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Planning for the loss of one-fourth of your technology staff can be overwhelming unless you’ve already prepared for the temporary loss of so many people.

Indeed, Sabre, the company that revolutionized the travel industry with the development of electronic reservation and commerce services, has had a bunker mentality about security and disaster planning for almost two decades. In the mid-1980s, under consultant Max Hopper, the Texas-based company developed and built a secure bunker facility for its operations deep in the ground north of Tulsa. Among its design requirements: The ability to withstand a direct hit by a DC-10 jet, an aircraft that can hold as many as 380 passengers. (By contrast, the kinds of planes that struck on Sept. 11, Boeing 757s and 767s, hold anywhere from 190 to 270 passengers.)

The operations center was built with hijackings, terrorists and natural disasters in mind; the staff is highly trained, the facility secure, and communications systems among staff and offices a top priority. That makes it highly prepared, but still it might not be enough. Hopper notes there is no redundant backup center—what he calls a “hot spare.”

In a disaster of this magnitude, a company’s ability to survive depends in large part on how standardized its systems are. Outside resources will be required to help you recover, and if your systems are homegrown, getting the support you need will be difficult. Packaged systems and off-the-shelf software offer the advantage that more people know how to operate them.

“From a business continuity perspective, the more standardized you are, the easier it will be to resume business in the face of a major disaster or catastrophe,” says Ciber’s Scarpelli. “The more independent from the fold you have been, the more difficult it’s going to be. The same is true for people who stick to old technology too long.”

If keeping your business running is imperative at almost any cost, you can replicate or “mirror” your key people. Some, like Anna M. Bathon, business continuity manager with Bank of America, don’t think it’s feasible given the prohibitive costs of $100,000 or more per person.

BofA protects itself by hiring employees with similar skill sets at its different locations and using a buddy system in case of disaster. When crisis strikes, a buddy office becomes a backup for the crisis site and fills in for employees who can’t do their jobs—whether because they are injured, need to take care of loved ones, or must salvage their homes.

In some cases, companies in crisis will recruit a disaster expert to step in, particularly if they are without a plan.

Lloyd R. Smith, Jr., owner of Business and Government Continuity Services in Oklahoma City, was hired to help an unprepared client after the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in April 1995. The client, a quasi- government agency located in the Journal Record building across from the federal building, had taken Smith’s crash course in business continuity but hadn’t had time to draft its own plan.

“They were basically blown out of their building,” says Smith, who was six blocks from the explosion when it hit and called an immediate meeting with managers to help.

An eight-person team decided to head into the building to retrieve irreplaceable servers and crucial equipment. Then the staff was relocated to a nearby building with available space. It took three days to get the agency back up and running.

Or, businesses will build and maintain relationships with IT temporary-help agencies and consulting firms and begin to put a backup staffing plan into place through them.

CyberStaff America in New York has a database of 20,000 technology professionals created in anticipation of the Y2K computer glitch. It’s putting those names to use now to help staff up technology departments affected directly by the World Trade Center disaster, says CyberStaff partner Barbara Blair.

Rebuilding damaged infrastructure has superseded other tasks for her clients, she says. Maintenance and planning for the future are not as high a priority for those affected by the attacks.

It’s also possible for companies to share back-up facilities. A supplier of hosting services like Exodus could train members of its staff in the use of key software of multiple clients. That way, several client companies could split the costs of maintaining knowledgeable backup personnel—at one-third the cost of doing it themselves.