On Tuesday, October 8, a cross-section of public and private businesses, non-profits and for-profits, came together at the Tulsa City/County Health Department to discuss their responses to a fictional emergency; an ice storm that would cause massive power outages throughout the city and cause minor to severe business interruptions.
I was privileged to conduct this tabletop exercise as part of the Tulsa Disaster Resistant Business Council’s “Day Without Business: Test Your Plan.” The half day exercise was a follow-up to the “Day Without Business: Make Your Plan” workshop held in the spring. “Make Your Plan” was designed to help guide businesses in developing a business continuity plan. “Test Your Plan,” was the follow up exercise designed to test the resulting plans for efficacy and to highlight areas in need of improvement.
Representatives from Catholic Charities, Tulsa Street School, Inc., McGraw Realtors, Broken Arrow Neighbors, NOV Enerflow, Life Senior Services and Vintage Housing, GUY Engineering, Meshek Engineering, and Synergy Holistic Health discussed how to remain in business in the face of a disaster.
Creating a scenario that would test multiple plans concurrently was definitely a challenge. Since the needs of profits and non-profits, public and private entities, are often very different, it stands to reason that business continuity plans would be different as well, meaning widely varying responses to each new set of circumstances introduced into the scenario.
One thing all the participants had going for them was the familiarity of the scenario. On December 10, 2007, Tulsa was home to a massive ice storm that left large parts of the city without power for 4-16 days. Freezing rain fell for 36 hours, cloaking the city in a sparkling, freezing, diamond-like coating. For many businesses, closing their doors for one day would create significant problems.
Those who lived in Tulsa during that time remember well what they call “the mother of all ice storms.” Streets throughout the city were entirely impassable due to downed trees that, covered with ice too heavy to bear, fell into the streets, breaking power lines as they went, and damaging homes and businesses. The Emergency Operations Center was manned for days on end with leaders from the city departments there to help manage the disaster, whose own homes were without power, including Mayor Kathy Taylor and then Emergency Management Director Mike McCool. The debris took months to clean up, and many businesses suffered.
Throughout the state, 29 storm-related fatalities were reported; all 77 Oklahoma counties received federal disaster declarations and more than 600,000 homes and businesses (40%) were without power.
According to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, 25% of businesses that close their doors during a disaster never reopen. Having a business continuity plan in place is vital to a business’s survival, and testing that plan on a regular basis is an important part of maintaining that plan.
One measure of an exercise’s success is seeing a plan’s imperfections. A business continuity plan is a document constantly under revision; and no matter how carefully a company follows its plan, there will always be unexpected situations. If everything goes well during an exercise and no areas in need of improvement are found, then the exercise did not do its job. One objective of testing a plan is to highlight those areas in need of system improvements. The next step is to develop a plan for corrective actions that includes deadlines for completion.
It was encouraging to see participants discovering areas of their plans that were in need of improvement. One participant realized their plan did not adequately cover payroll needs during a disaster; another discovered they did not have a sufficient backup plan if their server went down. Almost all participants left the exercise knowing of at least one part of their plan that needed improvement.
The Tulsa Disaster Resistant Business Council is a program of Tulsa Partners, Inc., and is chaired by David Hall, Business Lines Section Manager at State Farm Insurance. Other members include Felix Ontiveros of TRC Disaster Solutions, Heather Davis of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, Bob Roberts, Emergency Management Director of Tulsa Public Schools, Krystal Crockett of Bixby Chamber of Commerce,the Resiliency Institute, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, Oklahoma Chapter of the Association of Contingency Planners, the Tulsa City/County Health Department, Bank of Oklahoma, Louisiana State University, Robert Smith, and Meshek & Associates.
“We really wanted to not just teach people how to develop their business continuity plans, but the importance of testing those plans with regular drills and exercises,” said Tim Lovell, Director of Tulsa Partners, Inc. “The tabletop exercise this week was a great first step for a lot of them in terms of the testing process.”
To learn more about A Day Without Business and the Tulsa Disaster Resistant Business Council, visit www.tulsapartners.org.