Networking

Reviewing your pandemic plans has just become job #1

With the focus on bird flu in recent years, it's sort of unexpected to hear that the latest pandemic might, in fact, not come from flying descendents of dinosaurs but might be the result of a combination of human, bird and swine influenza viruses that have evolved inside pigs and into a new virus capable of human to human transmission. Regardless of the viruses origins, now is the time for organizations to review pandemic plans to make sure that information is current and actionable. It might even be time to take minor steps in preparation for a more serious outbreak. Scott Lowe provides a brief overview of his staff's plans.

As of this writing, the recently detected swine flu has killed 81 people in Mexico and cases have been confirmed in New York City, Kansas, California, Ohio and Texas as well as in France and New Zealand.  This most recent flu outbreak is of the H1N1 variety, the same variety that was responsible for an estimated 40 to 50 million deaths worldwide in 1918.  Although health officials have yet to determine a number of facts, including the origin of the disease and its virulence, the outbreak should spur renewed conversations regarding contingency plans in the event that the current outbreak turns into something more serious.

Many organizations have developed contingency plans based around concerns regarding the bird flu, so there is probably already at least a framework in place, if not a full plan.  A contingency plan put into motion for a pandemic is likely to be different from many other business continuity-type plans.  For example, if headquarters is wiped out by a tornado, setting up operations at an alternate site makes a lot of sense.  However, when it comes to something that, quite frankly, scares people away from the office, such as a virulent disease, the path isn't always as clear.  In cases like this, in order to maintain operations, the organization would need to maintain at least a skeleton staff and significantly enhance remote worker capabilities for those that need to work but that, for whatever reason, can't or won't make it to the office.

At Westminster College, we do have campus plans for what to do in the event of a pandemic or significant public health emergency.  However, for the kind of campus we are - very traditional with no online classes and all courses taught on site - we don't maintain regular significant remote access capabilities so our normal operations don't include what we'd need in the event of, well, an event.

With the news continuing to come out regarding the spread of confirmed cases of swine flu, my staff and I are taking a few relatively minor steps in preparation for a possible problem:

  • First, we're verifying our VPN services to make sure that we have enough licenses and capacity for increased volume. We don't currently have many VPN users. Again, we're a very traditional, very residential campus, with VPN used primarily by those that travel on college business.
  • We're also going to prep a couple of additional servers as terminal servers. Through this and VPN, users will be able to continue to easily run their normal applications from anywhere.
  • A part of a campus-wide plan calls for staff that will stay on site for long periods of time in the event of a pandemic. Given that my staff has endured a lot of turnover since the campus pandemic plan was developed, we'll have conversations regarding this point.
  • We will verify with our service providers, including Internet and electrical service providers, our points of contact in the event of a pandemic. Although we have this information in our campus pandemic plan, periodic review is essential to keep the information current.

At this point, we won't go overboard in preparing for what could turn out to be a whole lot of nothing.  Even if the whole thing fizzles out right now - and I hope it does - it's a valuable reminder that we need to stay vigilant with regard to our disaster and pandemic planning and make sure that we're ready for whatever comes our way

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

6 comments
yoyo2
yoyo2

This panic is ridiculous. The ordinary, garden-variety flu kills 36,000 Americans each and every year, yet it doesn't cause nearly the wringing of hands that swine flu has. The "national health emergency" declaration is an administrative designation, necessary to expedite the availability of vaccines - not a sign that everybody needs to get all skeered.

coden
coden

When I saw that swine flu had made it to New York (I'm up-state), I decided it was time to make sure we were prepared. Like many organizations, of the past several years my company has been relying more and more on externally hosted services for our mission critical applications. Whether working with an ASP, subscribing to an SAS solution, or "putting it in the cloud", leveraging web-accessible technologies makes dealing with a pandemic or other natural disaster much more managable, at least for knowledge workers. My preparedness checklist for end-users is very simple: 1.) Do you have access to a PC at home? 2.) Do you have high-speed Internet access (many of our applications are Citrix-based or RDP, and we use VPN VOIP phones)? 3.) Do you have access to a telephone? 4.) Do you have a copy of all critical company, vendor and customer contact information, including the web address of the hosted applications? 5.) Do you have paper copies of any job-specific forms and information. We are able to forward our VOIP phone extensions anywhere, our corprate documents are available via a web-accessible Extranet, and most employees have 3G data service enabled on their mobile phones, which can be connected to laptops or desktops for (relatively) highspeed Internet access. Our biggest challenge right now is convincing employees who have a slight sniffle or low fever from coming into work: there is a gray area in company policy regarding working at home when you are ill, and whether or not it counts against PTO. Ultimately, the manager must decided whether to treat it as a sick day, but many employees simply won't ask, and so they bring their germs to work to share with the rest of us...

RFink
RFink

Today swine flu? Next year: feline flu? Pick an animal, any animal, name a flu after it and watch your media ratings soar. Sell those newspapers.

GSG
GSG

Yes, the regular flu kills 36,000 Americans per year, but we've all been exposed to it multiple times in our lives and have developed an immunity. The majority of those who die are elderly, very young, and those who may have compromised immune systems, such as Diabetics or Cancer patients. This is a flu that NONE OF US have any sort of immunity to, so like the 1918 pandemic, the people who are going to be hit hardest are the 20-50 year olds, which is the work force. So, be concerned and plan, but if nothing comes of it, look at it as a test of your DR plan. Meanwhile, I work in IT for a hospital, so we prepare and plan for this type of disaster (among others) constantly. We don't have the luxury of shutting our doors, or for working from home. If the worst happens, there will be some of us who will pack up clothes, and basically move down here. That's what we do during Ice Storms and other environmental disasters where travel might be compromised and people can't get in. The best thing you can do is wash your hands. Sorry, hand sanitizer doesn't cut it. It's OK in a pinch, but nothing beats a good 30-second handwash, and I mean a scrubbing. Do this every couple of hours and while you're at it wash your face. Don't sneeze or cough into your hand. Our infection control recommends coughing/sneezing into kleenex, and if none is available, your sleeve.

coden
coden

Regardless whether or not individua ls should be cowering in fear, one week of lost business resulting from a company wide outbreak of any moderately debilitating illness can cripple many small and medium sized businesses just as effectively as a tornado. Not every media frenzy should be taken as a credible threat, but it It's never a bad idea dusting off the disaster recovery plan and playing "what if" for five minutes.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

Thank you for your comment! Although far from a critical situation now, the outbreak is a reminder that we need to stay vigilant. It's nice to hear from an upstater... I moved from Elmira a couple of years ago.

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