Tech Tip: Keep the lines of communication open during an emergency

Find out how you can make sure the members of your emergency response staff remain in constant communication with each other and with the leaders of the organization during a disaster.

By Mike Talon

One of the biggest issues in disaster recovery planning occurs when an emergency actually strikes. During this time, it's vital that companies keep their employees apprised of every step of the recovery process--even if everything is falling apart around them.

During a disaster, your organization must focus on two types of communication. First, you must make sure that the members of your emergency response staff constantly communicate with each other and with the leaders of the organization. Second, you must also stay in contact with your company's end users, which I'll discuss more in-depth in another article. This time, let's focus on the communication between management and the IT staff charged with the recovery process.

Emergency workers, from both the primary business location and the DR site, must be able to talk to each other in real-time throughout the DR process. If the disaster is relatively small, employees will likely have many forms of communication to choose from. But in widespread disasters (and even specific smaller ones), you may find yourself quickly in need of an alternate form of communication.

Of course, phone communications are a given in any DR situation. Plan to use landline phones and mobile phones in conjunction in case one fails as a result of the disaster itself.

In addition to traditional phone systems, several vendors, including Nextel and Verizon Wireless, now offer nationwide "walkie-talkie" services to provide instant voice connections to both individuals and voice groups. During an emergency, this can become an invaluable tool in the battle to keep communication lines open.

Contact your local mobile telecommunications provider to get the full details of these services, and check with local phone companies to inquire about landlines that aren't reliant on your PBX corporate phone systems.

E-mail is another great way to keep everyone in touch. Several vendors offer portable e-mail devices that your staff can use in the field.

These options range from the ever-popular BlackBerry devices to smart-phone devices that can connect directly to POP3 and IMAP e-mail systems. These devices can allow your staff to move around as needed while staying in contact with each other either directly or via e-mail group lists.

Keep in mind that a disaster can quickly render your e-mail servers and alerting systems useless. If your organization manages its e-mail systems in-house, make sure you have alternate forms of communication ready.

Finally, wireless digital access is now commonplace in the United States and many regions in Europe. This can allow your staff in the field to access the Internet and corporate networks when using Windows Mobile Edition devices, laptops, and tablet PCs.

Wireless access can also come in handy if the office is totally inaccessible or the network is dead. Workers who can access e-mail, perform data-transmission testing, and otherwise communicate with the world via mobile devices can help you stay connected to your staff.

However you set up your communications systems, make sure you have multiple paths and methods in place to allow for DR communications with few limitations. Ensuring that your IT staff can talk to each other will go a long way toward making sure your DR system can function when everything else is falling apart.

Stay tuned: Next time, I'll discuss how you can best keep in touch with your end users during a disaster.

Mike Talon is an IT consultant and freelance journalist who has worked for both traditional businesses and dot-com startups.