Recent natural disasters, including the Christchurch earthquake and Queensland’s floods, are a timely reminder for everyone – customers and channel alike – to revisit their communications plans for crisis management and ensure a communications continuity plan is in place.One of the most significant lessons learned from past international disasters is that when lives are on the line, critical facilities are threatened or security is undermined, technology is important – and communications before, during and after an event are critical. From preparations for an approaching event, including plans for minimising the impact of disruptions, surviving the actual episode, addressing the immediate after-effects as well as rebuilding on a longer term basis, communications are paramount.Social media is increasingly playing a vital role in immediate and on-the-spot reporting. The speed and reach of social media helped update Queensland residents, along with the rest of the global community, on the anticipated rains and floods and provided a forum to organise coordinated cleanup efforts. From a business perspective, the availability of seamless communication within a crisis situation makes it much easier to coordinate efforts and continue to do business. When disaster strikes, employees, business partners and customers depend on businesses to continue to provide services and expect a quick return to normalcy. The fact is, businesses rely on communications to ensure continuous operations and the breakdown of communications capabilities during natural disasters threatens business operations and earnings.Contingency 101So what do your customers – and you yourself for your own business – need to focus on when creating a communications contingency plan? Firstly a contingency plan needs to address the frenzied period of preparation before a disaster occurs, the middle, immediate aftermath and the ongoing rebuilding efforts. It is crucially important that organisations think through in advance what might happen in different crisis scenarios. They need to work out how people will communicate as the situation unfolds, what contingencies are in place when things don’t work out as planned, and how they will continually reassess the situation. Secondly, whether an outage occurs due to a natural or man-made disaster or a routine maintenance glitch, communications must work under demanding circumstances. Companies need to take a good look at their voice, data and video communications infrastructure and services and understand how well they would stand up to the different scenarios identified in their disaster plans. The communications solutions they have deployed should have flexible failover options throughout the network, including server redundancy, automatic backup routing, basic and enhanced gateway survivability. Resilient data solutions should be chosen as the basis for the communications structure and technologies such as Split Multi Link Trunking (SMLT) should be considered.SMLT allows traffic to be redistributed very quickly in the event of link or switch failure. This means the failure of any one component results in a minor disruption, lasting less than half a second – making SMLT the perfect choice for environments running voice and video. For application servers, locally survivable application servers which can stay fully operational with locally cached messages and greetings, and geographically redundant standby options are critical to any continuity plan.Organisations such as schools and hospitals should consider a notification solution which is used during a crisis. A notification solution enables an organisation to transmit urgent information and instructions in real time across an organisation or response network. This type of solution issues preconfigured, dynamic and personalised messages which tell people what to do and how to respond in an emergency at the press of a button. It enables a message to be broadcast across multiple channels, reaching the maximum number of people and then capturing and organising responses in real time.The aftermathIn the aftermath of a crisis, organisations need to maintain operations or restart operations as quickly as possible. Some organisations may need temporary facilities and in this situation a mobile continuity solution offers enterprises the flexibility to stay connected to their customers, employees and stakeholders. For a business such as an insurance provider it may be vital to be able to set up as close as possible to a situation or incident to process insurance claims. In the recent floods, when roads were closed, offices flooded and the communications infrastructure impaired, a mobile continuity communication solution which could be set up anywhere was required. To be effective, a mobile continuity solutions should be built on open standards, that will work with the entire range of today’s communications options – IP, cellular, LAN, wireless and satellite uplink. This allows businesses to take advantage of whatever connection option is available, and also helps to keep costs minimised by making more effective use of an organisation’s network. This might mean using satellite links only when necessary and then changing over to standard telephony facilities when the service is restored.A major consideration for a continuity plan is how employees can work out of the office if they are cut off from an office location or an office location can no longer be used. It is vital, in these cases, that employees are able to establish a useable connection from home or other remote locations. The ability to rapidly gather, analyse and disseminate information and requests coming from a broad range of sources can also be critical.Having a softphone application available to staff enables them to work at any location with a web connection. This means employees can work from home, web cafes and third party offices. Another consideration is having software which seamlessly provides the ability to manage phone calls from your mobile phone, including accessing unified messaging. This means employees can manage calls while not being restricted to a desk environment. Something as basic as the ability to conduct conference calls with dozens of parties on the line can prove extremely valuable. Having in-house conferencing capabilities provides the ability for businesses to run team calls to disseminate information amongst employees and also serves as a meeting space for leaders to determine next steps in its disaster recovery plan.Organisations which rely on a contact centre should ensure that they are not location restricted. Home agent solutions make it possible to provide differentiated customer service anytime, and from anywhere – which means if agents cannot get to the office they can still work from another location. Using a home PC with internet connection and company VPN access, agents enter their remote location telephone number into a thin client application accessed via a URL. After logging in using their Agent ID, agents can access phone controls such as transfer, conference and hold, along with contact-centre-specific controls such as login/logout and ready/not ready. The status of an offsite agent can appear on all real-time displays and historical reports to provide management visibility into agent activities. Full contact recording capability can also be enabled for remote agents – meaning an organisation can continue with internal recording policies. There are a range of user configurable technology options which allow organisations to continue servicing their customers and doing business in times of crisis. This includes being able to answer calls, receive messages and collaborate with customers and staff anywhere, anytime, using any device. The most crucial element is that organisations have a communications contingency plan in place and the technologies available to support this plan. We can never know exactly what crisis we will need to face in the future, but having a plan, and investing ahead of time in the right technology solutions, means that the impact can be minimised.