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June 15, 2013
Do you have a disaster management plan?

The beginning of hurricane season should have lawyers reviewing their preparedness

By Judith Equels and
Jerry Sullenberger
Bar LOMAS Staff

If you look at NOAA maps of the places in the U.S. that experience the most tornado strikes, you’ll see that Florida has a bullseye target over most of the state.

Hurricanes almost always spawn tornadoes. The 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season has begun. Be certain your law firm’s personnel and your family and their families have a plan, and are prepared to follow the instructions of local officials if a hurricane threatens your community. Make an evacuation plan, prepare a disaster supply kit, and know the locations of the nearest emergency shelters. But, don’t forget the last step: How well are you prepared to get your life and practice back to normal after a disaster?

Since 2000, more than 50 tropical storms and hurricanes have made landfall in Florida. During 2004 and 2005, five major hurricanes made landfall in Florida. And, of the 10 deadliest hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland in recorded history, five struck in Florida. Thinking, “It could never happen to me,” will result in being caught off guard, facing devastating consequences, and may bring your law firm to its knees. Many lawyers in Florida impacted by severe storms say it takes months, sometimes years, to recover from the emotional toll and economic impact of a direct strike. Few law firms have a plan to deal with a disaster the size of hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, or Sandy. Through hindsight and lessons learned, we can, and should, develop plans designed to mitigate the effects of hurricanes, regardless of how large.

Key Elements
Making an emergency response and recovery plan is not a Herculean task. There are abundant resources at the websites of the Red Cross (), FEMA (), and the Florida Division of Emergency Management ().

Know Your Disaster Team
Identify who will be able to help you in a disaster. Your team may include employees, friends, and family. Law firm disaster teams should meet at the beginning of hurricane season to review the emergency response plan, and again after recovering from a hurricane to document lessons learned. The disaster plan is an ongoing process improvement project.

The first concern after any disaster is to locate and ensure the safety of all family and employees. If Florida’s governor ordered a mass evacuation, do you know where the people in your office are likely to head? You should! The key to normalizing office operations after a disaster is the ability to know beforehand important emergency contact information of all key firm personnel. Your people will not be able to concentrate on the office until they know their family and home are safe.

One of the first responsibilities of a firm’s disaster management team is to contact all employees. This task will be easier if you have recorded the intended evacuation locations of everyone in the office. Include in the disaster plan, up-to-date directories which contain evacuation locations, employees’ home addresses, home numbers, cell phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. These directories should routinely be distributed to your key office personnel. Do you know how to remotely modify the message on the firm’s voice mail system? Another procedure to establish is a telephone notification tree which acts as a calling chain as a method to notify every firm employee of emergency information on weekends or after hours. That is, one person calls four people, those four people call four more people, and so on.

Even then, communication may be difficult. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we learned that cell phone communications can be disrupted for weeks because the storm can knock out cell phone towers. It may take cell phone companies many days to repair a tower or bring in a COW (Cell on Wheels). However, texting traffic often may get through when regular cell phone service is problematic. Millions of Americans have abandoned land lines and rely solely on cell phones. Therefore, it is imperative that you identify the locations of land line phones before cell phone service is interrupted. Land line phones still can be found at supermarkets, at pharmacies, at other retail outlets, and as many people discovered during Hurricane Sandy, at your neighbor’s house.

If you have a land line, remember that digital phone systems require electrical power, and most cease to function immediately without electricity or once the battery runs down. All central office stations have battery backup. So, older analog phones may operate when digital phones will not. Analog phones operate not on electrical power, but on low-level power from the telephone network. LOMAS recommends installing an analog telephone line, and putting an analog phone set in your disaster preparedness kit.

Another technology of value is the walkie-talkie. Some of today’s versions have a viable communication range of more than 15 miles. Add several walkie-talkies to your disaster kit for use by key personnel as an additional strategy to facilitate communication during a disaster. Give them to key personnel before the disaster, along with frequencies or channels to be used and other emergency procedures.

For weather updates, NOAA operates a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. The National Weather Service office broadcasts warnings, watches, forecasts, and other hazard information 24 hours a day, seven days a week (). Add a weather radio to your kit.

Phone a Friend
Disaster experts recommend establishing a mutual aid pact with a law firm or other business in some distant city unlikely to be impacted by the same disaster. This “reciprocal firm’s” telephone number should be listed as an emergency contact point to keep everyone posted on the status of the firm, and as a rally point to establish contact with each other. Such an arrangement will, if the disaster necessitates a long-term office closing, also become a useful tool for attorneys to stay in touch with their clients.

Business Continuation
Once you are assured of all employees’ personal safety, including your own, your next concern is re-establishing office operations, even if on a limited basis.

A well-crafted disaster recovery plan will focus on business continuation as the second step. Of critical importance is re-establishing communication with clients. Clients need to know you are still in business, and where or how they can contact you. Obviously, until Internet or telephone service is re-established, your communication options are limited. One excellent way to facilitate communication is to place some form of signage at the office location, such as, “We’re down but not out, contact us by….” If possible, contact your webmaster and update your webpage with information regarding the firm’s situation and the date you expect to return to normal operations.

As part of your preparations, inventory the technology equipment and software available at the homes of the firm’s key personnel. Working from home on a limited basis may be the best option for keeping the practice going. Particularly note those who have a power generator at home. Knowing who has the ability to communicate and/or produce work from home will go a long way in restoring operations. It’s becoming more commonplace for individuals to have a home scanner, fax, printer, PC, tablet, smart phone, adding machine, desk, chairs, etc.; all of which can be patched together to make a temporary office.

After the disaster, it may be necessary to relocate to temporary office space during the time the office is being repaired or put off limits by local emergency responders. After a disaster, local authorities may cordon off whole streets and restrict access. Temporary space might be in a lawyer’s house, or shared space in another law office in your town or in another town altogether. Some deciding factors may be who has power, telephone, or Internet connections. Whatever temporary work situation you arrange, it’s important to try very hard to carve out even a limited ability to have private conversations with clients.

Past hurricanes have demonstrated that Florida lawyers are extremely generous and gracious in extending offers of assistance, including sharing their own limited space. Your firm’s disaster plan should include arrangements for temporary space.

Backup Data
A well-designed computer backup system should be part of your everyday, normal operations. Data backups should always be stored off-premises. These backups become a critical part of your disaster recovery and business continuity effort. Unfortunately, none of us has the luxury of knowing exactly where or when a disaster will strike, so there is some potential that your off-premises backup could be destroyed, or made unavailable, as well. Many lawyers have chosen the route of necessary redundancy.

They are opting for: (1) backing up data in the cloud (web-based backups onto ASP servers located in remote regions out of harm’s way); (2) backing up data on-premises, then removing this external hard drive to a safe location (e.g., safe deposit box) on at least a weekly basis; and (3) using back-up software to create an “image” of the functional hard drive and save it off-site. This image, when used to restore the drive, will result in an operable computer as soon as the restore process is complete. No additional software reinstalls are necessary. It’s a one-step process. Restore the new hard drive using the image file and boot the machine. Then, restore your data using the most current data backup.

While these are reliable and secure alternatives, a speedy recovery could be hindered by the lawyer’s limited access to the Internet to download your data, or limited access to the off-site storage location for the traditional backup device. Many ASP vendors will also speed delivery of external hard drives with your data to facilitate recovery. Additionally, at your firm, when in the path of an impending major storm, you can scan calendars, accounting data, insurance policies, and other selected data. If your software was installed from disks, rather than installed via download from the vendor’s website, it is important to safeguard your original software CDs.

Lastly, consider incorporating into your plan the physical relocation of the server(s) to a safe area, such as your reciprocal firm in another city. With advance warning, a trusted staff member could transport the server out of harm’s way.

Paper Files
No firm is ever paperless. And water is, of course, an enemy of paper. As part of preparation planning, don’t forget that plastic garbage bags are your friend. Files and documents that have not yet been scanned, as well as computers, printers, servers, telephones, and other equipment, can easily be stored in construction-grade plastic garbage bags and sealed with duct tape. It’s not foolproof, of course, but it’s better protection than leaving valuable equipment exposed. Plans should include moving important papers and valuable equipment out of offices with windows into interior offices or hallways. Get computers off the floor. Put bankers boxes and files on desks, and cover with plastic. Cover file cabinets with sheet plastic. Empty bottom drawers, if possible.

While many law firms will scan all client-related materials, they leave to the last scanning their own important business documents, such as insurance policies and inventories. Bank checking account material is still in paper format. Act now to safeguard important firm business records.

After a flood or hurricane, if you do have waterlogged documents, move quickly to deal with the issue. If possible, freeze any waterlogged documents until you can hire experts to deal with them. Move quickly because mildew happens fast in Florida’s high humidity, and many people will not handle damp, moldy paper because of the health hazards.

Document, Document
Take pictures of everything in your office. Those pictures will be invaluable for insurance claims.

While no amount of planning can totally eliminate all of the perils we face in a disaster, sound planning can help to mitigate the personal and business costs. Hurricane disaster preparation and recovery is not a one-time project — it is an ongoing process, and one that must be annually tested, updated, and tested again. Despite what history tells us to do, some firms continue to ignore the perils of hurricanes and other disasters by not having a documented disaster management and business continuation plan.

For additional information on hurricane and disaster recovery, refer to The Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS) home page.

[Revised: 12-09-2016]