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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Protect your small business with a disaster plan

By Joyce M. Rosenberg
Associated Press Business Writer

NEW YORK A spring that has already brought deadly and destructive weather to parts of the country is a reminder to small businesses that they need to prepare for disasters that could shut them down. Owners should try to make their companies as prepared as possible or at least be sure that employees and data are protected.

Disaster planning tends to get pushed lower and lower on owners' to-do lists as they handle the more pressing day-to-day demands of running a company. Or, they put it off because they feel overwhelmed by the prospect of putting a plan together.

"Small-business owners have an inflated idea of what the cost is going to be, or the complexity," said disaster recovery expert John Toigo, CEO of Toigo Partners International, which is based in Tampa, Fla. He noted that small companies usually have an easier task than their larger counterparts when it comes to disaster prep.

"It doesn't have to cost very much money or (take) very much time," he said.

A small business does need to be sure about the safety and accessibility of two critical assets: its employees and its data.

"Build a solid contact list with at least five ways to contact every employee," Toigo said. And don't just keep the list electronically print it out and keep it in your wallet. Keep it updated especially when people are making plans to evacuate.

Data including customer lists, information about projects your company is working on and your accounting ledgers need to be safeguarded. The options range from the relatively simple and inexpensive, such as backing up your files on a USB flash drive, to the more complex and costly, such as contracting with a company that will maintain a duplicate server remotely for you.

Toigo noted that there are hard drives that can plug into a USB port that automatically back up data. He also pointed out that the growing popularity of laptops means data can be easily stored on a portable computer and carried away in the event of an evacuation.

"You end up with a whole system that you can unplug and go," he said.

And, it's a good idea to have some kind of backup generator so you can run that laptop.

Obviously, there's a lot more that goes into a comprehensive disaster plan, such as planning for an evacuation, or stocking up with food, water and other necessities in case you need to remain on your premises. Planning can include finding remote sites to run the operation, including connecting to the Internet; securing your physical plant, and giving staffers a detailed explanation of who will do what in the event of a disaster.

Ed Schipul's Web marketing company went further late last month, holding a daylong drill to practice dealing with a disaster that would render the company's Houston headquarters unusable.

Schipul admitted he wasn't happy with the results. First, some staffers froze, and weren't able to perform the tasks expected of them. One staffer forgot her cell phone, and no one could reach her. There was an emergency plan detailed in binders, but no one had any of the binders offsite.

"The things that failed aren't the things you expect," Schipul said. "But that's why you do a simulation."

The good news for Schipul is that the employees of his firm, which is named Schipul, took what happened seriously, and many were upset that they fell short during the exercise. He's planning another drill during the summer.

Another part of disaster planning is being sure a company is well-insured to help it recover if its premises are damaged or destroyed. Many companies have standard insurance packages that cover losses because of disasters like fires and storms, but specialized coverage such as flood or earthquake insurance can be critical to a company's survival. So is business interruption insurance, which can salvage a company's profits when disaster leaves it unable to operate.