallas-Fort Worth, where I had to make a connecting flight back to the New York City area. As we passed over Kansas, I heard a loud pop and the cabin rapidly lost pressure. Passengers became nauseated as we were jostled about in our seats like beans frying in a pan. Shortly thereafter, the pilot announced that we were returning to the airport in Denver where better aircraft maintenance facilities were available and, if necessary, alternate flight connections.  I had many hours in the airport terminal to make the acquaintance of my fellow passengers, as we had been instructed to remain in the gate area. Of course, everyone asked everyone else about the purpose of their travel and I mentioned my book and the event in Colorado Springs. Then one of the passengers who was seated next to the emergency exit door where the seal had broken (that was the “pop” we had heard) stated that he had suspected a problem as soon as he took his seat. He reported to the cabin crew that he could hear a hissing noise through the door. His concerns were dismissed. But as the aircraft pulled back from the jetway and towards the runway, the hissing sounds grew more ominous, particularly after takeoff as we gained altitude. In the context of the six disaster categories outlined in Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best, we all agreed that this was an example of equipment failure.

When I related the details to Stefan, he offered a different diagnosis. Stefan has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and he told me that aircraft always have multiple redundant systems to protect against the risk of a single failure. At least three things had to go wrong simultaneously with that flight in order to account for our experience. The risk of any single one occurring in isolation is small; the risk of all three striking simultaneously is negligible. Stefan diagnosed the problem as human error; the issue around the faulty seal should have set off an alarm in the cockpit. Perhaps the pilot was fatigued and did not notice. The pre-flight mechanical inspection should have surfaced the problem. It appeared that either the airline did not have proper procedures in place, which seems unlikely, or, more likely, the procedures were in place and they were not followed.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

By the way, in case you are wondering about the photographs that accompany this blog post, I took them at a local site in Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods. Matt was kind enough to show me this beautiful natural setting when he drove me back to the airport. Matt spotted a deer, which sought to hide itself behind the trees, while I did my best to get a picture. If you look at the “V” shape between the main branches of the tree trunk, you can see the deer’s eyes, ears and nose. Sometimes you have to look very carefully to see beyond the obvious.