Disaster Plans Must Address Pandemics

SunGard Availability Services addresses issues for pandemic planning, notes that IT’s pandemic preparedness must include adaptable strategies that reflect local and global business conditions

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With the fall and winter influenza season underway, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anticipates an even greater impact than the spring outbreak of H1N1 with wider transmission and more communities and businesses affected. SunGard Availability Services today outlined the business, operational, and workforce issues that must be addressed in developing pandemic plans to improve preparedness for potential staff absenteeism.

The Harvard School of Public Health recently released a study that found many U.S. businesses are not prepared to deal with widespread employee absenteeism in the event of an outbreak of H1N1. Researchers found only one-third of companies surveyed believe they could sustain their businesses without severe operational problems if half their workforce were absent for two weeks due to H1N1. Just one-fifth of respondents believe they could avoid such problems for one month with half their employees out.

One starting point for organizations to improve their pandemic preparedness is to note how it differs from traditional disaster planning, which primarily focuses on preparedness of assets, such as buildings and information systems, in response to physical events including hurricanes, power outages, and computer failures.

“People are the most vulnerable resources in a pandemic -- and this extends beyond staff to cover their families that may need care and attention to business partners which may be unavailable to deliver much-needed services to customers whose demand for products may be impacted by a pandemic,” said James A. MacMicking, director, consulting services at SunGard Availability Services.

Another critical planning difference between pandemic and traditional disaster planning is a pandemic typically generates waves of impact while an event such as a utility power failure is generally contained in one occurrence.

“The peak of the first wave of the H1N1 virus hit the United States in April, May and June, and experts are predicting a new wave with the coming flu season. This approach means organizations need to establish ‘trigger points’ in their pandemic plans which provide signals that when a set of circumstances occurs, it serves as the trigger to start preplanned response activities,” said MacMicking.

Other key considerations in pandemic planning include:

  • Enterprise Planning: Company policies, such as human resources and legal, need to be addressed at a business-wide level to ensure consistency with corporate and regulatory requirements. For example, a company policy may require any employee out three or more days to provide a doctor’s slip to return to work. During a pandemic, a doctor may not be readily available to provide the slip -- an organization should have a corporate policy on whether employees can return to work or not without the slip due to these circumstances.

  • Communications: Similar to planning for other disasters, communications is an area of top importance in pandemic planning. Organizations need a communications strategy that addresses both global and local communications issues since pandemic waves will impact different regions at different times. An inward communications system is essential so critical employees can contact an organization regarding their availability. For instance, if an area’s schools close down, that would have a dramatic impact on an absentee rate -- including even healthy employees.

  • Business Operations: The areas of the business that generate revenue and provide customer service must be prepared for people missing on the frontlines. Pandemic plans need to include flexible arrangements to move staff to work in different roles to keep the business going. This means individuals may be thrust into roles for which they have little or no formal training. Managers and supervisors need to be prepared for these conditions -- including how to mitigate mistakes and unsafe work practices from untrained workers.