What Holiday Emergencies Can Teach Us About Disaster Recovery

Christmas and New Year have just gone by. You may have stories about how you celebrated the holidays – the sumptuous meals shared with all of the family members, the conversations around the fireplace, opening gifts on Christmas eve, etc. Ours is a bit different than usual. Because, on the day before Christmas, we were on emergency-mode.

Not Every Day Is An Emergency

I woke up that day getting ready for my morning coffee. As I was about to reach for the cup, the electricity went out. There was a massive wind storm the evening prior that took out several posts and transmission lines within our area, forcing the power utility company to shut down the electricity for safety reasons. All this on the day before Christmas (additional story about this incident from this news report.)

My first instinct was to see what we had planned for the day and how we can prioritize them accordingly. I was also checking the power utility company’s website and Twitter page for updates on when electricity will be restored.  And because there wasn’t any way to charge my phone while the electricity was out, I made efforts to minimize the usage to make sure I still have it in case of a real emergency. So, the very first instruction I gave out for every one at home was, “minimize usage of electronics.

Because this was the day before Christmas, meals planned were different than what we have on ordinary days. But because there was no electricity to even turn the stove and the oven on, we need to find a way to have something to eat without using both. We also need to decide which meals can be prepared with minimal effort and minimal heat required yet satisfy our now growling stomachs.  Oh, and did I say we love to eat? We opted for leftovers instead.

We had a gas stove that we use for camping. We thought we could use it for preparing lunch until we realized that the portable propane gas tanks have expired. Next option – gas barbecue grill. We managed to have lunch prepared while minimizing effort and heat required. But after six hours of no electricity, we need to plan for our next step. While we didn’t have freezing temperatures and snow this Christmas, we also didn’t have the furnace while the electricity is out. If the electricity won’t be restored overnight, we sure don’t want to be sleeping in a very large fridge. So, we packed up and got ready to spend a night or two at the nearest hotel that has power generators. The deal was, if we still don’t have electricity after coming back from church, we head straight to the hotel. Thankfully, when we got back home at 8:00 PM, we saw the Christmas light turned on which meant electricity has been restored.

H.O.W. To Deal With An Emergency

IT assets do experience some form of an emergency whether we like it or not. That’s why I’ve spent years of really focusing on high availability and disaster recovery solutions and approach for organizations to protect their IT assets. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will address every disaster that you can face, there are guidelines that I recommend to get my customers ready when it happens. Here are some of the lessons that you can learn from this particular situation. To make it easy to remember, think of H.O.W. you can deal with an emergency situation.

  1. Have a plan but be flexible. I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a disaster recovery plan. The plan defines what your response will be when an unplanned event happens. Unfortunately, we cannot plan for everything. That’s why we need to be flexible with our plan. We planned something for the day in preparation for Christmas but because of the power outage, we had to make the necessary arrangements. We could have pursued the plan if we had a standby generator. But because we didn’t, we had to make the necessary changes, including staying at a hotel in case the power outage was extended.
  2. Over-Communicate. It’s interesting to read some of the comments from the power utility company’s Twitter page. They have totally embraced social media for communicating the status of the work being done. This is truly remarkable in terms of keeping the public informed. As I get these information, I also made it a point to tell everyone in the family of what is expected of everyone while we are waiting for the service restoration. Almost every hour between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM, I communicated what I’ve read from Twitter and gave instructions – take out the leftovers from the fridge to prepare for lunch, keep the doors and windows closed to maintain the heat inside the house, turn on water faucets only when necessary, power down all electronics to minimize battery discharge, start packing up if we still don’t have electricity at 4:00 PM. It’s already stressful for us to face emergencies. Knowing what to expect and how to proceed in emergency situations will help reduce that stress.Over-communicating gets everyone on the same page which makes it easier to rally everyone on a common goal as we go thru an emergency situation.
  3. W.I.N. – What’s important now? I’ve learned about the acronym W.I.N. as I was going thru Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In the book, the author shares about how a basketball team stays focused on their own strategies and strengths in spite of their opponents. They do so by answering the question “What’s Important Now?” In an emergency, if we haven’t already defined what’s really important, we will be sidetracked with the unimportant and lose track of what really is. In Abha Dawesar’s TED Talk, she highlights how, despite Hurricane Sandy’s reminder that nature is still way stronger than any technology, we humans are still obsessed about being wired. When a power outage strike, having food to eat is more important than posting a status update on social media. I remember having to power down all of our non-mission critical servers in the data center to keep our production servers from overheating when one of the air conditioning systems failed. Answering this question also helps us identify what isn’t important and how we need to deal with what is  – especially during an emergency.

Nobody wants to be in an emergency situation. But it’s inevitable – even on a cold winter day before Christmas. It’s not a question of whether or not it will happen but rather when it happens. Preparation can help us navigate thru and survive these situations.

Question: How do you prepare for and deal with emergency situations in your IT organization? 


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