Thursday, 25 August 2011 17:56

Tales of two earthquakes


Would you and your organisation be ready to cope with a disaster on the scale of this year's Japan and New Zealand earthquakes?

Attendees at the Genesys G-Force 2011 conference in Melbourne today heard two very different presentations about coping with earthquakes.

First up was Atsushi Oharo, manager of mobile operator NTT Docomo's information systems department. In the past, the company operated separate CTI (computer telephony integration) systems in its ten contact centres around the country, but in 2009 began implementing a Genesys-based platform based in Tokyo with dedicated network links to other sites.

When the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, the company lost over 5000 base stations, some of its shops were destroyed, and the second floor of one call centre collapsed. 4000 workers were mobilised into the area, and all services were restored by April 26.

Contact centre capability was re-established more quickly. Within three hours, the IVR (interactive voice response) system had been updated to route incoming calls from the affected area to a backup site, and over the next days calls were also distributed to the company's other contact centres, Within a week, 70 seats were back in action at the centre directly affected by the disaster.

Mr Oharo said that the effects of the earthquake were worse than NTT Docomo's plans had allowed for, but the platform's performance after the disaster exceeded expectations.

The company has achieved greater geographic redundancy with a second centre located in Osaka with 100% failover capacity and complete recovery within 24 hours. It has also installed greater generator capacity at its sites.

Page 2: The Christchurch experience

Later in the morning, Tony Sumner, contact centre manager at New Zealand's Meridian Energy took to the stage, giving a harrowing account of the February 11 earthquake in Christchurch, where the company has an 85-seat call centre.

The first actions were to evacuate the building and account for all the people. Fortunately, there were only two injuries, one of which was the result of tripping during the evacuation.

Next, Meridian diverted incoming calls to its after-hours providers by dialling into the IVR system from a mobile phone (although it turned out that one of those providers was also in the affected part of Christchurch), organised car shuttles to get employees home (people weren't allowed back into the building to get their car keys, etc), and arranged for appropriate messaging to customers. The company had previously distributed transistor radios to all customers for use during major outages, and the civil defence authorities were passing on information from utility companies.

In the immediate aftermath, Meridian kept in contact with its staff by setting up a freecall number they could use to get daily updates, establishing a Facebook group, holding team conference calls. It also visited employees' homes if they needed practical help or if they hadn't been heard from.

Meridian had a disaster recovery site in Wellington with 25 people (more accurately, 25 FTEs - full-time equivalents), and the generation control site at Twizel had another 10. Within 10 days, the contact centre capacity was back to 80% of normal, though a shortage of desks meant that "[people in] support roles perched wherever they could." Portacabins were used for additional accommodation, which was acceptable until winter set in. A converted garage was used to give another 24 people a place to work.

In general, staff "just got on with it," said Mr Sumner.

Are your plans too narrow? Please read on.

The use of Genesys IVR simplified the use of outside providers, and skill-based routing meant calls could be delivered to the right person, regardless of their geographical location.

Mr Sumner said the earthquake showed that Meridian's business continuity plan was too narrow, and didn't allow for a disaster of that scale. It is also important to keep plans up to date, and to rehearse them at intervals (a rehearsal was scheduled for the week after the earthquake).

"The fundamental for me was good strong leadership," he said. In a crisis, "80% of people freeze," so organisations need to set clear expectations for leaders' behaviour at such times. "Pockets of decision-making are really counterproductive," so it is important that everyone knows who is in charge.

Disaster recovery isn't just about processes, he said, it's about dealing with your team and making a general contribution to the situation.

Team resilience is another important aspect of the recovery process, he suggested. Different people will cope with the stress in different ways and in different timeframes. It's important to have a plan, to give people the opportunity to recharge their internal resources, and to give them an opportunity to tell their own story of the event, he said.

Mr Sumner also pointed out the need for personal preparation for disasters, including making a family plan, knowing how you will get home (which may involve keeping a pair of walking shoes at work), and keeping at least three days supply of food and heating on hand.

Meridian has also distributed 'at work kits' containing a radio, protective clothing (including heavy gloves for handling debris), a copy of the disaster plan, water, and a satellite phone.



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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.



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