The Waffle House Index - A Disaster Indicator

You get into some interesting conversations working in Disaster Recovery. It’s a lot of “what if” type scenarios obviously—questions come up around actions to take after the disaster. Another topic of conversation is how to potentially predict a disaster, usually in regards to weather, and how to measure the impact of a disaster immediately after its impact is felt. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) often has questions like these. One indicator they informally use is “The Waffle House Index,” here’s how it works.

Once an event has occurred in an area, FEMA starts to assess the impact on the community using supply chains that are in place and operating, utilities that are operating or in need of repair, home damage, etc. One thing FEMA noticed when entering these disaster zones was that Waffle House restaurants were often either open or the first to open post-disaster. They quickly learned that if the local Waffle House was closed, it was past time to have boots on the ground assisting the local population to survive. If the restaurant was open but serving a limited menu it showed that the effects were felt, but that local supply chains were operating as well as at least some utility services. Open Waffle Houses serving a full menu indicated an area had minor effects from the event.

In preparation for this type of post-disaster performance, Waffle House has become well prepared for Business Continuity. Waffle House leadership monitors areas affected by disasters via an unused conference room complete with large temporary monitors. They have teams of needed specialists stationed nearby consisting of carpenters, IT specialists, electricians, and food safety experts. They’ve created run books detailing what food items can be served without water, without gas, or without electricity. They’ve determined and documented a way to utilize grills to cook food when gas is unavailable. They communicate throughout the company to create “jump teams,” these teams consist of personnel willing to work in place of locals who may need to care for their families or repair their homes post-event. Waffle House examines their supply chain to determine when shipments are to arrive and from what area to decide if re-routing those deliveries is advantageous or possible. The amount of preparation and thought is commendable.

It’s also a great indicator of how to prepare and what to emulate regarding your own Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity plans. Within IT we can simulate a disaster via a Disaster Recovery Test which will give us reams of data to analyze to improve those responses and preparations. These tests also help us find the weak link in the chain of complex actions required to rebuild or repair IT infrastructures. Keep in mind that the best way to avoid a disaster is simply not to be there. If you’re asked to evacuate an area, please do. If you can migrate your IT into an environment such as the Azure cloud that will be unaffected by the chaos around you, this would also be the smart move. 

By: Jason Ledford

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