Published October 1, 1998

Contingency Plan Example: Contingency Plan Technology

The conventional take on the PanAmSat Galaxy IV satellite outage in late May was that it disabled pager service to doctors, lawyers and a small number of other professionals for some days. TV news accounts indicated that was about the extent of it: The outage was a technological inconvenience for some, but not much more.

In reality, however, the satellite outage disrupted the daily routines of computer repair technicians, network administrators and a myriad of technical personnel, and threatened mission-critical computing systems in the metro Washington D.C. area, and elsewhere in the U.S.

A little more than a month after the outage, technical personnel imperiled by the outage are reassessing the situation. Many feel that, as satellites and pagers become more integrated into the daily work routine, network administrators, CIOs and CTOs need to create contingency plans to make sure the work gets done when the satellite goes down.

Those who don't develop such plans may find themselves shopping for a new job the next time an outage occurs.

How do technical personnel employ pagers? And what can they do to develop contingency plans for their businesses once a crisis occurs?

Take the example of DecisionOne Corp. [http://www.decisionone.com], an $800 million, Philadelphia-based, NASDAQ-traded computer repair and maintenance service that employs 2,000 technicians around the U.S.

"The job of our technicians is to run around every day and solve customer problems with computers," says William Wohl, a spokesman for DecisionOne Corp. "Our primary means of alerting them is via pager."

The service typically gets a call from its customers -- many of them major corporate entities, such as the Sabre Group, which runs the travel information computers at the John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan airports -- and dispatches its technicians with a page telling them where to go and what the computer project is. When they arrive on the scene, they repair mainframes, PCs or network problems that, if not solved quickly, can lead to massive productivity losses for their client companies.

The PanAmSat satellite went down on a Tuesday evening, and by the next morning, the technicians and engineers at DecisionOne found themselves stranded, without assignments for the day.

How did the company solve this?

It had a contingency plan in place that enabled it to schedule tasks for its technicians. The plan was pretty straightforward, Wohl says. Realizing that the technicians would begin calling in to the office shortly, the I.T. department scrambled and changed the message on its interactive voice response system (IVR), which was usually used by technicians to phone in the status of the project. The new message informed the techies that the pagers were down and that they should call another number to receive their assignments.

The strategy worked.

The personnel began calling in to a customer service number every hour to receive instructions, or relay results of projects, Wohl says. "We had thought through the loss of paging in the past," he adds. "We have a contingency plan in place for communications problems." This enabled the company to keep providing its services to customers -- responding to approximately 22,000 customer calls for help every day around the U.S.

Alternative delivery mechanisms -- like the Web, or CD-ROM disks -- can also be used to get the job done, according to Joel Tietz, a consultant at the New York-based consultancy Price Waterhouse.

Price Waterhouse recommends that technical departments -- network administrators and business executives -- need to work in tandem to develop "work-around procedures," business processes that can replace other business processes in case of an emergency.

Contingency Planning Steps for I.T.:

  1. Have a back-up plan in case the satellite fails
  2. Learn how to reposition sat receiving dishes ahead of time
  3. Explore usage of Internet and CD-ROM as alternative delivery mechanisms

Article Copyright 1998 Enterprise Interactive