Our blog post this week comes direct from a business from Fort McMurray, Flett Manning Moore Barristers & Solicitors, that has been sharing our office after being displaced by the #YMM wildfire. We are humbled to help and wanted to dedicate this week’s post to them and share their story.
On May 3rd, 2016, a mass evacuation was ordered for the residents of Fort McMurray. A state of emergency was declared and it became the largest mass evacuation in Alberta’s history. Through the next few days, the internet was flooded with videos and pictures of horrific imagery showing the highway escape routes washed in flames.
Today is one month after this mass evacuation that has seen 80,000 people and their businesses displaced.
As part of the massive outpouring of support from Edmonton businesses, CompuVision put out a call to displaced Fort McMurray businesses that were coming to Edmonton, offering help with their technical services, office space and resources. Here is one of their stories.
“I had so many people congratulating me on Facebook today,” says Chandra Flett, one of law firm Flett Manning Moore’s three partners, “They are writing on my page that I must be going home. The news has been telling people we are going back, but this is the farthest thing from the truth. You can’t bring children, you can’t bring anyone with respiratory issues and adjusters have to get into most business and residential properties first – it’s just not that straight forward.”
It truly has not been that straight forward. As a displaced business, Flett Manning Moore is working at a quarter of the capacity it was before the fire.
“We are spread out. Some of our staff are here in Edmonton, others all over the country,” said Chandra, “and for those of us who are here, we are learning how much we relied on the resources available to us. Childcare for example has been a huge hurdle. It’s nearly impossible to take phone calls or address emails when you have your kids screaming in the background. I am lucky that mine are now in school for at least part of the day but my other two partners have children who are not of school age. It is not easy for them to have the time or ability to access work files or meet. We are all just trying to make it work.”
Aside from basic challenges of housing and childcare, their access to the firm documentation has also been an issue, and is precisely how CompuVision ended up meeting them and sharing our offices with them. Like many businesses, their IT infrastructure was built around a physical server located in their physical location. They did take the important step of maintaining an offsite backup, housed on a physical hard drive stored at the home of one of the law partners elsewhere in Fort McMurray. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a full business continuity plan in place, so when the evacuation occurred, despite grabbing all they thought would be required to run backups and access the server, it turned out that as the fire continued to spread, power outages caused major issues accessing the physical server in the Fort McMurray business.
“Although we thought we had a great backup system, it was all tied to the one server. Once the power had difficulties in Fort McMurray, we actually had to have someone get approval from the Municipality to go in and reset things. Then after more power issues we needed to have them physically go get the server to have it running here for us at CompuVision,” said Chandra, “We were lucky our building didn’t burn to the ground. However because our offices are right downtown, the environmental damages, such as smoke and ash, will probably be devastating to paper files and those things that we hadn’t moved to digital or have backed up on the server.”
As a lot of businesses in Fort McMurray are realizing, hindsight is 20/20. With no business continuity plan in place, this business was lucky that the physical location of their business didn’t burn to the ground because the server would have been lost along with it. Other businesses have not been so lucky.
“We had no idea that our back up device was just an external hard-drive. We thought we would be able to plug into it somehow and keep on working as everything was backed up” said Chandra.
So what would they do differently now having lived through this nightmare, in terms of their technology in their business?
“Moving our server to the cloud is a definite priority now,” said Chandra, “and making sure we scan documents as we get them so they live digitally. Before this, in a real estate deal we would scan all the files once a deal was closed. This will no longer be the case moving forward.”
This highlights one key advantage of cloud computing over more traditional server and hard drive backup solutions: the built-in redundancy of the cloud. While cloud computing is still grounded in physical infrastructure somewhere, it is on a massive scale and distributed across multiple geographic locations. Depending on the industry, once based in the cloud, a business might only need a browser and access to the internet and they could be up and running with all their digital files accessible, anytime, anywhere, on any device. Whether because of fire or flood (knock wood), you find yourself with only your smartphone? No problem, your files are there and you can keep working.
Fortunately for Flett Manning Moore, their server and backup did a lot of what they were designed to do. They were able to move two items and restore the bulk of their files, which they could not have done if they had needed to move a room full of filing cabinets and paper files. But because of the severity of the emergency they faced, it took unexpected time and effort to restore fully. Now, as all businesses should do periodically, they need to review and reevaluate the risks to their future business continuity, and make sure a solid plan is in place. What are the risks your business could face and how likely are they to happen? And if something did happen, how long could your business run without its critical systems?
So what now?
“Not knowing where all staff are at this point and not knowing when the law firm will be safe again to house those staff, it’s hard to make a plan moving forward,” said Pam Martin, legal assistant. “The not-knowing is the biggest part.”
“There are so many steps still. You are dealing with saving receipts and writing down all the expenses, not only for my home life but for our business. You are running all over the city. I have put nearly 10,000 kms onto my vehicle just in this last month. It is unbelievable the disruption… the disruption to all the parts of your life,” said Chandra.
How long do you think it is going to be before you get back to the capacity you were in your business before the fire?
“Realistically, real estate is going to be hugely affected for the next couple of months. Getting our staff back in the office will be a challenge. The landlord of our building has to deal with their insurance adjuster… we have to deal with ours in order to ensure the office itself is safe to re-open. It will probably be a good two months, potentially more from the date of the wildfire, before we are physically in our building,” said Chandra.
Pam continues, “then we rely on the residents of Fort McMurray as our clients to pay us, so to get back to everything working and running exactly the way it was before the fire, we are probably looking at six months. It will be like opening a brand new business. We will be starting from square one.”
Chandra added, “the focus of many of our clients’ issues has also changed. We have certainly brushed up our knowledge of insurance law and landlord and tenant matters and attended information sessions ourselves. As a community we have to stick together and rebuild together.”
Chandra closes by saying “Our firm and staff would also like to relay a huge thanks to the emergency responders who selflessly risked their own lives to save our city and its people. We are also grateful for the incredible generosity, humanity and compassion displayed by individuals and businesses throughout Alberta and across Canada. If nothing else, this tragic wildfire has brought us all closer together. Fort McMurray has always been a strong hardworking community which will only become stronger as we rebuild our lives and community together. We can’t wait to be back.”