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Getting through: Using e-mail and IM in a disaster

Member Grant Stephens explains the importance of a secure, available and well-planned communications strategy during crisis.

Standard communication methods can fail during natural and man-made events. However, as recent events have shown, alternatives such as e-mail, two-way paging and instant messaging can help get your messages through.

Many communications methods can fail during a disaster: Landline telephone-and therefore fax-service may be interrupted; wireless transmitters may be destroyed; data lines may be disrupted. Communication is, of course, critical during a disaster, and enterprises must therefore employ every available communications path.

One of the most important of these paths is the Internet. Although it relies to some extent on telecommunication facilities, the way messages are routed makes the continued functioning of the Internet less dependent on a single enterprise, carrier, or geographic area than other means of communication. Enterprises must therefore consider the Internet an integral -- not optional --business communications medium.

Internet-based means of communications -- e-mail, instant messaging (IM), and Web sites -- enable real-time or near-real-time information exchange when voice and fax communications have failed. For this reason, enterprises must be prepared to leverage these technologies in the event of an emergency.


Internet-based messaging systems take advantage of the flexible routing capabilities of TCP/IP, but the implementation may limit them. If the routing of a message requires access to, or passage through a single node, that node may become a single point of failure. The design of the implementation should take this problem into account and provide for possible outages at key routing points. Alternatives may include another path using the same medium (e.g., a shadow site that takes over during an outage) or another medium (e.g., IM in place of e-mail).

Just as physical facilities have fire drills, IT operations should have disaster drills to test backup systems and ensure that staff members understand their responsibilities in an emergency situation. All staff should be advised as to what procedures to follow in the event that systems fail.

  • what alternatives to try (and in what order)
  • how to communicate with one another
  • what communications are essential
  • what communications can be deferred to avoid further strain on resources

    At the outset of an emergency, the IS organization should quickly assess which systems and links are operational and, if necessary, reinforce the performance and capacity of each Internet-based system. Throughout the emergency, Internet systems should be continually monitored for degradation caused by service interruptions or traffic surges.

    If bandwidth becomes constrained, for example, nonessential applications should be taken offline for the duration of the emergency. If communication paths become flooded, nonessential communications should be limited so that critical communications are not compromised.

    Even highly secure communication needs can be met over an inherently insecure infrastructure, as long as measures are taken to encrypt or otherwise protect the content. If secure communication is essential, emergency plans should provide for encryption or encoding of communications via nonsecured channels.

    Business practices

    Enterprises must implement a strategy that will enable them to account for all personnel, whether on- or off-site, employing all available communication media. This strategy requires the integration of disparate message streams; administrative personnel and procedures must therefore employ special handling procedures to eliminate gaps or redundancies when the information is aggregated.

    Enterprises should also expect to be called on to provide relay services and to act as communication-forwarding points for people -- personnel and their loved ones, emergency personnel, even complete strangers who may be in need of assistance.

    Many enterprises have communities of users who communicate via one or more of the most popular consumer IM systems, like AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, or MSN Messenger. IM is often installed by users without the permission of their enterprises, which sometimes are uncomfortable with consumer-oriented IM due to its lack of manageability. Despite enterprise concerns, IM can provide an essential method of real-time Internet communications in the event of an emergency. Enterprises should collect employees' IM screen names for addition to corporate directories (though, like home telephone numbers, they do not need to be publicly viewable).

    Bottom line

    The Internet is a lifeline for business communications -- one that may continue to work when others do not. Enterprises must develop business and technology processes for integrating Internet and other communications systems so that lives and property can be protected in circumstances where reaction time is the ultimate luxury.

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