For Hugh Smallwood, it was record snowfall around the nation's capital that made him think of hurricanes. For Grant Sheheen, it was seeing the Cumberland River overrun Nashville after record rains pummeled Tennessee.
Smallwood is chief technology officer of Ongoing Operations LLC, a disaster recovery and business continuity CUSO in Hagerstown, Md., while Sheheen, a former credit union CEO in Miami, is now a consultant and executive director of the National Coalition of Firefighters Credit Unions.
"This past winter was a great experience," Smallwood said. "The best way to demonstrate to someone the importance of disaster recovery is to be on the edge of disaster without having to completely experience it."
That's what Smallwood said Ongoing Operations saw as trees fell, roofs collapsed and impassable roads kept many credit union staffers from making it to their branches.
"On the bright side, what we saw was how with today's technology, a remote data center can handle a lot of your work even without the lights on. We were able to run systems from our site. and they and their members were able to access it. It was a great exercise," he said.
Smallwood said that, in fact, the strength and breadth of the Internet pipe in general as well as electronic vaulting, tapes being replaced by disks and even the logistical prowess of Federal Express are all factors in helping credit unions better prepare for disaster than was possible in years just past.
Nashville was still underwater, meanwhile, when Sheheen spoke with Credit Union Times about what he was reading and hearing about credit unions up that way. "Nobody expected it. Nothing like this has ever happened before," he said. "I guess the one thing I came away with was that you can have the best plan in place but if your staff can't get there. Well, you can't run the place without employees."
"That's what makes relationships with your data processor and backup sites and ATM processors and all your vendors are so important. And everybody in the management team has to have a copy of the plan, including the board of directors. And it has to be updated. Remember, you could have switched processors and any other number of things, and then the chairman takes down that book and starts calling numbers that aren't any good anymore," he said. "And that's not good."
It also can be surprising how many vendors are involved in the daily, mission-critical activities of a credit union and how disaster can affect them. For instance, one that might not necessarily leap to mind in these days of electronic communications is snail mail.
Plenty of people still get statements and overdraft notices and a lot of other important communications by mail, and while the U.S. Postal Service might be up and running after the storm, the back office at the credit union might not.
That's what Harry Stephens has seen in his years running DATAMATX, a provider of print, mail and document distribution that counts about 30 credit unions among the 200 or so customers it serves from sites in Atlanta, Phoenix and Richmond, Va.
Stephens' company has its own hot site for disaster recovery-its Richmond operation-and can move work between the locations. Watching the flood waters in and around Nashville gave him a renewed sense of appreciation for preparation, he said.
"The water was head-high inside the Opryland Hotel," Stephens said. "I was just there last week. I'm watching this and thinking, what in the world? They have several thousand people at a time coming there for conferences and now they're closed. How do they get the word out?"
Stephens stressed ensuring the most senior executives at a credit union are involved in disaster planning, and, he added, the key is preparation. The process can be broken down into five basic steps: conducting an operational analysis, performing a risk analysis, indentifying tolerances for downtime and recovery priorities, developing and mandating recovery teams and finally, publishing, promoting and maintaining the plan, the DATAMATX president and CEO said.
And then, you practice what you preach, the professionals said.
For instance, "In addition to providing data backup recovery and emergency workspace solutions, we have a consulting group that does disaster recovery plan design built around business processes, and they're very strong proponents of testing," said Smallwood at Ongoing Recovery, which now works with more than 120 credit unions.
"We'll put people from the credit union in a room and say, OK, you're the operations group, you're the IT group, you're the accounting group and so on, and then we'll start role playing, while throwing some kinks into the mix and watching how people respond," Smallwood said.
"What we've found is that the most frequent breakdowns are around communications-about people communicating with each other instead of each having their own individual plans," Smallwood said. "Coordinating to deliver the overall solution is imperative, and with hurricane season coming, you've got to make sure you have your team in place and prepared to handle all those logistics."