How do you create a disaster recovery plan for an organization?

What is a disaster recovery plan?

A disaster recovery plan is a documented process for how an organization will recover and restore partially or completely interrupted critical functions after a disaster or emergency situation. The purpose of a disaster recovery plan is to minimize disruption of mission-critical services and activities should a disaster occur.

An effective disaster recovery plan should identify the potential impacts that threatened business operations and provide a framework for building organizational resilience and recovering from disruption. It is an integral part of an organization’s business continuity strategy. A disaster recovery plan outlines the response procedures, resources, activities and timeframes required to stabilize critical business functions and infrastructure after a disruption.

Why is a disaster recovery plan important for an organization?

A disaster recovery plan is vital for safeguarding an organization against unexpected catastrophic events. Here are some key reasons why having a robust and tested disaster recovery plan is crucial:

– Minimizes downtime – A disaster recovery plan helps resume operations and recover data quickly, minimizing productivity losses. Organizations can continue serving customers with minimal downtime.

– Ensures compliance – Regulatory mandates like HIPAA require organizations to have disaster recovery and business continuity plans. A documented disaster recovery plan helps demonstrate compliance.

– Reduces financial losses – Timely recovery helps minimize revenue losses, insurance claims, regulatory fines and failure to meet contractual obligations.

– Protects reputation – Effective business continuity planning strengthens stakeholder confidence and demonstrates organizational resilience.

– Provides a framework for response – A plan with documented procedures creates clarity on roles, responsibilities and steps to manage disasters.

– Identifies risks – Business impact analysis during planning can reveal vulnerabilities and risks to critical IT systems and business functions.

– Ensures faster ROI on recovery investments – A plan helps identify and prioritize key systems and resources for recovery, ensuring funds are used optimally.

How to create a disaster recovery plan?

Here are the key steps involved in creating a comprehensive disaster recovery plan:

1. Gain executive support

Secure buy-in from senior management and executives for developing a disaster recovery plan. Planning and maintenance of the program requires allocation of budget and resources. Management sponsorship sends a clear message that business continuity is a priority.

2. Form a planning committee

Identify a disaster recovery planning team representing multiple departments, including leaders from operations, IT, finance, facilities, communications and risk management. The planning committee will coordinate development of disaster recovery strategies across the various business units.

3. Identify critical systems and processes

Conduct a business impact analysis to identify time-sensitive, mission-critical systems and processes. These are the functions with high recovery time objectives that should be restored quickly after a disaster. Assess impacts and estimated damages from potential loss of these systems.

4. Define recovery objectives

Define recovery time objectives (RTO) – the duration within which a business function must be restored after a disaster to avoid unacceptable losses. Also define recovery point objectives (RPO) – the maximum data loss organization can endure during a disruption.

5. Document recovery procedures

Specify step-by-step actions to be taken during response and recovery for various disaster scenarios based on risk assessment. Define roles and responsibilities for task teams. Include internal and external communications procedures.

6. Select recovery strategies

Choose suitable recovery strategies based on critical needs and RTOs. Options include redundant infrastructure, cold sites, hot sites, mobile recovery, outsourced services and cloud solutions.

7. Integrate with incident response

Align disaster recovery plan with the organization’s incident response framework for quickly detecting, responding to and limiting impact of a disaster scenario. Integrate emergency response procedures for workplace evacuations, medical emergencies etc.

8. Document vital records & systems

Identify, maintain and protect electronic and hardcopy documents, databases, vital records and IT systems needed to support critical operations during a crisis. Keep backups at accessible, secure offsite locations.

9. Secure executive approval

Review the disaster recovery plan with senior management and obtain executive sign-off. The disaster recovery planning committee may revise the plan based on leadership feedback.

10. Distribute recovery procedures

Provide accessible copies of recovery procedures to teams responsible for maintaining critical operations during an emergency. Share relevant aspects of the plan with stakeholders like suppliers and customers as appropriate.

11. Conduct awareness training

Conduct orientation and mock training exercises to prepare teams on executing disaster recovery procedures effectively. Periodic training ensures staff, contractors and service providers are aware of their continuity responsibilities.

12. Review and update regularly

Review and revise the disaster recovery plan at least annually, when major changes occur in the organization or after each exercise or actual disaster recovery scenario. Keep contact lists current and verify recovery systems.

Key elements to include in a disaster recovery plan

Here are some of the most important components to address within a comprehensive disaster recovery plan:

Emergency procedures

– Evacuation routes and exit procedures
– Designated assembly areas
– Staff accounting following an evacuation
– Medical assistance contact details
– Data center / server room emergency procedures

Incident response plan

– Notification procedures
– Mechanisms for assessing and declaring an emergency
– Process for activating recovery plan
– Integration with public emergency services

Contact lists

– Recovery teams and key internal resources
– Vendors, suppliers and external service providers
– Local emergency services

Offsite data backups

– Types of data backups maintained (full, differential, incremental)
– Supported applications / systems
– Frequency of backups
– Storage locations
– Encryption used
– Offsite transportation

IT disaster recovery procedures

– Systems recovery priority
– Recovery time objectives
– Detailed recovery steps
– Restoration sequence
– Teams responsible for recovery

Business function procedures

– Operational procedures during recovery
– Recovery time objectives
– Manual workarounds
– Restoration sequence
– Department-specific procedures

Alternative facilities

– Details on hot sites, cold sites, failover facilities
– Locations
– Activation procedures
– Space and equipment available
– How data/systems will be recovered

Vendor agreements

– Contracts with vendors supporting disaster recovery
– Scoping of services provided
– Costs
– Response & restoration times
– Single point of contact

Communications plan

– Crisis communications team roles
– Pre-approved key messages for stakeholders
– Media spokesperson designation
– Procedures for status updates to staff
– Communication methods if systems are down

Table: Example disaster recovery plan timeline

Phase Timeframe Actions
Activation & Assessment 0 – 24 hours Assess damage, invoke recovery plans, mobilize teams, secure facilities
Reactive Procedures 24 – 72 hours Restore critical systems from backups, activate alternative sites, operate in manual mode
Restoration 3 – 7 days Repair damage, reopen facilities, restore IT systems, repatriate staff
Return to Normal 1 – 4 weeks Resume normal operations, validate recovered systems, analyze response, incorporate lessons learned

Planning and preparedness tips

Follow these best practices when developing your organization’s disaster recovery plan:

– Involve representatives from across departments in planning. Seek input on different perspectives.

– Integrate plans with business continuity programs for greater resilience.

– Define RTOs based on business needs rather than arbitrary time durations.

– Secure senior management approval and support.

– Align strategies used for high, medium and low criticality systems.

– Store backups far enough to avoid the same disaster, but near enough for timely recovery.

– Document detailed steps for systems restore in the correct order.

– Include emergency response procedures relevant to facilities.

– Review service level agreements (SLAs) for outsourced services that support recovery.

– Test failover to alternate sites, don’t just contractually assume availability.

– Define scenarios for partial and full-scale testing. Vary types of disasters simulated.

– Test technical aspects as well as end-user procedures.

– Analyze gaps revealed during tests, perform remedial action items.

– Conduct refresher orientation for new hires. Review plan with staff periodically.

Pitfalls to avoid

Steer clear of these common pitfalls when developing your disaster recovery plan:

– Lack of executive sponsorship resulting in inadequate scope, resources or compliance.

– Unclear delineation of roles causing confusion during actual response.

– Focus only on IT, without addressing recovery of critical business functions.

– Not considering disruptions to vendors and suppliers in your supply chain.

– Failure to integrate plans with the organization’s broader emergency response framework.

– Neglecting cyber incidents in planning; only basic environmental / infrastructure failures considered.

– Not reviewing contractual agreements with vendors who enable recovery strategies.

– Declaring DR maturity without rigorous testing of plan. Testing only individual components in isolation.

– Outdated plan that isn’t reviewed regularly and doesn’t reflect major business changes.

– Unnecessary complexity introducing confusion during chaotic conditions post-disaster.

– Lack of coordination with public authorities and first responders.

Maintaining and improving the disaster recovery program

Regular maintenance is key to keeping your disaster recovery plan effective as your organization evolves. Follow these tips:

– Review and update the disaster recovery plan at least once annually.

– Incorporate lessons learned from each exercise and real incidents.

– Refresh training and education for staff on recovery procedures.

– Assess new risks like emerging cyber threats, pandemics, insider risks.

– Validate alternate processing sites, recovery systems and vital records annually.

– Periodically check you can meet defined recovery time objectives.

– Update contact lists in the plan quarterly.

– Include business recovery requirements in contracts with service providers.

– Align plan with company growth, new technology or site expansions.

– Audit plan against industry standards like ISO 22301 or NFPA 1600.

– Report on disaster recovery program effectiveness metrics to management.

– Budget for continuous improvement of recovery capabilities.


A comprehensive, maintainable disaster recovery plan is essential for organizational resilience. By following structured steps for developing and implementing a plan, while avoiding common pitfalls, organizations can minimize disruptions and recover critical operations rapidly after disaster strikes. To keep the disaster recovery program effective, organizations need to embed business continuity aspects through training, testing and continuous improvement.