By Judith Equels and
The Florida Bar’s Law Office
Management Assistance Service
The 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season has begun. Be certain your law firm’s personnel, their families, and your family 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. And don’t forget the last step: How well are you prepared to get your life and practice back to normal after the disaster?
Look at the NOAA map of the places in the U.S. that experience the most tornado strikes. You will see that Florida has a bull’s-eye target over most of the state. Hurricanes almost always spawn tornadoes. To determine your exposure to floods, the Map Service Center at the Federal Emergency Management Agency has an improved search feature. FEMA flood maps can be seen at . Since 2000, 31 of the 60-plus tropical storms and tornadoes to hit Florida resulted in deaths. (NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center)
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, Ivan, or Sandy. However, through hindsight and lessons learned, we can, and should, develop plans designed to mitigate the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.
Technology Tools for Disaster Management
The rapid introduction of new technologies affects every aspect of our lives, including unforeseen disasters. The cover story of the May 2014 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine focused on survival technology and reviewed several devices to help us survive disasters. These gadgets are becoming more affordable. One such device is the ioSafe Solo G3 external hard drive from . This “data defender” costs less than $400, and withstands temperatures up to 1550F via an inner shield that reflects 98 percent of heat. The unit releases cooling water vapor when the internal temperature tops 160F. Also, a “hydrosafe” barrier blocks water even when the device is under up to 10 feet of water for up to 72 hours. Other handy devices available now are the “BioLite CampStove,” a cookstove/heater that converts twigs and leaves into enough electricity to charge your cell phone ($129.95); and the “SpareOne Plus” backup phone with a battery life of up to 15 years ($59.95).
Key Elements of a Disaster Plan
Making an emergency response and recovery plan is not a Herculean task. There are abundant resources at the websites of the Red Cross (www.redcross.org), FEMA (www.fema.gov), and the Florida Division of Emergency Management (www.floridadisaster.org).
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.
Communications, Telephone Service, and Weather Updates
The first concern after any disaster is to locate and ensure the safety of all family and employees. If an evacuation order is issued, 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 families 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 documented 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 email 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 a powerful storm can knock out cell phone towers. It may take cell phone companies many days to repair a tower or bring in a COW (Celltower 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 phone service 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 once the power is out or once the battery runs down. All central office stations have extended battery backup. “Old tech” analog phones may operate when digital phones will not. Analog phones operate not on electrical power, but on low-level power from the land line telephone cable. LOMAS recommends installing at least one landline, and putting an analog phone set in your disaster preparedness kit.
Another basic piece of equipment in a disaster is the walkie-talkie. Some of today’s versions have a viable communication range of over 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 disaster kit.
Phone a Friend
Disaster management 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 and out-of-state family. 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.
Once you are assured that all firm personnel are safe, 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 computer 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. Your disaster kit should include the names of firm personnel who have a power generators 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 or fax software, printer, laptop or PC, tablet, smart phone, desk, chairs, etc., all of which can be patched together to make up 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, telephones, and an Internet connection.
Backup Data and Original Software
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: belt and suspenders. They are opting for: (1) backing up must-have data to the cloud; and (2) backing up data on-premises onto an external drive, then removing the external drive to a safe location (e.g, safe deposit box) on at least a weekly basis; and finally (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. 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. Most reputable cloud vendors will also speed delivery of external hard drives with your data to facilitate recovery. Additionally, you should ensure that you have scanned important business documents that may have been delivered to you in paper format, such as insurance policies and banking 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 disaster plan the physical relocation of the server(s) to a safe area out of the storm’s path. With advance warning, you or a trusted staff member could transport the server out of harm’s way.
No firm is ever paperless. And water is one of the two big dangers to paper (fire is the other). 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 or construction-grade sheet plastic, and sealed with duct tape. It’s not foolproof, of course, but it is better protection than leaving valuable equipment and paper exposed. The disaster plan should include instructions to move equipment and paper 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.
Post-disaster: If you do have waterlogged or damp 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, Document
Take pictures (or a video) 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. Disaster preparation, management 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.