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Flooding catches small businesses off-guard

Warwick Ashford

Small businesses were caught off-guard by the severe flooding this week as service providers were inundated with distress calls from companies caught in the downpour that has engulfed parts of central and southern England.

Just weeks after northern and central England's businesses were hit by floods, thousands more businesses were forced to either suspend business or operate with skeleton staff after three times the usual monthly rainfall was recorded in counties including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire on 20 July.

"Business continuity needs to be done in advance for the longer term to enable proper planning, implementation and testing of systems," said Keith Tilley, managing director at disaster recovery firm Sungard Availability Services.

The Business Continuity Institute said companies with no business continuity plan in place should back up critical data and move it off-site as soon as flood warnings were issued to reduce the risk of long-term effects or even forced closure.

In the latest round of flooding, businesses in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire were worst hit when rivers such as the Severn and Thames burst their banks. The Association of British Insurers estimates that insurance claims will run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Disaster recovery companies reported an extremely high number of business continuity plan invocations and standby calls from customers in central and western England. Most said they had not received as many calls for a single incident since the Buncefield fire in 2006 or the July 7 bombings in 2005.

"This is a significant emergency situation for a number of our customers. Accordingly, we have implemented our major incident procedure to co-ordinate our response to the immediate situation and the possibility of further disruption," said Rod Taylor, director of disaster recovery company NDR. Customers who were not able to work from their own offices had relocated to NDR facilities, said Taylor.

Compared with other disasters such as fires or explosions, disaster recovery companies say flooding affects many more companies over a much wider area simultaneously. Even companies that are not under water are affected by related power and water cuts. The effects of flooding can also be longer lasting. It is feared that it will take weeks and even months before businesses will be up and running as normal again.

"Health and safety issues will mean many companies will not be able to work out of their usual premises long after the flood waters subside, requiring business-continuity provisioning for extended periods of time," said Lyndon Bird, technical director of the Business Continuity Institute.

The Gloucester City Council servers shut down after UPS systems ran out of power during protracted power cuts, but the council's IT head, Jan Harris, said there would be no permanent damage to IT systems. Although the council buildings were flooded, the servers were located on the second floor and were unaffected.

Fortis Insurance in Gloucester was also affected by power cuts. The company invoked its business continuity contract with SunGard to take 250 positions for its staff at SunGard's Bristol Workplace Recovery Centre.

Some business continuity providers sent mobile computer rooms with generators to customers who had no power.

A Gloucester-based ISP said around 400 customers had been affected by the flooding, either directly or indirectly because of the power and water cuts. The ISP said it was operating with a skeleton staff at its data centre, but would re-route e-mail services free of charge for businesses hit by the flooding to enable employees to work from home.

Proving the value of successful business continuity plans, several IT security suppliers in the flood-hit areas say customers will not experience any disruption in services.

MessageLabs, which has its global headquarters in Gloucester, said its services would not be affected thanks to "multiple redundancies, plans and procedures in place. Sophos in Abingdon said teleworking was in place for key employees so there would be no impact on customers if the company were flooded. Database security company Secerno in Oxford said staff would work remotely using encrypted laptops while their offices were closed.

Gloucester-based web hosting provider Fasthosts Internet said its business continuity plan had enabled the company to keep its 300,000 customers' websites online. Although not directly affected by the flood waters, when the power was cut, Fasthosts' datacentre switched to its diesel generators.

Many other companies affected by the floods are also continuing with business as usual, thanks to their business continuity plans.

Companies unable to access their premises are being relocated to specialist business continuity centres, where they can carry on with business as usual.

However, many small and medium businesses (SMBs) have not been as fortunate, and they have been encouraged to look for affordable business continuity and disaster recovery plans aimed at this market.

"Many small businesses hold the misconception that business continuity and disaster recovery plans are an expensive outlay for little return. However it is events such as this unseasonable weather that proves their worth," said Mike Osborne, Managing Director of ICM Business Continuity Services.

SMBs have again been the worst hit in the extensive flooding as many have not been able to keep their businesses going, with some facing inevitable closure.

"Small businesses often do not have full business continuity plans that include alternative premises, telecommunications or e-mail systems," said Lyndon Bird, technical director of the Business Continuity Institute.

The Federation of Small Businesses has set aside £500,000 for those businesses that are unable get bank loans and suffering severe hardship.

SA Mathieson, editor of Infosecurity Magazine contributed to this report


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