Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in September 2008, snuffed out electricity in several of Harris County, Texas' government office buildings. It could have disrupted county operations if employees couldn't work from home. Instead, thanks to the county's ability to telework using a remote-access network, critical services remained uninterrupted.
The county's main data center resides in downtown Houston, but it has a backup disaster-recovery site in an outlying area. The disaster-recovery site has its own server farm that kicks in if the downtown system fails.
"It ended up that the outlying areas took the biggest hit and the downtown area stayed intact," said James Hebert, division chief of the Harris County Information Technology Center. "The busiest remote usage happened after the storm, when everybody was unsure about the amount of damage to the area. People were accessing applications from their houses -- the people still with power, anyway."
The county used Citrix remote application delivery software to give employees access to the systems and information they needed to keep working. Hebert's staff chose to camp out at the downtown data center to respond onsite to remote access requests -- although they could have worked remotely if necessary.
"People brought their cots, sleeping bags, boxes of food, and we rode out the storm downtown," said Cliff Lawler, a local area network administrator for Harris County.
U.S. cities and counties vary on openness to telework. Harris County's experience shows the importance of counties having remote-access telework infrastructures in place, even if those tools are only used during emergencies.
Disaster-response preparation typically involves drills and hours of meetings before even the warning of a disaster. Harris County effectively ran the government remotely with on-the-fly training. It wasn't until the storm was nearly on top of the county that the IT staff began granting precautionary remote access to employees normally without it. The county continued spreading the privilege on an as-needed basis, frequently granting it midstorm. Workers simply called the municipality's IT help desk and requested access. Training employees to access the network remotely was a breeze, Lawler said.
"One thing that's nice about Citrix is it's very easy to use," Lawler said.
"For a disaster scenario, an event during which people are confused or dislocated, having an application they can log on to -- versus some new virtual private network we're trying to push out at the last minute and get people trained on -- was critical," Lawler said.
The easy enrollment proved especially useful for the Harris County Purchasing Agent, who supervises competitive bidding, said Pat Martin, computer systems administrator of that office.
"It's very easy," Martin reported. New users are notified by e-mail that they have access. "The notification includes a link to step-by-step instructions."
The system also made customizing access for each user easy. The applications an employee has authorization to use vary person to person.
"We can very quickly publish an application and then allow individuals or groups to access that application and that application only," Lawler said.
First responders come to mind initially when identifying types of county employees who need remote network access during emergencies. However, much of their work is stunted if employees who authorize purchases lack remote network access. The weekend before Hurricane Ike struck Harris County, emergency responders purchased preparation supplies. They couldn't buy those items without approval from the Harris County Purchasing Agent's office, which is closed on weekends. Using
the county's remote-access technology, a purchasing staffer approved the expenditures from home. He lived roughly 50 miles away, and driving to the office for network access would have stalled preparation for the whole county.
Food, water and shelter are essentials during emergencies. However, government employees might add e-mail to that list. E-mail access was the No. 1 remote functionality requested by Harris County employees during Hurricane Ike, according to Hebert. Some county veterans remember what it was like lacking remote network access during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
"The downtown area got flooded really badly," Martin recalled. "Employees had to drive to remote county buildings to get to a system with network flexibility."
Even in those situations, she said, employees often couldn't reach the remote county offices, forcing them to use phones. Telephone communications delay government functionality during disasters -- times when quick service turnaround is most essential. Anyone who has played "Telephone" knows how messages can get garbled as they travel through phone channels, especially when workers are accustomed to e-mailed instructions.
E-mails don't receive busy signals when the person is handling another matter, Martin added. And vendors are more likely to make delivery mistakes during emergency situations, making access to a paper trail essential when a truck delivers the wrong item.
E-mail's absence during an emergency can also create frustrating problems after the incident. Following a disaster, it's typical for every decision made during the event to be evaluated. An e-mail record can make that process simpler, more accurate and less reliant on verbal accounts.