February 22, 2017

When disaster strikes, feds know what to do

Headshot_MarkWisingerBy Mark Wisinger
Senior analyst
immixGroup, an Arrow company




In various aspects of business, the federal government beats the commercial world to the punch and vice versa. In developing business continuity and data recovery plans, the commercial world can take a lesson or two from government.

As the largest U.S. workforce with nearly 3 million employees, federal agencies are required to have continuity of operations plans (COOP) in place to prepare for everything from an active shooter situation to a crippling hurricane. This has been a requirement ever since the Cold War when there was fear of a nuclear attack.

A handful of agencies oversee the requirement, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA even provides guidance to the private sector on developing business continuity plans.

A recent example of how a federal organization handled a series of tornadoes shows just how important automated systems are for mission-critical operations.

Continuity in the aftermath of a tornado

The Department of Agriculture’s National Finance Center (NFC) in New Orleans provides payroll for 170 agencies with 650,000 federal employees, so it was vitally important to have a strong plan in place in the event of a disaster.

When seven confirmed tornadoes touched down in six different parishes in southeastern Louisiana—flipping cars, smashing homes and injuring several dozen people—the NFC immediately suspended operations. But amazingly, by the next day, the center was back in business.

A USDA spokeswoman told Federal News Radio the day it re-opened that “all operations will resume business as usual, and all payroll services will continue without interruption and on time. The NFC staff takes its COOP planning seriously, so that when disaster strikes, it can continue its work seamlessly,” she said.

How did they do it?

Part of the continuity of service can be attributed to the fact that so much of payroll processing is automated. But credit is also due to the NFC’s Disaster Recovery/Business Resumption plan, which regularly tests its recovery procedures and business resumption processes to make sure they’re accurate and viable. This is one of the tips most experts recommend to businesses: test your plan regularly.

The NFC deploys a limited staff of 600-800 employees in advance of a known impending disaster to provide continued service to its customers. The plan also calls for the NFC to send that group of employees to an Alternate Work Site before its regular office is closed. That small team assumes operational responsibilities and performs limited services until either full deployment to the alternate site is required or operations are back to normal.

The NFC is no stranger to natural disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, it moved its staff and processing activities out of New Orleans to its disaster recovery site in Philadelphia for three months before returning to the Big Easy. After Katrina, it moved its data center to Denver and its back-up center to St. Louis.

It pays to plan ahead

The successful implementation of the NFC’s COOP depended on effective planning in regards to systems and personnel, with a particularly heavy reliance on automated systems. It’s important to be proactive rather than reactive; and ensure effective disaster recovery protocol and systems are in place sooner rather than later.

For more guidance on the public sector IT market, reach out to immixGroup’s Market Intelligence team.