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Securing Free Recovery Locations

Why pay for a disaster recovery site if you can secure a very reliable one for free?  More organisations manage this than you might think.

Nearly all business continuity plans include details of a recovery location at which critical tasks can continue until a compromised site can be restored.  Sometimes they’re called Disaster Recovery sites, Continuity sites, business restoration sites, or recovery locations.  They all have one key purpose: to provide a suitably equipped and accessible venue for critical tasks to be carried out to continue and restore compromised business.

There are a number of companies offering recovery location services.  The best known may be Sungard, which has over 900,000 customers in Europe and North America and claims to assist with more than 10,000 incidents per year.  But for many organisations, the luxury of having a professional firm on retainer isn’t financially viable.  For others, even if it is, they might consider the risk of the facility not being available to them at precisely the time they need it to be too great.  So they look elsewhere for more creative solutions.

And many of them are free.  Often, all it takes is a little imagination and some relationship building along with heavy doses of common sense and practical planning.

“Free” disaster recovery locations are often offered in exchange for reciprocal arrangements.  That is, someone sets aside an area of their space that they’d clear for you if you need it, and you do the same for them.  This takes some realistic planning effort, long term relationship investment, and a lot of checking – since you must be sure that you/they would really evacuate the designated area to house the staff undertaking the critical work.

This idea isn’t new.  It’s been done many times.  In fact, people have even studied it under the academic heading, “Social Capital”.  Social capital is a wonderful thing for business continuity planners, because it simply means that neighbours and colleagues can help each other out… usually for free.

On a macro scale, Robert Putman talks about Social Capital in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community.  On a business continuity case study basis, PhD student Noel Johnson surveyed neighbouring companies in close proximity during and after disasters.  He found, unsurprisingly, that those working proactively with their neighbours – which often included their contractors, supplier and competitors, as well as random businesses that happened to be in the same geographic location – fared best.  (Click to read Johnson’s PhD paper, Social Capital and Organisational Resilience on the University of Liverpool website.)

But, perhaps more importantly than academic papers, we’ve seen this work in real life.  So, here are some ideas on places to consider approaching for neighbourly or reciprocal disaster recovery location facilities.  Securing them is likely to require a significant charm offensive and a sustained effort with any organisation with whom you make arrangements, but in return you may gain allies as well as a recovery location.

Neighbouring businesses.  If you’re situated in a business park or a particular area then look around at other businesses: might some of them have the facilities you require?  Yes, if you’re flooded, for example, they may suffer the same issue, but for countless other emergencies these very local locations may work well.  You know your staff can get to the location and it would be easy to redirect deliveries and collections.  Could you offer a reciprocal arrangement?

Local or regional businesses.  These businesses may not be on your doorstep but they are close by. You may know them through a trade association, the local Chamber of Commerce, a directory of businesses available from your local council, or because you drive past them in the morning.  Be brave and call them; ask to speak to the business continuity or risk manager and you’re likely to find an understanding ear.  Ask if you can buy them a coffee to talk about it and see what happens.  Even if they say no, you may have just made a great new contact.  And, again, reciprocal arrangements may be the key: even if you could only offer – for example – two full desks with phones and computers connected to the internet, this might be exactly what another small business needs.  (Larger businesses/facilities need to talk to larger businesses, obviously!)

Local Pub/Bar.  If you live in a relatively densely populated area and you have a number of business continuity plans, have a quick look to see how many of them suggest that critical staff meet at their local drinking establishment.  In our experience, there are quite a number; also in our experience those writing the plans have checked with neither the pub itself nor other planholders, suggesting that in a real time of crisis certain establishments are going to have some of your staff spilling out of the doors bearing faces of surprise at the notion that others may have had the same idea!  That said, a local pub or cafe, particularly wifi enabled ones, could be a great first base for recover meetings.  We strongly suggest, however, that you seek to make an arrangement with the facility itself, to ensure that you have the right to take over an area even if others appear to have gotten there first.   You may be able to secure this with a simple letter of agreement that you and your team will spend a minimum amount on food and (non-alcoholic!) drink each day you take residence to properly secure the area you want.

Local School.  Schools are often empty: there are holiday periods lasting many weeks and, during term time, many close by 6pm even with after school activities.  Schools have playgrounds that can act as congregation areas and some are equipped with computer rooms – before one considers the offices themselves.  You may be able to make arrangements to use playgrounds as gathering locations and, possibly, computer rooms or offices as recovery locations.  Remember that, if you’re asking for access inside the school, they may require Criminal Records checks for anyone wishing to step foot inside, so some planning would be needed on your part to ensure these were available in the event of an incident.  In practice, we’ve seen this work extremely well for a day care facility business that made arrangements to recover to a local school in the first instance, and use that as their base from which to call parents to collect their children.  Because of the similarity of the work, the school was happy to accommodate them in the playground and a hall without charge.

Competitor.  Rule out competitor assistance at your peril, particularly if you have specialist needs.  While there can be obvious and serious issues, it can also work well in some circumstances.  We know of a theatre that allowed another theatre to use their box office facilities for a few weeks; television companies that had arrangements to use each others studio space in an emergency; and a courier company that had an arrangement to use another courier company without its customers being aware of the fulfilment effectively being outsourced to another organisation if a crisis hit.  The more specialised your needs, the less likely it is that you can rule this option out.  There is no denying that there are risks with this one, but it’s still worth considering!

Town Hall/Chamber of Commerce.  Some organisations will tell you that it’s their mission to support you wherever it’s practical and possible.  This type of statement can be levered here!  If your local town hall or chamber of commerce has a space that might work for you, why not approach them and ask?

If you’ve any more ideas or examples that have worked for you, we’d love you to contribute them in the comments box below.

The requirement to ensure the right equipment and connectivity can be made available to you in the required amount of time doesn’t change wherever your facility is, but your ability to negotiate a good, free space, could help cut some costs – and make you some new working relationships -along the way.

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