Delivering Disaster Response

By Gary A. Pudles

The key to effective disaster response is people, well-trained, quick-thinking employees that carry out the procedures and who go beyond the call of duty to support colleagues and clients. AnswerNet’s staff qualifies. They put our disaster response program in play in September 2004 when Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne forced AnswerNet contact centers in Melbourne, Miami, and Orlando.

These devastating storms did little or no damage to our call centers; none of our employees were killed or injured. While Frances and Jeanne spared Miami, we evacuated the center as a precaution.

Preparing for the ‘Canes: Our plan includes rerouting contacts to other facilities, battery power at all sites to cover short outages, emergency generators at some locations to handle longer disruptions, and recorded announcements to clients’ callers. Josue Leon is AnswerNet’s corporate operations manager. He coordinates disaster planning and response from Miami. Hurricane planning began in February. We selected which accounts that would be transferred to other facilities. The contact centers segregate clients by local and toll-free numbers and by account types such as medical and Web order entry.

Toll-free accounts were transferred to backup sites through the carrier; local numbers were shifted manually. Client data was moved to other centers or the managers take the information with them when they evacuate. Account transfers and contact reroutes began 72 to 48 hours ahead of landfall. Josue spoke with larger customers at Miami and Orlando several times to ensure they were fine with the reroutes.

Clients received advance notice of shutdowns. If they wanted us to reroute calls we sent scripts to backup centers for agent training. We shifted groups of accounts to various centers to spread the load. In the past, only the Miami, Melbourne, and Mobile call centers prepared for hurricanes. In 2005, we added Orlando. Prior to Frances, Orlando hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in the past 90 years.

“When a hurricane is headed toward the U.S. east coast, you don’t know when it will actually hit until about 12-24 hours before landfall,” explained Josue. “We can’t wait until then to begin our procedures because it is almost impossible to move accounts in such short notice.”

Storm Response: When Frances readied her swing towards our Melbourne contact center, general manager Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Brumlow closed the site September 2; she reopened it September 7. When Jeanne took aim at the community, Stevie shuttered the facility September 24; she unlocked the doors on September 28. Mandatory evacuations for both storms made the use of onsite power backups moot.

We began shifting contacts away from our Mobile center on September 14th when Ivan approached the city. General manager Patsy Hutchins told her staff that they did not have to stay. Patsy and billing manager Kimberly Jackson took calls Wednesday evening September 15. The center placed a recording on local accounts answered in Mobile. It asked callers to “please be patient as we are experiencing a large volume of calls and we would get to them as quickly as possible.”

The Mobile site has a generator connected to its workstations and outlets but not its air conditioning system. When the utility electricity went out that night, the site stayed up while Patsy and Kimberly kept cool using fans.

Dena Cox, one of supervisors, stayed with Patsy Thursday night. Utility power did not come back on until Friday afternoon September 17. Staff began returning to the contact center that morning and operations gradually returned to normal the following week.

The other centers took steps to shoulder the additional contacts. For Frances, Santa Rosa general manager, Irene Spear, rescheduled day staff to come in a few hours earlier and added a shift. She paid overtime and brought in sandwiches.

The contact centers continued to handle the extra volume for some time. Also, online services were not restored until a week or more after the centers had reopened.

“When the calls were returned back to the original centers we often did not have enough staff because they hadn’t all returned home,” explains Josue. “We kept some of the accounts at their temporary sites until all employees came back.”

Stepping in for Clients: AnswerNet team members looked after clients. When batteries at BellSouth’s nearby Mobile central office ran out of energy mid-morning Thursday September 16, Patsy shuttered the center. She explained that the telco, anticipating an evacuation, had moved backup generators out of the city.

Undaunted by downed phone service at home and by sporadic cell coverage, Patsy got in touch with her colleagues and they eventually got through to BellSouth. The telco then reconnected a generator. The phone lines went live that evening and the contact center reopened shortly.

“BellSouth was great to work with,” recounts Patsy. “When we explained to them that we answered very critical calls, such as for doctors and medical centers they worked as fast as they could to reconnect us.”

AnswerNet’s teams gave a virtual presence for those customers whose businesses and practices had been damaged or disrupted by the storms. “Some medical clients did not have power and could not re-enter their offices for at least a week after we reopened, but we still took calls for them,” recalled Stevie. “We also took calls for a property management firm whose building had been condemned after being hit badly by Jeanne. They were finding homes for people who had lived there.”

Perhaps the truest test of disaster response is how employees pull together despite the impacts the events had on them. Some of their homes had minor damage. Ivan uprooted a pecan tree that hit the carport at the back of Patsy’s house.

Several staffers evacuated or had lost power. They camped out in shelters or with family, relatives, and friends. Stevie, who could not return home for 13 days after Frances and six days after Jeanne, stayed with her son.

“Even if you could get home or to your office there were problems getting around because the local gas stations were closed,” she points out.

Josue put hurricane shutters on his house and cleaned out his pool patio at night in the rain during Frances while managing disaster response across the centers. “I wanted to make sure nothing fell through cracks, while anticipating that at some point I would be out of commission,” explains Josue.

He had very high praise for how his teammates handled the disasters. “The general managers responded to our crises without hesitation, “said Josue. “They transitioned contacts to backup centers or handled calls while on emergency power, with little or no service disruption.”

Gary A. Pudles is President and CEO of AnswerNet, Inc. based in Princeton, NJ. He can be reached via email at or 609-921-7450.


How Prepared Are You for Disaster?

By Carin Shulusky

On September 11, 2001 there were 50,000 people working at 110 businesses in the World Trade Center. By noon there were none.

Last year was the costliest hurricane season on record. Nine hurricanes hit the United States. Six were a category three or higher. Together these hurricanes caused more than $42 billion dollars of damage.

In December, a 9.0 earthquake struck Indonesia and the Indian Ocean. It may have been the second largest quake ever recorded. The tsunami that followed killed 145,000 people. The total cost of the damage may never be known. Homes, schools, and businesses were washed away. Plus, many local, but very destructive disasters never make the news.

The world is a very dangerous place and it seems to be getting more dangerous every year. How well would your call center survive a major disaster? Are any businesses really “safe”?

Although you may never be able to prepare for all possibilities, smart call center owners and magazines are taking steps to put in place a disaster preparedness plan. Relying on insurance is not enough. Insurance may help rebuild, but how do you keep your business operation, if there is no business? Insurance can’t replace lost data. For teleservice companies and call centers, the heart of their business is their staff; protecting staff is a business basic. But if the heart is the people, the soul is data. Most businesses do not protect their data nearly as well. Undetected viruses can wipe out your entire data base in seconds. One of the easiest ways to protect your business from lost data is to store your data files off site. Creative businesses have found many ways to store their files. Some have fire proof safes for data files or keep files in a safe deposit box.

The first step is to develop a plan. It is much easier to prepare a plan before disaster strikes. Whatever plan you choose to protect your business, it will be a great comfort if your business doesn’t shows up on the morning news.

For more information about off site data storage solutions, contact Telescan at 800-770-7662.

[From Connection Magazine June 2005]

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