What About When Communication Methods are Limited?

Richard Long

Do you have plans in place for use when traditional communication methods are limited? Here’s why you should create and implement backup communications systems. 

In our blogs over the past several weeks, we have been discussing business continuity strategies and IT architecture. We have also talked about planning for hurricanes and other storms. As a follow up to both of those concepts, today’s blog is a bit more tactical and pointed. The recent storms and hurricanes have directed our attention back to natural disasters and our preparedness for them. One thing the devastation in Puerto Rico has made clear is how difficult it is to maintain communications when the underlying infrastructure has been destroyed or compromised. Internet and cell phone networks are out all over the island making communication with officials, friends, and relatives on the mainland almost impossible.

Here are some things to consider regarding communication (including contact with government officials and vendors; locating and accounting for staff, etc.) if your planned use of telephones (cell or otherwise), email, websites, messaging, and the like become unavailable.

We have become dependent on electronic methods of communication

Most organizations plan on using cell phones and email for primary communication when normal telephone (landline) communication is unavailable. Further, many organizations plan on using social media for communication with both internal and external parties.

These contingency solutions have risks

The use of cell phones, email, and social media are viable solutions in an organizational crisis that does not impact a large region. However, once an event such as a hurricane has impacted most or all of a region, the internet and cell tower capacity are overloaded, at best, or at worst completely unavailable due to damage. Remember, even with redundant data centers, without cell towers, cell coverage will not work. Internet access will probably be impacted as well, since providers often use the same data lines or leverage another vendor’s infrastructure.

Typically, our backup or workaround methods require internet access. Use of personal email, if needed, or use of SaaS solutions like Google Mail or Office 365 is considered protected. However, even when those solutions are available, without internet access, they will not be usable.

People are the “last mile”

In designing or considering the data connections to buildings, we often talk about the “last mile” or cabling to the building. This is often a single point of failure even for organizations that have multiple carriers. If there is only a single connection to the building, that means the “last mile” is not redundant. In the same vein, people are an organization’s “last mile.” Even if all the connectivity, systems and access are available, if people can’t travel to an alternate location, have remote access, or get to a location with remote access, work will not occur.

Organizations with operations in areas impacted by the recent storms may have facilities in other locations where there has been no impact, but they may still not know the location and status of their people in impacted areas.

 What options exist?

In reality, there is little that can be done when communication methods are down. It is often just a time to wait, and hope, until some level of communication is available. It is important to be able to respond quickly to any restoration of services, as the timeframe may be limited. Even if some individuals are able to secure some level of communications capability, the number of people may be limited, or they have not or cannot communicate with others within your organization. Here are a few options to consider in your business continuity or communications plan and strategy as it relates to both internal and external communications:

  1. Have a predefined number for individuals to call or text with their status when they do have (or regain) the ability to communicate. You should share this number with all employees, and provide training so that everyone knows what to do during an event. Do not wait until event time to communicate this number. A reminder may be issued prior to certain anticipated events, like hurricanes, when there is time to prepare.
  2. Have a defined website/form for individuals to use for providing their status information. Again, it cannot be ad hoc; you must include instructions on how to use it as part of your overall communications plan and training. Include both #1 and #2 on any emergency cards or summary documents that you have asked people to keep on their person or phones.
  3. Organize groups of individuals who may live nearby to act as a team to coordinate location and communicate status information as needed. These individuals may have to physically attempt to locate each group member. Keep in mind that for large organizations this may not be possible or the maintenance overhead may be untenable.
  4. Identify local emergency resources such as the Red Cross, local fire stations, police precincts, etc. that may collect neighborhood resident status that you can access. You should include this as part of business continuity or communications plan. Work with each group prior to an event to be sure you understand how to communicate with them and when information may be available to you.
  5. While cell phone coverage may not be available, you may want to have summary BC actions distributed to individuals that they can keep on their phones for quick access. While people may keep their phones turned off to conserve battery power, the cell phone will be the device they use when needed.
  6. Contract with or identify a vendor or organization that can perform predefined communication activities if necessary. This should consist of groups located in different areas of the country, or world, so redundancy is not really required. This will mean drafting up templates and statements to provide to these groups along with instructions on the who, what, and when of how to execute them.

Planning Communication Methods

As we continue to work with organizations on enhancing BC planning, we always include planning for widespread communication and internet outages. Up to now, the main contingency strategy has been the use of cell phones and SaaS tools.  You may not be able to implement anything, or waiting until communication is available may still be the appropriate strategy for you. We recommend that you at least consider potential situations, decide on a strategy and include it in any BC or communication plans. It is important that during an event your organization has at least a place to start in the critical area of communications.

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