Operations

When The System Falls Down On You

Jim Luff
Posted on November 11, 2016

We have become a technology driven society. The common tools we use in business, from computers to phones, have made us depend on electronics more than ever before.

For all the benefits computers and phones offer a 24/7 transportation company, when they fail, you face one of the toughest challenges for an operator. If you don’t have backup plans, the fallout will only worsen. Hurricane Matthew just underscored this in early October. Let’s examine how you can create a plan to back up information, technology, and operations.

What Could Go Wrong?

Here are the three major considerations for failure: Electricity, computer systems, and phones. Take just one and your business will be severely crippled. Other disrupters include external events, such as urban riots and unrest, an extreme blizzard, a terrorist attack, or any number of natural or man-made disasters. You can’t control any of these events, so plan for the worst to minimize client hassles.

Power Out

Electricity failures are by far the most damaging. They take down your phone, computer systems, and HVAC systems, and cut the lighting. Two years ago, Chris Vecchio, owner of ChiTown Party Bus in Chicago, endured a storm-related nightmare. The rainstorm knocked out power and his phones.  The power utility estimated a five-to-seven-hour repair time. With 10 afternoon weddings and 40 evening trips on the books, Veccchio got creative.

For the next six hours, Vecchio’s car became a mobile command center for himself and three other staffers. Using a power inverter to provide juice and set up a hotspot connection with his cell phone, a laptop connected their cloud-based software. They could use Kinko’s (which had power) to print trip sheets. Working from the car, dispatchers could handle incoming calls forwarded to a cell phone and make confirmation calls to clients and chauffeurs.

Barry Gross, Reston’s business development manager, says the company has installed a natural gas powered generator that automatically kicks in when the power fails.
Barry Gross, Reston’s business development manager, says the company has installed a natural gas powered generator that automatically kicks in when the power fails.
Contingency Plans

Using an inverter for power from a vehicle is a cheap way to stay up and running and may work for a small to midsize operator, but not a large fleet company such as Reston Limousine, which serves the Washington, D.C. metro area with more than 200 rides per day.

Barry Gross, Reston’s business development manager, says the company has installed a natural gas powered generator that automatically kicks in when the power fails. There are gasoline, diesel and natural gas-powered generators, with the latter being the most reliable. If there is a massive power outage, gas stations will be unable to pump gas, but natural gas is piped in by the local gas or utility company. 

Along with generators, computer experts recommend every critical computer is plugged into a UPS system (Uninterruptable Power Supply) producing a minimum of 750 volts. This will keep your computers running for 15-60 minutes while you switch to a generator and will also prevent a jolt of electricity from damaging your computer when power is restored.

Computer Failures

Computer shutdowns can be broken down into two parts: Data loss and hardware failures. A hardware failure might create a temporary lack of access to data, where an actual true data loss would be catastrophic without a recent backup. Despite cloud-based software companies touting redundant servers in multiple cities, many in the industry recently learned a glitch from a major industry software provider denied many operators access to their data in the cloud.

Dianna Zanglin, owner of Cleveland Taxi Limo, was one affected customer who panicked upon realizing the problem. “I was unable to see current reservations, book future reservations or share trip assignments with drivers,” Zanglin said. This is one reason Gross says Reston Limousine backs up every reservation to paper. 

In 2014, Chicago operator Chris Vecchio used his car for six hours as a mobile command center for himself and three other staffers during a fierce rainstorm.
In 2014, Chicago operator Chris Vecchio used his car for six hours as a mobile command center for himself and three other staffers during a fierce rainstorm.
Computer Contingency Plans

Your contingency plans for a computer failure will depend upon whether you use a cloud-based system or store your reservations on an in-house server. Cloud-based systems are the most reliable and trusted types of systems, as you can access them from anywhere using multiple devices in most cases. However, we now know they are not immune to widespread failures.

If you use an in-house system, you should strongly consider installing a “mirror disk,” says Trent Maas, owner of TM Systems, a California-based hardware company.

With disk mirroring, every change you make on your server’s primary hard drive is updated to a second hard drive as a “mirrored image.” If your primary drive fails, the data is still on the mirrored image drive typically inside the same computer as the primary drive.

However, this same principle can be used with an external drive that could be plugged into a computer at another offsite location. You also must have the reservations software loaded on the offsite computer and will probably need tech support to redirect where the program looks for the data, but you will be back in business shortly.

Offsite Data Backup

If your server is stolen during a break-in or you have a catastrophic flood or fire, your best protection against losing your data is an offsite back-up system. Many companies and pricing plans give you infinite storage capability and peace of mind. In a catastrophe, all your data would be safe and sound in the cloud, including documents, accounting systems, artwork and all the other pieces of business material kept on your server.

There are gasoline, diesel and natural gas powered generators, with the latter being the most reliable.
There are gasoline, diesel and natural gas powered generators, with the latter being the most reliable.
Telephone System Failures

Our phone systems are our lifelines. Without them, we are unable to conduct business in the way our clients expect. This includes answering the phone in a few rings and relaying vital information to clients and staff alike. Make sure each phone that requires electricity is also plugged into a UPS. When the power fails, the phones stay operating long enough for you to reroute incoming calls to another phone number or system. Advanced products from phone line providers and VoIP phone systems have made phone system failures one of the easiest to recover from.

Phone Backup Plans

The simplest way for a small- to medium-size operator to recover from a phone failure is to subscribe to a service called Remote Call Forwarding. This service is free with most local service or may have a nominal fee of less than $5 per month. Using this service, you dial a 7-digit number and follow the prompts to specify what phone number you want to have rerouted (it is pass code protected) and what number you want them to go to now. If you receive many calls, you can create a greeting that explains your temporary situation and prompts the caller to leave a name and number for an immediate call back. Return the calls using another cell phone.

Tech Terms To Remember
  • Power Inverter: An electronic device that changes direct current (DC), such as a car battery, into alternating current (AC). The input voltage, output voltage and frequency, and overall power handling depend on the design of the specific device. These usually plug into the cigarette lighter or accessory receptacle of a vehicle.
  • Hotspot: For users of portable computers equipped for wireless, a hot spot (or hotspot) provides an Internet connection. For example, a business traveler with a laptop equipped for Wi-Fi can look for a hotspot, contact it, and get connected through its network to reach the Internet with a secure connection. Increasingly, public places, such as airports, hotels, and coffee shops are providing free wireless access for customers. Cell phones (if equipped with a plan) can also be used to implement a hotspot for other devices around it to use such as tablets.
  • Generator: An engine that produces electricity. They are available in many sizes from small versions you can carry and move where you need it to mid-size units mounted on wheels and full-size mounted units the size of a small car. The larger the generator, the more power they can generate. A full-size backup generator lets you continue using appliances, lights and HVAC systems during a blackout. Smaller generators have four to eight receptacles for plugging in only computers and phone systems, and smaller items such as a fan.
  • UPS System: An uninterruptible power supply, or an uninterruptible power source. UPS or battery back-up is an electrical apparatus that provides emergency power to equipment plugged into it when the main power fails. It is seamless. Depending on the size of the UPS and the load you are putting on it, equipment can remain up and running for 15 minutes to an hour.
  • Offsite Backup: A method of computer data backup involving the use of an offsite location/company as a means of securing the data in a disaster. Offsite backup providers offer many choices and pricing plans in what data is backed up and how frequently, and can be set to perform the backups automatically. Plans start as little as $15 a month.

Related Topics: cloud computing, data backup, disasters, How To, weather

Jim Luff Contributing Editor
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