I live in a remote Burton Group outpost in the wilds of New Hampshire. As you may have heard, about 2 weeks ago we had an ice storm that took out electrical power to about a third of the state, and has been characterized as the “most devastating natural disaster to hit New Hampshire in recent history”, according to the power company (350,000 outages in the state of 1.3M people).
As we approach Christmas, utilities are working feverishly to get the last homes on-line; these are people that have endured two major snow storms without electricity, EACH dumping up to 12 inches of the fluffy stuff. In New Hampshire, we are a hardy bunch. I personally spent 2 days siphoning ice water from the swimming pool as a partial water supply, and huddling around the fireplace. (photo: Rockingham News)
As I sat around my battery backup (I’ve avoided buying a generator, am considering solar and wind) and used 3G to keep plugged into the world, it occurred to me how IT is fundamentally changing how companies respond to disasters. Even though I have been heavily involved in Amateur Radio disaster preparedness for part of my life, this first became obvious about 15 years ago when I took on responsibility for medical facilities. Up to that time I had made the transition (over 10 years) from worrying solely about data center backup, to worrying about data center and office recoveries, then worrying about business processes, and how they are done, in a time of outages. That’s when IT recognized that Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity are not synonymous.
During my tenure at Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Medical Center, I changed my mindset even more. I can even remember the day - a simulated disaster drill. You see, in hospitals and medical centers, disaster drills are done routinely. No – this isn’t simulating a data center meltdown, or a facility outage. This is setting up a tent in a parking lot to triage patients from a simulated bomb blast or plane crash, and then complicating it with communications, power, and computer outages.
It dawned on me that day in 1996 that DR/BC is transitioning. And it dawns on me this year how that continuing transition reflects the transition of IT as a whole. (LA's Cedars-Sinai Disaster Drill)
I tried to reflect on that in the recent Burton Group report: “Is IT losing control of users or are users gaining control of IT”. The basic premise is that IT is integrated with the business, that business people are (or should be) much more involved in IT decision-making than they have been in the past, and that IT people shouldn't feel threatened, but focused on business objectives.
How does that relate to the ice storm? It should be obvious that the work-flow, internal communication, job status reporting, equipment ordering and provisioning are major internal IT systems that must keep operating during a storm, not only for power companies, but for any company caught in the midst of a major meltdown (or ice-up).
But even more amazing is how IT can contribute to the externalization of communication, and fundamental business processes, with customers; I saw in this disaster the seeds of how technology is integrated in a company’s disaster response: constantly updated web pages, twitter updates of power restoration by power company workers, email, RSS status update feeds, multi-mode customer input vehicles (cell phone, email, SMS) for power outage reports.
That’s the nexus of consumer technology meets IT, and how IT can play a leadership role in not only making sure those services stay up during an emergency or a disaster, but that they are also thought of as part of the business plan for operating during a disaster. IT means closely working with the business, and being open to consumer-based ideas coming from the business.
Fortunately, in a hospital setting you are required to have a disaster planning officer – which is the focal point for all planning and dry-runs of major man-made and natural disasters. Working closely with that person is critical. Most commercial establishments don’t have that (necessarily), or lump that into security, or facilities, and give it short shrift.
Businesses would do well to take a lesson from these outages – especially on how to respond to customers, and customer communications. This particular 2 week outage is already calling for heads to roll (fairly or unfairly), and government investigations – not so much as why there was an outage and whether the power companies responded adequately enough - but more around communication to municipalities and customers and how that can be improved.
Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity – not just for geeks anymore.
Happy Holidays, everyone.