How Should My Organization Respond to the Current H1N1 Outbreak?

By: Bill Hughes, BC/DR Practice Director, Center of Excellence, Consulting Services SunGard Availability Services

If you have a plan…

There should never be a sense of panic in a crisis – that’s why you plan in advance. In the face of increased public health concerns over the potential for the H1N1 (“swine flu”) situation to significantly impact our society and businesses, now is the time for a sense of urgency. Although your organization may have developed a plan focusing on avian flu (H5N1) and the characteristics of this situation differ, the core elements of your plan are likely applicable. So use your plan!

Assess the strategies and tactics within your plan that are tied to the escalation up to Phase 5, as well as the local circumstances and identify the appropriate level of response given the characteristics of the H1N1 outbreak. These activities are likely broken into two categories – preventive measures and reactive measures. As with any risk management process focus first on the preventive as likely yielding the best return on your investment, but don’t neglect the reactive measures – they are what will save you in the end.

Preventive measures including such things as employee and facility infection mitigation controls, monitoring of the situation, monitoring of employee health, and understanding the travel patterns for your people as well as the people you interact with. Reactive measures take a little more time, assessment and effort to implement and focus on how you respond if the situation impacts your people or your business and how you manage to maintain critical business operations with the increased impacts of travel constraints, personnel concerns or absenteeism, and community impacts. Things you should consider include changes in your organization since your plan was developed that require the strategies to be revisited and potentially for responsibilities to be reassigned.

Track your progress against the plan, so that you can be sure that sufficient attention and resources are being provided.

Don’t Forget to Communicate

Beyond the practical tactics that are part of a pandemic plan, an essential element relates to crisis communications – both internal and external. Experience has shown that during a crisis, internal communications messages are often confusing, inadequate, and ineffective. Employees need sufficient information to both perform their jobs, and to feel safe at their job locations. Ensure that information about the impact of the pandemic, the corporate response to the situation, and other critical information about corporate policy and employee expectations are communicated to staff on a regular basis. Concerns about viral infection are only natural, so it is crucial that you communicate clearly and regularly concerning progress of plan implementation, shared advisories from competent authorities, and information concerning infection controls such as hand washing and social distancing. For external communication with customers and partners, review who is responsible, or coordinate with corporate pandemic and/or crisis management teams, to ensure messages are accurate, undergo legal and public relations review, and that messages are released quickly and to the correct audiences. Focus on the actions planned to ensure economic and operational stability when the crisis is over.

Consider the Impact of A Reduced Workforce on Your Organization

As you look at the reactive measures you should assess the impact of reduced transportation, personal obligations, fear and even illness reducing your available staff. Guidance has been provided to plan for 40% of your staff to be absent in the case of a pandemic. While that number may seem high, it is quickly rationalized when you consider not only employees who may be infected, but family members that may need to care for children at home if schools are closed, or for elder care if senior facilities are impacted. In particular, consider this – do you have the cross-training, documentation, tools, and support to continue critical activities if the primary personnel are unavailable? Don’t forget to consider contractors, consultants, and other subject matter experts that may be impacted by the pandemic or other health considerations.

Consider the Requirements and Priorities of Your Internal Customers

Business operations at sites and even throughout the company may be revised and altered based upon the local impacts of the pandemic. Departments may close, and other departments adjust their priorities to match their specific business needs. The organization should work together to prioritize needs, align resources to support the most critical operations, and ensure that key processes can continue with adequate support.

Consider the Impact Outside of Your Organization

No company is an island; you need to review the potential impact if your support vendors experience a significant degree of absenteeism. Will they still be able to perform their roles in supporting your critical technical infrastructure and business processes? Should you look at a secondary provider as a precaution? Also, in looking at support vendors, do you have any support or maintenance contracts pending that should be extended or whose levels of support should be uplifted, providing a safety net from internal staff absences?

What If I Have No Pandemic Plan?

The pre-pandemic phase is a little bit like an approaching hurricane – you still have some time to prepare, but there is a sense of urgency as the WHO levels are increased. The recent move to a Phase 6 steps us over the boundary from monitoring and preparing to potentially activating plans – or portions thereof - and so you’ll have to take an aggressive approach to the situation.

The first thing to do is to focus on the preventive controls. You don’t need to go far to find out what the recommendations are – the CDC, DHS, and numerous news sources, consulting firms, and analysts are all pointing the same way. Implement employee and facility infection risk mitigations controls with the introduction of hand sanitizers, open doors, tissues, and so on. Increase the frequency and quality of cleaning. Ensure there is strong awareness of personal hygiene measures that should be enhanced due to the situation. Determine what you can do without that may increase the risk of infection – including meetings, travel, social settings, and so on. Develop checks at entry to ensure that people entering your facility are not ill and have not recently traveled through an area with a validated infection. Monitor the local situation (and consolidate that view if you are a multi-site organization), monitor your employee’s health – and communicate, communicate, communicate.

In parallel with that implementation you need to start strategizing about the impacts on your organization if you have a reduced workforce, restrictions on travel, or can be impacted by community or business relationships. Develop a management organization – quick, concise decision making is key. Get those people together – they need to start working and communicating as a team focusing on a shared problem. Develop an ongoing process to monitor the situation, assess its impacts and determine next steps. Determine what your most critical operations are – the ones you would keep running long after you’ve shut down others. Determine how you’d keep them going – taking into account the potential duration of the event and the impacts on people and society. And then determine what you need as a bare minimum – and start developing the technologies, documentation, skills depth, processes and procedures to work under those situations.

While there’s a good possibility the current situation will be contained and eventually de-escalate this is not a time to roll the time and hope for the best! A few simple, timely actions can make a world of difference and buy you time and comfort while you work through the more complex strategies and solutions you’ll need to address.

Summary

If you’ve planned for the H5N1 “avian” flu then the H1N1 “swine” flu presents a different threat vector but the core elements – and most critically, the thought processes behind their development are still sound and should be leveraged. If you haven’t developed an H5N1 plan, then the best thing to do is to focus first on preventive measures – and once those are in place or underway, turn your attention to reactive measures such as response plans. In both cases ensure that key components of a response are addressed, including situation communications, maintaining critical business processes with workforce and work location constraints, prioritization of efforts based on the limited set of resources available, and inter-relationships and dependencies both within and external to the company. It’s not too late too take action now – in fact, the time is exactly right to prepare your organization for the potential impacts of an H1N1 or H5N1 outbreak – or for any other situation that could create similar constraints with resources, partners / co-suppliers and other factors such as transportation across a broad region.


About the Author

As BD/DR Practice Director, Center of Excellence, Consulting Services for SunGard Availability Services, Bill is responsible for overseeing the product development, assessment and evolution of consulting services for SunGard’s Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery Center of Excellence. Throughout his career at SunGard, Bill has been a key contributor and advisor on a number of strategic engagements, change agent for delivery and deliverable evolution and is involved in the development of strategic capabilities and services.

Previously, Bill served as the Regional Director of Consulting Services for SunGard in the Midwest. Prior to joining SunGard, Bill was a vice president at a mid-size nation-wide insurance company and before that he worked with a top-tier outsourcer for customers ranging from small manufacturers to Fortune 10 companies, developing and delivering IT solutions to meet critical business needs. With more than 23 years of IT engineering and operations, program and project management and business continuity and disaster recovery experience, Bill’s background provides a strong foundation of expertise with best practices for business and information availability and information technology services.

Bill holds a Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada and has been a speaker at industry events such as the recent 2008 Gartner Risk Conference. Bill is also a member of the Project Management Institute and Association of Contingency Planners.