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Trial by Fire

British Columbia credit unions' contingency plans were sorely tested this past summer as forest fires consumed 11,500 square kilometres of land by September.

British Columbia suffered its worst forest fire season in 60 years this past summer — a natural disaster that tested the resolve of communities and organizations across the province, including credit unions. For the first time in 14 years, the province declared a state of emergency and several BC credit unions and their communities were impacted.

One of the worst hit was the Williams Lake & District Credit Union (13,000 members and $250 million in assets), which saw two of its three branches — in Williams Lake and 100 Mile House — closed for days at a time as residents fled the flames with armfuls of belongings, some cash and plastic.

As members sought shelter in cities such as Kamloops, Prince George and other locations inside and outside of the province, they relied on the credit union to handle critical transactions such as cheque cashing and money transfers. Some members also sought extensions on mortgage and bill payments until life returned to relative normal.

“The main focus for us — since most of our members do their transactions electronically — was to keep those lines of communication open and help them in any way we could,” says Jim Zimmerman, CEO of Williams Lake & District.

Zimmerman is thankful for the support of the broader credit union community, as well as Williams Lake & District’s own business continuity plan, which helped members get through one of the most stressful periods of their lives.

Fire threatened power lines

Williams Lake & District was in good shape during the fires because the banking system that stores member account information is hosted by information technology and services company Celero Solutions in Calgary, with back up in Winnipeg. The credit union’s online banking system, MemberDirect Online Services, is hosted by Central 1 Credit Union in Vancouver with back up in Toronto. The connections between both were secure throughout the evacuation, which allowed members to continue using all card services and online banking, says Zimmerman.

The threat was around Williams Lake & District’s branches, given that its in-house main server room — which runs a number of applications including email and telephone banking — is in Williams Lake, about 500 kilometres north of Vancouver. The backup site is about 100 kilometres southeast in 100 Mile House. These communities were two of the hardest hit during the fire. “That’s where we really struggled,” Zimmerman says. “There were fires all around. The big threat was the power lines. What would happen if they go down?”

“In the future, our contingency plan will allow us to conduct all the back office administration from a remote location.” – Jim Zimmerman

As a contingency plan, Zimmerman says all managers shared their personal emails, which allowed them to continue to communicate if the servers went down. Celero and Central 1 worked with the credit union on a contingency plan, Zimmerman says, which included a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection that allowed staff from evacuated branches to connect remotely to the banking system from their laptops. “In some cases, the staff was evacuated from their home, living in their camper and connecting to the banking system to perform daily admin and member support functions,” he says.

Also under threat was Williams Lake & District’s third branch in Bella Coola, which was providing telephone support to members and some back-office administration that was normally done in Williams Lake, about 450 kilometres east.“Although our last open branch, Bella Coola, was not evacuated, all data and communication lines to the branch were under threat of being disabled by the fires,” Zimmerman says. In the end, despite a few short-term outages across its branches, communications continued. None of the branches was damaged by fire.

Continuity plan updated

With the benefit of hindsight, Williams Lake & District has updated its business continuity plan, which includes the possibility of all three branches being closed in an emergency. Zimmerman says the credit union is also looking into the cost of using cloud-based services for some of its operations. “The communication piece is the most critical,” says Zimmerman. “In the future, our contingency plan will allow us to conduct all the back office administration from a remote location.”

The latest fire season is a reminder that all credit unions should have a business continuity plan and update it regularly, says Chander Jethwani, operational risk and business continuity manager at Central 1. That plan should integrate with emergency management, disaster recovery and crisis communication and take into consideration both regional and local impacts, such as a fire at one branch or a disruption affecting multiple branches. “Credit unions play a very important role in their local communities with their operations, which is why it’s even more important for them to have an effective business continuity plan in place,” says Jethwani.

Having an updated emergency plan has been critical for Servus Credit Union (369,700 members, $14.8 billion in assets), which experienced flooding in Calgary and High River, Alta in 2013 as well as the massive 2016 fire in Fort McMurray.

In Fort McMurray, Servus relied on its plan to support its 6,300 members and 26 staff, many of whom were among the 80,000 people forced to flee as flames engulfed the city. With employees, Servus was able to get in touch with each employee within six hours to ensure they were safe, had some extra cash on hand and let them know their pay cheques would still come.

To help members, Servus beefed up resources in its call centre to handle the rush of incoming calls and requests. “It’s really anticipating what the members’ needs are,” says Patrick Quesnel, senior vice-president of Human Resources and Corporate Services at Servus. Communication and access to online banking also became critical, Quesnel says, since members didn’t just evacuate to the nearest safe town or branch but also to cities as far away as Edmonton. Some even went to Newfoundland and Labrador. “We had to makes sure we could service them through the contact centre and electronic means, such as online banking,” says Quesnel.

Planning also includes what happens when employees and members return home from a disaster such as the Fort McMurray fire. Employees in particular — many who were victims themselves — need to be physically and mentally ready to return to work. “It’s a tough day when you’re facing members returning after a fire,” Quesnel says. Servus had a plan in place to provide counselling and some additional training for staff. “It was a lot of re-entry support.”

The credit union didn’t lose its two Fort McMurray branches in the fire but believe its contingency plan made it well prepared to handle the impact on members and staff. “It sounds a little boastful but
our plan worked well. We felt prepared and we executed well,” Quesnel says. “It’s unfortunate but you learn from disasters. The big thing is to make sure you learn from them.”

People first, assets second

Interior Savings Credit Union (70,000 members, $2.4 billion in assets) had its big test with forest fires in the Kelowna, BC area in 2003, which was the last time the province issued a state of emergency. Back then, mobile and online banking weren’t as prevalent, which meant fielding a lot of phone calls from members about their finances during the emergency. Ted Schisler, senior vice-president and COO at Interior Savings, says the credit union is constantly updating its business recovery process, by necessity. “Every year there seems to be a fire close to one of our communities,” says Schisler. “It is part of living in the BC Interior.”

During this past summer’s fires, Interior’s branch in Ashcroft, about 350 kilometres north of Vancouver, was closed for at least six business days. There were minor impacts to its branches in Clearwater and Barrière, both north of Ashcroft. Schisler says that the biggest lesson they’ve learned over the years is to be clear with employees and members that it’s “safety first, assets second. Sometimes people think they should check on the safety of the buildings. Everything is insured. Nothing is really significantly at risk other than people, our members and staff.”

As for services, Schisler recommends that credit unions in a crisis focus on members’ immediate needs first, such as getting cash and paying bills. “People need to know that their cards work, staff need to know that their pay and benefits are safe. The focus is on getting people through and helping others.”

Redirected calls to head office

Integris Credit Union (25,000 members, $723 million in assets) also pulled out its emergency plan when summer fires threatened its Clinton, BC branch, about 380 kilometres north of Vancouver. As part of the emergency protocol, Daniel Wingham, manager of strategic partnerships at Integris, says that all phone calls to the Clinton branch were redirected to head office in Prince George. “That meant that the service disruption, from the perspective of getting someone on the phone, was almost zero,” says Wingham.

“Sometimes people think they should check on the safety of the buildings. Everything is insured. Nothing is really significantly at risk than people, our members and staff.” – Ted Schisler

While they were facing their own threats, Integris, Interior Savings and other credit unions also helped members from Williams Lake & District with services such as cheque cashing and other critical transactions. “We want to be cooperative. That’s what we are,” Wingham says.

The fires were, of course, devastating but Wingham says that watching credit unions work together to help members in a time of great need was inspiring. “The sense of community is pretty remarkable,” he says. “We are all in this together and we are going to support each other.”

Wingham believes the experience has also made credit unions better prepared for future emergencies, whether they’re natural disaster, economic or otherwise. “There are other fires on the horizon, both figuratively and literally, and I feel better now about our sense of community than I ever have.” ◊