After the recent tsunami and earthquake in Japan, I started to wonder about what — heaven forbid — it would be like if a disaster should ever hit our business premises.
If you are able to, please donate or participate in a fund-raising activity to benefit the victims. The Japanese Embassy has a comprehensive list at http://www.ca.emb-japan.go.jp/canada_e/JapanCanada/Earthquake_fundraising_events.html 
I don’t want to be an alarmist and the chances that something will happen are probably small, but they aren’t zero.
There was a 5.0 earthquake in Ontario last June — although nothing like the one in Japan, it was strong enough that many people felt it. Last week we had a storm with near-tornado force winds that toppled trees and damaged houses. And those with longer memories will recall the terrible Ice Storm of January 1998 when there was a power outage in the height of winter that lasted for up to three weeks in some areas.
Ottawa has an international airport and is situated on the bank of a large river, both typically considered risk factors. It is also the national capital, and so is a potential political target.
And apparently fire is also a major threat to small businesses; here’s a link to a story about what happened after a fire at a network software developer, Wild Packets: http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Data-Storage/A-Trial-by-Fire/  The main problem in such stories usually seems to be keeping backups on the premises; when the business burns up, so do the backups.
A comprehensive business plan should have a section discussing contingencies, but disaster recovery isn’t typically included. BTW, disaster recovery is the field of planning how to resume operations after a catastrophe occurs, such as a fire or earthquake. It often involves activating vital information systems in a new location. If your business doesn’t have a disaster recovery plan, you should get started on one ASAP. However, this is usually an IT department concern, so what can the rest of us do at the user level?
While we sure aren’t experts in disaster recovery, here are a few MOSTLY FREE common-sense things anybody can do, picked up mainly from the days when computers weren’t as reliable as they are now.
- Save your files frequently! There are few things more frustrating than working for several hours and losing your work due to a power bump or PC problem. Get in the habit of saving files frequently as you work. An unsaved file won’t be backed up.
- Back up your personal work daily. Some IT departments might take issue with this, but I plug in a USB drive and back up my work at the end of each day. You can take the USB drive home with you for your own personal off-site storage. Most USB drive can be password-protected, and some fancy ones even have built-in fingerprint scanners. Many USB drives come with synchronization software, but I like to keep it simple by having all my current projects as sub-folders in one directory called ACTIVE PROJECTS. I just copy the whole thing to the USB drive; only takes a minute or two.
- Synch your smart phone regularly. Aside from being a fantastic business tool, your BB or iPhone is a great backup device for your Outlook information. If you use a PC-based PIM, contact management or sales force automation tool, check if you can sync your smart phone to keep your calendar, contacts and tasks up to date and handy. And don’t forget to keep your phone charged up. If you are out and about a lot, a car charger or external battery pack might help.
- Take your Day-Timer or Filofax home every night. If you still use a paper planner — and lots of us do! — take it home every night.
- Don’t rely on Windows to do keep track of your passwords. It’s very convenient for day-to-day use, but if your PC crashes, or you have to work from another location on a different PC, you better know your passwords. I’ve seen IT departments keep all their passwords, service provider info, router configuration data, etc. on a PDA or laptop that someone takes home every night.
- Test out remote access before you need it. If you have remote access or VPN capabilities, try it before you need it. Many disaster recovery plans count on people working from home for at least a temporary period, so make sure that your home PC has whatever software you need installed, configured and working.
- Use an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) on desktop PCs and servers. OK, this one costs money. Unlike laptops that have an internal rechargeable battery, even a momentary power glitch can freeze, shut down or reboot an AC-powered desktop. A UPS boosts up the voltage when there is a brown-out and powers your PC for some minutes during blackouts so you can save your files and shut down without losing data. Well worth the $100 investment — mine was clicking on and off as many as half-a-dozen times a day last summer during air conditioning peaks. The battery in a UPS typically lasts for about three years, but don’t wait for a blackout to see if it still holds a charge. Test it by pulling out the power plug now and then. I do this on the last Friday of each month.
- Keep a few essentials in the office and your briefcase. The company break room probably has a first aid kit, some water, a little food and bathroom supplies available, but it doesn’t hurt to keep a bottle of water, energy bar, Swiss army knife, and small flashlight in your desk drawer or even your briefcase. Some people might add a hat and pair of thick gloves (both for the winter and so you can move something sharp or hot out of your way if necessary). You can use a flashlight to find your way out of a building or down an emergency exit when the lights are off. BTW, modern LED flashlights are tiny, lightweight and very bright, so don’t think we’re suggesting that you haul around a big bruiser or a feeble penlight in your briefcase — check out what’s available at Mountain Equipment Coop, Home Depot, or Costco. Remember to check the batteries regularly.
- Plan to where to meet up with your co-workers if something happens. This is only one tiny aspect of an evacuation plan, but agree on somewhere where you can meet up, check that everyone is out of the building, and stay safe. Once you’re all together you can figure out what to do next.
- Keep your car gassed up and have an emergency kit in the trunk. If you drive to work, be prepared to make it there and back despite unforeseen problems. The facilities manager at a former employer once told me that a precaution most people overlook is keeping your car ready to go with a full tank and an emergency kit. You can buy an auto emergency kit for about $35 to $50, or put one together yourself. Here’s what the CAA suggests that an auto emergency kit should contain: http://www.caasco.com/insurance/auto-vehicle-insurance/emergency-kit-checklist.jsp  Personally, I go light on the tools since I’m not a mechanic, but anyone can use flares and a can of tire inflater/sealant. Chances are that a multi-tool, a few bungee cords and a small first aid kit will come in handy on lots of occasions.