Written by Kathleen Lucey, FBCI   



Hunting the Black Swans in Your Continuity Program

This is Vol. II, No. 8 in the DRG ongoing series regarding hunting and mastery of the black swans in your continuity program.

“Black Swans” in your Continuity Program are those events that remain outside the range of normal expectations, and may well produce a significant negative impact when they occur. For reasons of budget, culture, or simple lack of awareness, we just do not see or deal with these potentially devastating exposures in our enterprise continuity capability. This series discusses some of the most common of these “black swans” in business continuity programs, those that are really staring us in the face and screaming for attention.

Already published:

Volume I

Quarry 1: Employee Availability for Response Activities.
Quarry 2: The Level of Individual Employee Commitment to BCM
Quarry 3: Exercising Your Plans
Quarry 4: Exercising Your Plans: Objectives and Annual Programs
Quarry 5: Exercising Your Plans: Business Unit Continuity Plans
Quarry 6: Exercising Your Plans: Technology Recovery Plans
Quarry 7: Exercising Your Plans: Logistics, Communications, and Support Plans
Quarry 8: Lessons Learned
Quarry 9: New Year's Resolutions
Quarry 10: 10 Steps to Building a Black Swan-free Business Continuity Management Program
Quarry 11: New Year's Resolutions
Quarry 12: Developing "Black Swan Sighting" Skills: Warm-up Exercises

Volume II:

Quarry 1: The Centrality of Power: Seeing the Connections
Quarry 2: Power Outages: Isolation Effects
Quarry 3: Power Outages: How Employers Can Get Involved
Quarry 4: Cascading Effects on the Support Fabric
Quarry 5: Deeper Dives to Narrower Terrains: Dive 1
Quarry 6: Deeper Dives in Wider Terrains: Dive 1
Quarry 7: Cascading Black Swan Events

Volume II: Quarry 8: Cascading Black Swan Events 2: Avian Flu Outbreak

The latest case of the H7N9 strain of the Avian Flu virus was reported on December 10, 2013 in mainland China. There have been about 140 documented cases in this latest outbreak, with 45 fatalities in China: this is a mortality rate of 32%. There is little observed correlation between the “trendiness” of certain Black Swan events, such as the ongoing threat of an Avian Flu pandemic, and the occurrence of actual outbreaks. Once it was in the news every day, and in much of the business continuity and emergency management literature. Now we barely hear about it. This does not mean that the threat has disappeared: the virus continues to mutate; no one can predict when the mutation that permits human-to-human transmission will occur.

This month we continue our discussion with an exploration of the cascading effects of a fourth disaster event, an outbreak of this H7N9 strain layered on our base scenario in the Northeast US (west as far as Buffalo; south as far as Richmond, VA, and including the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. This area is now affected by three serious disaster events: a long-term electrical grid power outage, adulterated fuel profiteering that has disabled many vehicles and supplementary power systems, and a category 3 hurricane that has caused significant erosion of shorelines and damage to waterfront properties, among many other damages, especially to roads and telecommunications towers. It is the 29th day of the scenario in the US Northeast. It is a Sunday in August. The temperature is expected to reach the low 90’s today, with humidity at a relatively moderate 78% - 86%.

Our charge today is to assess and understand better what would be the impact of the arrival of persons infected persons with this H7N9 strain of the Avian Flu virus within the scenario area. (While it is probable that affected passengers might well arrive in other areas of the US, thus spreading the virus within those areas, we do not have the space here to develop and discuss how multiple infection sites will worsen the base scenario.)

As a reminder: in order to understand what may happen, we need to:

  • Include rather than exclude.
  • Accept that the improbable will occur, and that the effects may be wide-reaching and not fully understood and therefore not planned for.
  • Understand as much as possible about the conditions under which these improbable effects will become visible.
  • Define those conditions where cascading effects will occur – trace these linkages through the social fabric to know where the breaks will occur – especially when the impact seems minor at first, so that we can identify it as early as possible.
  • Be alert to gathering evidence that the situation is growing much worse very quickly in multiple areas.

We will also explore here how we can better identify and therefore counter these cascading effects, as possible. Right now we are interested only in identifying them and tracing their immediate and cascading impacts. Please note that the areas chosen are not intended in any way to be complete or to be representative. They are chosen for the ease with which the readers’ imaginations may engage with them.


The Exposure Route

452 passengers took off from Hong Kong International Airport on August 28 on Cathay Pacific Airlines Flight 4072 to Los Angeles. On board were three members of a UN scientific team that had been conducting research on various techniques being used to increase crop yield on the mainland. Let’s call these people Bob, Susan, and Jim. The plane landed successfully at LAX Airport as scheduled. The three members of the team decided to take a few weeks personal leave prior to reporting back to the UN Offices in New York City because they had heard that the situation in New York was not good, but was expected to improve in a few weeks. They intended to stay in touch with each other as they each completed their separate field reports. Bob took a United Airlines flight from LAX to Chicago, and then a second flight into Logan airport in Boston, and rented a car to drive to his family’s summer home in Portsmouth, NH. Susan took a connecting flight into Dulles Airport in Virginia, where she was met by her husband and they intended to drive to their home in Morgantown, West Virginia. Jim decided to go to his hometown of Austin, Texas. To do this he needed to take a flight to Dulles Fort Worth (DFW) airport and then a connecting flight into Austin.

Bob, Susan, and Jim are all fatigued from what had been a grueling assignment. None of them is surprised that they all seemed to be suffering from a cold, and all had been sneezing and coughing a bit during their long trips home.

As Bob, Susan, and Jim arrived at their destinations, they all felt exhausted. But everyone felt that this was normal because of the length of the travel and the demands of their project. Each soon became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as Avian Flu. See the 2011 Warner Bros. film, “Contagion” for additional information on how similar diseases can be transmitted and a graphic illustration of possible effects from a pandemic on a society that is NOT already disrupted as in our scenario territory. But don’t do that until you have run your own imagination through this exercise.

It would take a very long time and more words than are possible in this medium to describe the potential effects of this latest incident on our already seriously afflicted scenario area. Let’s look at how the reactions to a pandemic might be complicated by or modified by the already compromised infrastructure within the affected area. Here are a few observations to get you started. With a little additional time and thought, you should be able to develop many more. Be as specific as you can.

  • Initial identification of the virus may be slower because of communications difficulties as well as physical transportation problems within the affected area. However, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta may already be involved and on the scene because of the emergence of other typical diseases in stressed environments, such as cholera and other intestinal diseases, as well as dehydration. This may help to identify this event somewhat sooner … or not.
  • The state of many people’s health will already be compromised due to existing conditions left untreated due to the unavailability of critical treatments such as dialysis or such products as insulin and oxygen. This will leave them less able to fight off viral infection.
  • The majority of people will be physically and emotionally stressed by the previous events and therefore more vulnerable to the virus. Therefore, more people than usual can be expected to be affected by the virus.
  • Medical treatment of those affected by the virus may be less efficient and effective due to:
    • Medical supply shortages due to transport difficulties.
    • Insufficient medical and emergency personnel due to the evacuation of many personnel from the affected areas.
    • Electrical outages at hospitals due to insufficient supply of diesel fuel and/or damage to generators from adulterated fuel.
    • Lack of transport vehicles (ambulances) due to adulterated fuel damage as well as fewer specialized personnel.
    • Difficulty in getting seriously ill people to medical facilities because of transport route blockages.
  • Medical personnel may be among the earliest victims of the virus, as they will be exposed early, prior to identification of the virus and its effects. This will only worsen the shortage of medical personnel.
  • The presence of military personnel and facilities will have additional impacts:
    • Morgue facilities as well as cadaver collection will likely have already been set up. These facilities and specialized staff would have been set up already to handle the infrastructure disruption. However, these facilities and personnel will quickly become overwhelmed in the early days of the pandemic. Military personnel will also be affected, and perhaps at a rate higher than the general population since they will be more directly involved than most of the population.
    • Additional troops and emergency supplies will arrive by plane or by truck, but large hospital ships may not arrive for at least 7-10 days.
  • Municipal governments will probably be understaffed and overwhelmed by the necessity to respond to so many needs. In particular, normal staffing for critical functions such as police, firefighting, mass transit, and emergency transport may be operating at skeleton levels. Social disorder, fires, and transport difficulties of kinds of all may be increased.

We are likely to see extremely serious social disorder as the pandemic effects proliferate, despite probable military control and curfews. Depending on the seriousness of the pandemic and its mortality rate, a significant percentage of the population is likely to be affected.

Remember that all of the other complicating factors, such as food and water shortages, as well as the continuing sporadic power supply, continue unabated.

And now, continue with imagining how this latest event will affect the population’s ability to accomplish the five response objectives we defined previously:

  1. Early Identification of the additional impact of the pandemic – is critical. Many lives could be spared and much energy saved. This will be more difficult in the already stressed environment of our scenario.
  2. Priority-setting. Get organized quickly! Perhaps exercises involving multiple levels of government utilizing scenarios like this one may help to identify and address critical priorities like sanitation and drinking water and medical supplies/staff. As it stands, it is likely that there will be multiple clashes of authority among the various groups on the ground.
  3. Inter-sector cooperation. All sectors – government – private sector – emergency services - need to be leveraged in order to save the most lives and avoid as much human suffering as possible. This will not happen without having previously performed coordinated multi-day, multi-event exercises.
  4. Effective communications and quick reactions are necessary to minimize negative outcomes to individual emergency situations. Flexibility and individual initiative must be encouraged while simultaneously maintaining the benefits of formal authority structures. Again, this will not happen without having previously performed complex exercises to familiarize responders with possibilities.
  5. New solutions to emergent challenges must be encouraged and adopted where appropriate by workers within those environments. Responders “in the trenches” must be allowed to implement ideas that work for the individual cases with minimum bureaucratic oversight. Private sector models may be useful here. This type of response must have been rehearsed in the exercises in order to make it a viable choice during such a demanding scenario.

And if you are having difficulty engaging your imagination here, download that film, “Contagion”, for lots more ideas. You will need to imagine the event before you can train for it in realistic exercises.

And so with that challenge to you, I send you and your families my best wishes for our new year. And I will see you in February with some new and challenging scenarios for your ever-developing imaginations!

Happy New Year to All!

Kathleen Lucey


About the Author:

Kathleen Lucey, FBCI, is President of Montague Risk Management, a business continuity consulting firm founded in 1996. She is a member of the BCI Global Membership Council, past member of the Board of the BCI, and the founding President of the BCI USA Chapter. IBM chose her as the first winner of its Business Continuity Practitioner of the Year Award in 1998. She speaks and publishes widely in both North America and Europe. Kathleen may be reached via email at kathleenalucey@gmail.com