Tech lessons from Hurricane Sandy

Situation

Hurricane Sandy caused a great deal of business disruption for many organizations in the NY/J area. While our mission-critical clients had mandated IT and telecom backup procedures kick in immediately, including out-of-area backups and multiple levels of redundancy, others were down for over a week due to telephone company central office problems in NYC. I would like to review some lessons learned from our SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) clients.

Communications basics

Most organizations’ phone and Internet connections are based upon wired connections: telephone wires, cable, fiber, and electrical power. These can potentially all go down at the same time because they are on the same utility poles or tunnels. Some backup can be accomplished via POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone Service) which are self- powered but are useless as a back-up if you don’t use an old fashioned “standard” telephone.

Most commercial telephones today require plug-in electrical power to function. Mobile phones, which are normally good backups, were unreliable for days in certain areas as about 25% of cell sites lost power.

Lessons learned

1.) Power: Depending on business needs, SOHOs may be well served by the purchase and professional installation of a 5500 Watt or larger TriFuel Generator, which retails for about $2,000. These small footprint generators can run on NG natural gas, LP propane, or gasoline. By having it connected to your building’s gas main, it can provide temporary power without your having to store or run out of fuel. Cons: it needs to be vented, oil levels checked periodically as it’s an engine, and is noisy. Check for compliance with building codes.

2.) Telecom Services: We have been recommending hosted VoIP (VaaS — Voice as a Service) for several years, for operational versatility, predictable monthly fixed cost, rapid response to emergencies and, in many cases, lower costs in the long-term. A hosted system has no telephone switching equipment at your site to get trashed or outdated. All you need is a broadband connection (T1 or DSL for example) with the option to back it up to fiber or cable (different technologies). If one technology goes down, the other can automatically pick it up. So if you are using cable or fiber for data with a T1 for voice, and the T1 goes down, your calls will re-route to the data connection, or vise-versa, usually with no dramatic negative impact on your usage.

In case a hurricane or a heavy snow storm is predicted, you could have your key employees take their phones home (or to another remote site), plug them into their home router, log the phone in, and everyone is up and running exactly as if they were all together in the same building, making, receiving, transferring calls, etc.

3.) Disaster Recovery/Cloud Computing: This topic is a column by itself, but DRaaS (Disaster Recovery as a Service) is increasingly popular with our medium and larger sized clients.

Some have back-up data or even their actual servers in a protective off-site facility and do not keep equipment on site other than a router, laptops/computers and printers, and scanners.

Besides never having to worry about your hardware or software backup and maintenance, there are other economies and advantages that may make this service attractive to some organizations. Again, you can access your network from a laptop connected to any broadband Internet connection.

4.) Telecom/Internet water damage: If your offices are located in an area that got flooded this time, it can happen again. Have your demarc (demarcation block — where your telecom connections enter the building) moved high enough so that they will not be flooded. Check your FiOS (box in your building with green and red lights) to make sure that the back-up battery does not need replacement.

5.) Purchase a small, inexpensive, power station (Costco, Amazon, $70 — $200) to charge mobile phones, iPads, etc. — anything that can be plugged into a cigarette lighter.

They can also be used to provide light, to jumpstart a car, and many also have an air compressor for inflating tires or emergency rafts, etc.

6.) News and information can be obtained by radio and broadcast TV (if cable or fiber goes out and there is no power for satellite service.

A battery powered AM/FM radio can be purchased for a few dollars, a hand-held/portable LCD TV with ATSC digital tuner can be purchased on Amazon ($54 — $150) which will work for several hours on internal power, and much longer by recharging or connecting to a power station, along with a non-powered portable antenna ($20). Don’t use an old CRT type TV as they no longer receive broadcast TV — discard them and be sure to check out all equipment before your next emergency.

7.) Personal communications: each person could use a FRS/GMRS (Family Radio Service/General Mobile Radio Service) 22 channel, two-way radio (about $50 for two) and learn to use them before the emergency. A tightly-sealed plastic container for extra batteries should be available for all.

Many of these radios also have all the NOAA weather channels built-in for the latest local official information. These radios can have a useful range of about 1–2 miles depending on conditions and topography, but you will mostly use them for line of sight communication.

FRS radios are also useful for communicating at events, shopping, camping, hiking, as well as in emergencies. You may have to file a form to get a license (no test required) to legally use the GMRS part of the radio. Old school CB (Citizens Band) radios are not as useful as these new services.

8.) SOHO Summary: Set up your broadband/Internet router on a separate UPS/battery backup and then shut the UPS off as soon as you lose power. If your wired broadband connection remains intact, you can switch on the UPS and router for short periods if you wish to use WiFi enabled tools such as battery powered laptops, iPads, and smartphones for brief periods until cell service and/or full power is restored.

Bottom-line

There are many ways to minimize small business tech disruptions in an emergency. Email me at billdubovsky@gmail.com with specific questions. I will be glad to help.