Twisters and ice storms and flash floods, oh my!

November 1, 2018

This time of year, the trees of New England put on a spectacular color show as the cooler fall weather brings the annual turning of the leaves. Tourists affectionately known as “leaf peepers” come from around the country to view the stunning red, orange and gold foliage as a prelude to the holiday season.

But something tourists probably didn’t expect last week was a rash of tornadoes ripping through the Northeast region. At least three tornadoes touched down in three different New England states, leaving downed power lines, ripped off rooftops, fallen trees and shattered windows in their paths.

Freak catastrophes like this are one of the reasons Unitil, a public utility holding company with affiliates that serve approximately 105,000 electric customers and 81,300 natural gas customers in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, turned to Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS) for Business Continuity plans earlier this year.

Our goal was to gain a holistic view of the BC program across all Unitil business areas and to set priorities for next steps. We looked at several third-party consultants and Sungard AS was the one that stood out. They demonstrated both the business continuity and disaster recovery expertise we needed.

-Manager of Business Resiliency and Compliance, Unitil

Unitil LogoWhen a 2008 ice storm devastated the above-ground utility infrastructure across the U.S. northeast, it left millions without power. Like other New England utility companies, Unitil dealt with the extensive damage. Taking the lessons learned to heart, in 2009 the company established a dedicated team to focus exclusively on emergency management and business continuity as part of a multi-year plan.

The team’s first order of business was to reinvent the emergency response structure and culture across Unitil, establishing the storm roles that still exist for every employee today, reinforced by ongoing training and periodic drills and exercises.

As an electric and gas company charged with delivering 24/7/365 service, Unitil knew its business operations needed to be equally resilient. The team’s business continuity (BC) efforts focused primarily on critical process recovery, while addressing the growth, IT complexity and regulatory challenges common to many organizations.

“Unitil had grown through acquisitions, and we were managing BC plans for multiple operating companies and a mix of modern applications and legacy systems -- plus assuring compliance with three different state utility regulators,” says Jacklyn Ulban, Manager of Business Resiliency and Compliance at Unitil.

“In 2017, we were ready to bring in some external expertise to help us take the program to the next level,” she continued. “Our goal was to gain a holistic view of the BC program across all Unitil business areas and to set priorities for next steps. We looked at several third-party consultants and Sungard AS was the one that stood out. They demonstrated both the business continuity and disaster recovery expertise we needed.”

Assessing the program

Ulban worked closely with Sungard AS consultants to ensure the project scope aligned with specific Unitil objectives. Following a kickoff meeting with the Unitil leadership team, the consultants reviewed the existing BC program.

Through interviews and research into the company’s systems and processes, the consultants found a program that was running well, backed with a sophisticated SharePoint repository that housed BC plan templates and drove stakeholder collaboration. Further, they found that the program adhered to the requirements of the ISO 22301 standard for business continuity management systems.

Analyzing impact

Next, Sungard AS consultants conducted workshops with department leaders and key staff members across 19 business areas. The consultants applied a structured approach and proven methods to draw out critical information, then organized the results into two key documents: a Business Impact Analysis (BIA), and the initial drafts of the BC plans.

Plan development and refinement took place in early 2018, as each group of stakeholders reviewed their plans and worked with Ulban and Sungard AS to add and clarify content.

Test, test, test

Once all the BC plans were reviewed and updated, it was time to test and validate business recovery strategies and capabilities. Ulban and Sungard AS designed a disruptive incident that would impact as many departments as possible.

The test scenario centered on an early-morning fire that would affect two areas in Unitil’s Hampton, NH headquarters building—which also housed the primary data center. Employees arriving to work could not enter the building, due to the prospective smoke and water damage that would leave both business and IT operations out of commission for two to four weeks.

With their BC plans in hand, process owners worked together to address issues presented in the exercise. IT could follow its plans to bring up critical applications in the Concord, NH recovery data center 50 miles away. And Unitil’s observers and the Sungard AS team monitored the interaction and logged nine key observations that led to follow-up actions and modifications.

The final result

Through its work with Sungard AS, Unitil gained BC plans for 19 business units and a DR plan for IT operations, each essential to achieving its overarching goal—to encompass all the discrete BC deliverables into a holistic, companywide business resilience mission.

“Business continuity is never that important until you need it, and I’m well aware that people have competing priorities and tend to put BC on the back burner,” said Ulban. “For Unitil, having a culture of people working through emergencies means that people are able to jump out of their normal job and embrace something different—and that’s exactly what they did to make this BC project successful.”

Learn more about Unitil’s Business Continuity planning engagement with Sungard AS here. And if you’re in Unitil’s coverage area, the next time a severe weather alert triggers an alarm, rest assured that Unitil – and Sungard AS – have your back.

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