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Averting An IT Disaster

October 31, 2005

© 2005 by Gary R. Messmer, all rights reserved
Lead Network Engineer, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from NACBA Ledger

In light of recent events many stories and articles are circulating about the need for disaster preparedness.  Many of us are in areas prone to at least one form of natural disaster.  What are the facts?  How do we prepare?  Possibly the hardest question to answer— what will it cost?

Church computer systems have become essential tools.  The first time your systems are down will drive home the point.  But what would happen in the event of a disaster?  Businesses take extreme and expensive measures to ensure they continue operating in the event of a disaster— even to the extent of renting or building duplicate data centers in different parts of the country!  While this is not practical for churches, there are some best practice measures you can take.

Identifying Causes
In August 2001 FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) gathered various experts to identify and discuss the greatest disaster threats to our nation.  The top three were 1) a terrorist attack in New York City, 2) a Category 5 hurricane hitting on or about the New Orleans area, and 3) a 7.0 or stronger earthquake on the San Andreas fault in California.  Sadly, two of those three have occurred and, according to the experts, it’s only a matter of time for the third.

While you may not be in one of those areas, consider your geographic location and the most likely disasters that could occur.  For example, folks on the West Coast may face earthquakes, those on the East and Gulf Coasts are threatened with hurricanes, and some are in a flood plain.  (FEMA has a database of potential “natural” disasters with an interactive map at  Remember that statistically most disasters are caused by fires, so don’t overlook that cause.)

Making a Plan
Once you’ve identified your potential disasters, create a written plan.  It should include:

  • A contact list identifying multiple ways of reaching key people such as managers, employees, and vendors;
  • Detailed descriptions, including location, of IT equipment; and
  • A list of all current software and its purpose.

Those on the contact list should be involved in the preparedness planning because everyone who would play a role when disaster strikes will have valuable input.  Cross training in the event one person is not available will provide better flexibility and help ensure the success of your plan.

Set Priorities
A sensible practice is to prioritize each operational and ministry area, setting its true requirements.  This will answer the question, “How fast does it need to recover and how much are we willing to spend to make that happen?”  Consider assigning different values, or levels:

  • Level 1 for highest priority— those systems that must be restored as fast as possible (or that we would never want to be unavailable),
  • Level 2 might be those systems that must be restored within 1-2 days, and
  • Level 3 might be those systems that can take a week or longer.

Many ministries can survive for a few days without computers, so restoring IT services may not be a Level 1 priority for everyone.  Bringing back your essential services first will help to restore a sense of normality.  And to do that, you’ll need plans with priorities.

Safeguard Your Data
Full system backups with a copy kept offsite is smart planning.  Data backups are essential to recover from any disaster.  Computer hardware can all be replaced, but your data is irreplaceable.  Your backup is only as good as the data you can restore from it, so make certain it’s working as needed before it is needed by doing monthly testing.

Consider keeping a copy of your data in another part of the country!  Geographical separation can make a big difference.  If the ministry and the offsite backups are just a few miles apart, it may not be enough to survive a calamity.  A smarter solution is to have copies of your most important data in an entirely different part of the country.  Contact your IT vendor to see if they provide offsite backup services.

Review Your Insurance
Assuming everything is covered no matter what may occur can leave you stranded without the funds necessary to replace damaged equipment.  Contact your insurance carrier and thoroughly review what IS NOT covered.  It’s too late to change the policy once a disaster occurs.  Areas that are prone to flooding or earthquakes sometimes require additional polices or riders.  A part of the planning process is to assess the likelihood of risk, bear that part which is affordable, and insure the balance.

Test Your Plan
Test your disaster survival plan at least annually.  Each time you test it, throw in a different wrinkle.  For example, what if cell phones were out?  Each time you test your plan amend it with up to date lists and whatever you learned.

Quick Tips From The Experts

  • Your most important IT equipment should be on dedicated grounded electrical circuits.  Never let a server, for example, share an electrical circuit with air conditioners, refrigerators, photocopiers, and other high power machines.
  • Use a good UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to keep critical IT equipment running for short periods and allow for graceful shutdowns once their batteries are depleted.  UPSs are also valuable under normal circumstances to provide clean, level electrical power.  If your ministry has greater needs, a standby generator may be required.
  • Maintain a current inventory of your computer and networking equipment and the software titles.  If it’s all destroyed you’ll need to know what to replace!
  • Make sure you have a reliable data backup.  Hardware can be replaced but your data is invaluable.  Use industry standard devices and software.  If you need to restore after a disaster, standard hardware and software are easier to find and acquire.
  • Do a ‘test’ restore to guarantee your backup reliability.  Remember to change what data your test restores each month.
  • Backups are great, but if they get destroyed in the same disaster they’re worthless.  Take at least one copy— better an entire week of backups— home.  Rotate these so your offsite copies stay current.
  • Take your disaster survival plan to the next level and store critical data in a remote location— preferably a different geographical region of the country.  Storing data in a completely different geographic region can make all the difference in surviving a disaster.   Check with your IT vendor to see if they provide this service.

Possibly the most important factor that will see you through a disaster is not how well prepared you are— it’s how well you react.  Trust in God.  Don’t panic.  Implement the plans you’ve made and, to the best of your ability, go about your business.

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