A spring that has already brought deadly and destructive weather to parts of the country is a reminder to small businesses that they need to prepare for disasters that could shut them down. Owners should try to make their companies as prepared as possible -- or at least be sure that employees and data are protected.
Disaster planning tends to get pushed lower and lower on owners' to-do lists as they handle the more pressing day-to-day demands of running a company. Or, they put it off because they feel overwhelmed by the prospect of putting a plan together.
"Small-business owners have an inflated idea of what the cost is going to be, or the complexity," said disaster recovery expert John Toigo, chief executive of Toigo Partners International, which is based in Tampa, Fla. He noted that small companies usually have an easier task than their larger counterparts when it comes to disaster prep.
"It doesn't have to cost very much money or [take] very much time," he said.
A small business does need to be sure about the safety and accessibility of two crucial assets: its employees and its data.
"Build a solid contact list with at least five ways to contact every employee," Toigo said. And don't just keep the list electronically -- print it out and keep it in your wallet. Keep it updated -- especially when people are making plans to evacuate.
Data -- including customer lists, information about your company's projects and your accounting ledgers -- need to be safeguarded. The options range from the relatively simple and inexpensive, such as backing up your files on a USB flash drive, to the more complex and costly, such as contracting with a company that will maintain a duplicate server remotely for you.
Toigo noted that there were hard drives that could plug into a USB port and automatically back up data. He also pointed out that the growing popularity of laptops meant data could be easily stored on a portable computer and carried away in the event of an evacuation.
"You end up with a whole system that you can unplug and go," he said.
And it's a good idea to have some kind of backup generator so you can run that laptop.
Obviously, there's a lot more that goes into a comprehensive disaster plan, such as planning for an evacuation, or stocking up with food, water and other necessities in case you need to remain on your premises.
Ed Schipul's Internet marketing company held a daylong drill last month to practice dealing with a disaster that would render the company's Houston headquarters unusable.
Schipul acknowledged that he wasn't happy with the results. First, some staffers froze and weren't able to perform the tasks expected of them. One staffer forgot her cellphone and no one could reach her. There was an emergency plan detailed in binders, but no one had any of the binders off-site.
"The things that failed aren't the things you expect," Schipul said. "But that's why you do a simulation."
The good news for Schipul is that the employees of his namesake firm took what happened seriously, and many were upset by the fact they fell short during the exercise. He's planning another drill during the summer.
Disaster planning at Call 4 Health, a medical call center in Boca Raton, Fla., has included setting up a remote call center in Charlotte, N.C., Chief Executive Joe Pores said.
"No matter what the weather patterns were doing in Florida . . . patients need to get through at any time," he said. "If this office in Boca Raton goes off-line, all calls automatically route to our office in Charlotte."
Opening the Charlotte center is the latest in a series of steps Pores' company has taken. He has acquired generators that can keep his Boca Raton operation running for two weeks. And all of the company's data is backed up on a server in Charlotte.
Many small-business owners aren't sure what they need to consider in putting together a disaster plan. The Institute for Business & Home Safety has a comprehensive checklist on its website, www.disastersafety.org, that can help a company through the process.
The federal government also has guidelines on a website, www.ready.gov/business, and the U.S. Small Business Administration has its own site, www.sba.gov/beawareandprepare/business.html.
Another part of disaster planning is being sure a company is well-insured to help it recover if its premises are damaged or destroyed. Many companies have standard insurance packages that cover losses from disasters such as fires and storms, but specialized coverage such as flood or earthquake insurance can be crucial to a company's survival. So is business interruption insurance, which can salvage a company's profit when disaster leaves it unable to operate.