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On Risk Management, Business Continuity, and Security
26 July, 2017
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On the difference between Wide Area and Local Area Disasters

Hurricane Katrina reminded us that there are major differences between a local disaster and a wide area disaster. Just what are they? It's time to make a list.

I was fortunate in being able to observe Hurricane Katrina from a long distance. I wasn't there. None of my clients were there. If you were thinking about risk analysis or business continuity, it was a good situation to be in. Now that the flood waters have subsided and the stories have been written, it's possible to calmly reflect on some of the lessons learned.

The key problems that occurred (at a corporate level) seem to have been due to a failure when planning to realize the differences between a local disaster and a wide area disaster. Such differences can be expected to occur when the disaster is due to natural phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic activity, winter storms, or forest fires.

Here is my list of the differences. Please email me if I've missed any.

Aspect Local Disaster Wide Area Disaster
Staff Availability Staff are available to respond to the disaster. Most staff have other responsibilities outside of the workplace (e.g. protection of family and home) which will severely limit (or eliminate entirely) their availability.
Emergency Services Emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) are able and willing to respond. Emergency services are only able respond in life-threatening cases. Even in these cases, the emergency services may be unable to respond. Emergency services may be suffering from staff availability problems too.
Telephones & Communications Phone system may fail locally, but alternate carriers can be used to provide sufficient redundancy to make total loss of communications unlikely. Mobile phones will continue to work. Phone system may fail completely. Mobile phones may or may not continue to work. An extended power outage may exceed the battery/generator provisioning of landline or cellular services.
Power Failure In the case of a power failure, backup generators will be available within a reasonable timescale. In the case of a power failure, no backup generators will be available — either because you weren't early enough in the queue, or because all generators have been requisitioned for humanitarian purposes.
Water and Sewage It may be possible to continue working with water and/or sewage systems unavailable. Alternative facilities (portable toilets) can be hired, or arrangements made with adjacent buildings. A lack of potable water in the area will close a building. A failure of sewage facilities in the area may render the building unusable (at normal staff levels) within a short period of time.
Transport System The ability to receive shipments from suppliers or make shipments to customers is unlikely to be affected. It may be difficult or impossible to receive shipments, or to make shipments to customers even if locations are operating normally.
Heating Supplies of gas or oil for heating will be available. Spare parts and service for heating plant can be obtained. Supplies of gas or oil for heating may not be available. Spare parts and service for heating plant may not be obtainable. In cold weather a location may have to be abandoned.
Building Damage Minor damage to building can be repaired in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. Contractors may be unavailable to perform repairs to the building, either to prevent further loss or to keep the building habitable.
Public Order Degeneration of situation with public disorder unlikely. Degeneration of situation with public disorder a possibility.
Building Access Access to a building may be restricted due to structural damage, even if the contents inside are undamaged. Access to a building may be restricted due to government imposed restrictions, including mandatory evacuations and curfews.
Alternative Locations and Hot Sites Proximity a virtue for hot sites and alternate locations. This minimizes staff travel costs, movement of salvaged equipment, etc. It may be possible to arrange to rent alternative locations at low cost with little notice. Proximity not a virtue. The alternate sites may be subject to the same disaster. It will probably not be possible to arrange to rent alternative locations at a low cost with little notice.
Backup Data Locations A nearby location is convenient and will make retrieval of backed up data and critical records quick and easy. Convenience means that backup of records is more likely to happen. A nearby location may be subject to the same disaster, so backups and critical records may be lost.
Contracts Exercising an Act of God clause in a contract may not be possible or may be inadvisable due to loss of confidence in the company by the other party. Act of God clauses and possibly force majeure provisions may be exercised (by either party) in contracts between you and your suppliers, and you and your customers.

Well that's my quick list. Did I miss any? Please email me and let me know.

Michael Z. Bell
November, 2005

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