By Keith Ferrell

How secure is your business and its data when the power goes out? That's a question many small and midsize businesses may be asking themselves right now.

As I write this, tens of thousands of customers -- many of them small and midsize businesses -- are without electricity as result of ice storms sweeping through the center of the country.

Clearly, personal safety for you, your employees, and their families is the primary concern. It's not a bad idea to have emergency assistance plans in place -- do any of your employees have family members requiring uninterrupted electricity for medical reasons, for instance? Do they have emergency plans in place, and is there anything you and their fellow workers can do if need be?

As far as security at your business itself, power outages raise a couple of important but too often overlooked issues.

First -- what happens when the power comes back on, perhaps with a surge or several surges?

Obviously surge suppression and current filtering gear should be in place all the time. But for machines that don't have to be "always on" for business reasons -- and, frankly, that's most of them -- get in the habit of shutting down and unplugging them at day's end. It's not only a "better safe than sorry" approach, it's an energy-saver, and not a small one.

The second issue is trickier. No power not only means no Internet (for most of us, anyway) it also may mean no burglar or intruder alarms, no sprinkler systems and, for some, no smoke detectors. Some of this can be fixed right away: put in battery-powered smoke detectors (and check the batteries in the ones you already have in place.)

Likewise, that security monitoring system you pay for every month should offer -- and you should take advantage of -- backup systems to deal with electrical and phone outages. (Phone lines tend to go down alongside the power lines when the wires fall.) Bear in mind, of course, that in the midst of a widespread outage caused by an ice storm or other event, the first and emergency responders are going to have their hands full.

Thinking about power outages -- and by extension any disaster -- should be taken as an opportunity to review all of your disaster plans and preparations. A good disaster prep review is here.

While most power outages are unexpected -- check out what happened when San Francisco's IT district went darka couple of months ago -- there are some steps that you can take while the lights are on to better prepare you, and your data, for when it's not.

  • Daily Backups: Preferably offsite, and with luck, far enough offsite to remain powered when your power is out -- have been so fundamental to digital business for so long that we shouldn't have to be reminded of their importance. But disaster prep also calls for being realistic -- if you're not backing up daily, you're not alone. And you need to change your habits.

  • Power-down Prep: Key workstations, at the very least, should all be equipped with sufficient backup power to allow for a safe, orderly shutdown, including data backup.

  • Removability: When you have some warning that a large weather or natural disaster event is looming, take advantage of the lead time to remove drives and storage devices containing critical information. Make certain that the site you're removing them to is itself secure (even if the power is out) and includes a human presence (i.e., don't take the data home, then leave your home.)

  • Safes Save: Fireproof safes are another important and relatively small investment to protect material that you intend, or have to, leave at your business site. (Just don't leave the lock's combination on a Post-it on the back of the safe.)

The time to attend to all of these matters -- and others such as flooding in lowlands, fires in dry zones -- is before the outage or other interruption strikes. While you're not going to get notice for every event that could cut your power or other infrastructure, you are able to prepare for any of them by taking the time, the effort, working out a plan, and rehearsing that plan with your employees. Take a look at this guide to disaster recoveryfor a sense of some of the matters you'll be facing when the lights come back on.

And, if you and your employees have planned and executed well, those lights will come back on for your still-secure business.

Keith Ferrell is the author of a dozen books and countless magazine and newspaper articles. The editor of OMNI Magazine from 1990-1996, he also is a frequent speaker to corporate and institutional audiences.