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Pandemic Planning

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As I wrote this article, Hurricane Dolly struck the Brownsville, Texas, area harder than the experts predicted. Terrorism remains an ongoing threat. The Mississippi River delta is still drying out from 500-year floods. And don’t get me started about global warming.

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As I wrote this article, Hurricane Dolly struck the Brownsville, Texas, area harder than the experts predicted. Terrorism remains an ongoing threat. The Mississippi River delta is still drying out from 500-year floods. And don’t get me started about global warming.

Yet the danger most likely to disrupt the planet remains a pandemic of some type of communicable disease, probably influenza. Bird flu is still with us, and we must take the threat more seriously than ever. Influenza pandemics happen about three times a century on average. They are unpredictable and, despite the concerted efforts of legions of micro­biologists, no one really knows what the trigger is.

Keep in mind there hasn’t yet been a flu pandemic in the Internet age. Past pandemics all occurred in the Old School economy, back when companies warehoused goods onsite and people were self-reliant and capable of growing their own food and taking care of themselves. Flu pandemics will be to the just-in-time economy what kryptonite is to Superman.

IT professionals would do well to assume two bookends of disaster recovery and continuity of operations planning: maximum property damage as one bookend, and maximum human suffering and loss the other. Depending on your geographic location, the former could be a hurricane, mudslide, earthquake or flood. For the latter, assume an influenza pandemic as disastrous as the 1918 flu pandemic.

Here are some things to consider about maintaining continuity of operations during a pandemic:

  • Pandemics come in two or three waves, can last for up to 18 months, and will sicken at least 10 percent of your workforce on any given day. Then add those who are chronically ill, plus those taking care of sick loved ones. Assume an absentee rate of at least 30 percent on any given day.
  • At least one pandemic per century is a killer, such as 1918’s, where more than 2 percent of all infected died. You will lose IT staff in a severe pandemic. Permanently.
  • Cross-train your IT group to manage these staff shortages and losses, because you’ll have no idea who will get sick and who will stay healthy and who will die and who will live. In 1918, the death toll was greatest among adults age 20 to 40. Most of today’s H5N1 bird flu victims are also under 40.
  • Teach your people about pandemics and focus on what your employees can do to protect their families. That is what will be on their minds first and foremost.
  • Get your superiors used to the idea that in a pandemic, you cannot possibly keep every IT system operational. Don’t even try. Decide now which IT services to shut off and which ones must stay up.
  • Assume telework will sporadically fail because of Internet difficulties and plan around these failures. Don’t make the fatal assumption that telework will be the salvation of your organization. Eventually, people will have to return to their offices.
  • Money is short, so use time wisely. Plan, plan and plan some more. Then exercise your plan at least once a year.

One final thing to consider is that pandemics arrive with little advance warning. Experts estimate it would take no more than three weeks for an avian flu outbreak in Indonesia or Egypt to arrive at your office door. It’s like racing a clock whose hands have been removed: The clock is running, but you can’t guess when the clock strikes midnight.

All you know is that one day, it will.

Scott McPherson is CIO of the Florida House of Representatives.

Get Help

There is precious little in the lexicon to help CIOs and IT professionals prepare for a flu pandemic. That is one reason I created the Pandemic Preparedness Committee within the Florida state CIO Council (www.bpr.state.fl.us/pandemic). Gartner also has excellent pandemic resources.

Sep 30 2008

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