Tech Protection for Natural Disasters

By Steve Windhaus | Posted October 11, 2004
Unless you live in a cave, the names Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne are this fall's household names. Personally, I fought the ravages of Hurricane Frances. Only two days into a mental daze, assessing and videotaping damages, sleeping in the Florida humidity, eating by candlelight and working a chain saw, I found myself mentally writing this column.

I visualized a list of actions both to protect the high tech communications equipment and to get the business back up and running. After 11 days without electricity and phones, I was finally able to put the pieces back together.

Natural disasters are not exclusive to Florida hurricanes. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and the famous Nor'easter give all of us reason to think through the process of protecting our business equipment.

Here's my partial list of things to do and have, whether or not you have warning and time to prepare for nature's wrath:

A Simple Telephone — Yes, believe it or not, a simple $20 telephone can make all the difference in the world. I refer to the type with only a phone wall jack.

When the electricity to your home or office goes down, this no-frills phone will continue to work as long as telephone network lines are not damaged. Remember, any telephone requiring an electrical outlet (corded or cordless) will not work when electricity goes out.

Gasoline-Powered Generator — When the electricity goes down a generator is your alternative power source. Portable gasoline-powered generators costing $500 to $1,000 provide 10,000 watts and more.

If you are looking for more power for a standalone business site, you can expect to pay upwards of $8,000 to $10,000 for diesel generators that provide 20 kilowatts and more. I ran my generator during the daytime to keep the phone system operating during business hours.

Plastic Bags and Tape — Even if you have the original packaging, cover your CPU and peripherals with plastic, tape them shut to prevent penetration by humidity and water and place then in a safe, high dry space. Humidity and water damage motherboards, printer heads and other circuitry.

Backup — Backing up (saving) computer data should be routine by now, at the very least, for important data files. Burn your data to CDs or transfer it to memory sticks or zip disks. If the hard drive is your priority then use a tape drive or go online to an ASP service that provides online backup for large amounts of data.

Portable Hard Drive — For $150 to $300 you can start working with portable hard drives, which typically connect to the computer via USB ports. When the storms come, just unplug and store the hard drive in a safe place.

Laptops — If you're forced to leave your business, a laptop may become your life vest if you can't return to the building or the electricity has been shut down. Internet cafes and technology companies are known to open their facilities to the local population wishing to communicate with family, friends and business associates via Internet access. If you back up your e-mail address book onto a CD, you'll have associates and clients contact information easily accessible.

Cell Phones — When Frances, Charley and Ivan hit Florida, cell phones were so important, even though the cell phone bills went through the roof. However, there is one potential problem. Cell phone transmissions rely on reception and transmission towers. If they should fail, so will the cell phone connection.

Free E-mail Address — MSN, Yahoo, Google and many others offer free e-mail addresses. If your ISP goes down, but local access to the Internet prevails, you'll still be able to e-mail clients.

Alternative Online Access — During a natural disaster, some phone lines stay up while others stay down. You may want to consider alternative online access. For example, if you have a dial-up access with one company, it may not hurt to have an alternative ISP that typically provides different phone numbers. I have two phone lines. One did not become operational for 11 days. The other phone line came back online in six days.

Warranties, Customer & Tech Support — Mother Nature can create lots of problems for hardware, software and peripherals. Dealing with these issues can require tech support when business life gets back to normal. When deciding on what high tech equipment and software to use in your business, take the time to do your homework on warranties and the company's track record for customer and tech support.

My award for Frances goes to Epson North America. I had problems with my CX5400 all-in-one printer before Frances arrived. The problems were exasperated afterwards. One tech support phone call of 15 minutes determined the problem. Epson delivered a new machine to my doorstep in two days.

Certainly, many of you have other ideas, but the most important item to have is an emergency plan in place. You can implement some of the suggestions I make immediately, while others are there should the need ever arrive.

However, do remember that when natural disasters approach there is a change in your state of mind. For most, if not all, of us there is the primary matter of family, home, neighbors and friends. Make it easy on yourself to have an emergency action plan in place for the business. This will allow more time to address the personal matters in your life.

Steve Windhaus is principal of Windhaus Associates, a business plan consulting firm serving small, existing and startup ventures throughout the United States and overseas. His clients range from technology-based firms in software development, e-commerce and telecommunications to retailers of ATV's and watercraft and a variety of service firms. Steve is a published author who also conducts training in business plan development and participates as a judge in business plan competitions. Steve can relate to small biz environments relying on computer technology. His skills and use of many related technologies are all self-taught.

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