Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Information Overload – August 2016 – Disaster Recovery – Practice Makes Perfect – A Case Study

Shirley R Cowcher

It’s like Insurance

Disaster plans are a bit like insurance – you have one but hope you will never have to use it. The similarity to insurance also extends to the point that you may not know whether you have adequate coverage until you make a claim. In the case of a disaster plan it may be catastrophic to discover that what is documented as the process for preparedness and recovery is inadequate. Just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is not really an option. Yet, there are too many that do just that. Be honest, when was the last time your organisation conducted a disaster simulation exercise? Building evacuation practices don’t count. So you’re really confident that your plan and your staff will be able to cope with any disaster that befalls your organisation? I wish I had your confidence.

We have a plan

This is a case study of a large tertiary educational institution with multiple campuses and decentralised records management services. The Manager of the records management services section wanted to ensure that the staff responsible for records management services (RMS) understood the importance of disaster preparedness as well as understanding and applying the existing plan.
The only way to achieve this objective was to spend some time on the theory and then turn to the practice. We wanted to complete the theory without the participants knowing there would be a practical component to follow, to try and put some sense of immediacy to the exercise. It was intended that we would observe the staff during the practical component and in doing so evaluate if the plan and the participants were fit for purpose.

The Theory

The five participants attended a half-day session which was aimed at assisting them to:
• understand the value and importance of disaster preparedness;
• identify the different types of disasters that could affect records, information and knowledge in the organisation;
• understand the relationships between business continuity, risk management and disaster preparedness; and
• understand the existing disaster plan.
They were presented with concepts of different types of disasters and how they may be classified as well as the importance of different strategies for different types of disasters. The four phases of disaster management were explained.
• Mitigation.
• Preparedness.
• Response.
• Recovery.
In addition, risks, chain of command, responsibility and identifying priorities were presented as concepts to be understood and followed. The final component of the theory was to outline and discuss the elements of the Disaster Management Plan, including response and recovery flowcharts. To keep them alert desktop hypothetical scenarios were included in the discussions.

Participants left the session providing very positive feedback on the training they had received. So much so that one of them said to the manager “it would be great if we could now put into practice what we have just learnt”. 


The Practice

It was fortunate that we had planned a practice session for the very next morning. A disaster simulation had been planned based on a scenario of a burst water pipe that had resulted in an office area being flooded that contained paper based records, photographs, computers, backup portable hard drives.
At a specified time in the early part of the day the staff were told that there had been a flood in the early hours of the morning and that they would be required to address the aftermath of the disaster.
They were required to put the plan into action, each person taking on the responsibilities assigned to them and carrying out actions of setup, communication, salvage, reporting, documentation and site restoration. During the practice they were observed and the observations were recorded. At the conclusion of the two hour exercise. The team underwent a debriefing to discuss what was good and what could be improved.
The client asked that a report be presented to finalise the exercise providing comment on the success of the simulation in terms of the application of the plan and the understanding and actions of the participants.


The feedback from the manager was very positive and commented that the “course structure and content..[was].. right on the mark for our needs”. The disaster simulation gave them an opportunity to test that the plan was clear, concise and fit for purpose. The session debrief and feedback report did identify some areas of improvement which were to be swiftly implemented and all the participants felt that they had an opportunity to apply their knowledge. It made for a greater confidence for all concerned that they would be able to manage and recover from a disaster.
Have you tested your plan? How lucky do you feel?