Few Businesses Are Prepared For The Bird Flu - InformationWeek

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Darrell Dunn
Darrell Dunn

Few Businesses Are Prepared For The Bird Flu

Despite warnings, most businesses haven't developed plans to stay operating if there's an outbreak of bird flu.

For the past year, public health officials have warned that avian influenza, which has been seen only in isolated outbreaks, could mutate and cause a pandemic, potentially killing millions and severely disrupting economies and businesses worldwide. Yet few businesses have plans in place to deal with such an emergency.

Not a sight you want to see from your office window

Not a sight you want to see from your office window

Photo by Issout Sanogo/AFP
A survey of 179 U.S. businesses conducted by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions finds that 66% of respondents say their company isn't adequately prepared for a pandemic outbreak, and nearly three-quarters say they need help to understand how to plan for such an event.

Many businesses have updated their disaster recovery and business continuity plans in the past year based on lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. So they may be better prepared to handle the upcoming hurricane season, but it isn't clear that those plans will help if there's a major outbreak of bird flu.

"In many instances, we are always planning for the last disaster," says David Palermo, VP of marketing for SunGard, one of the largest providers of disaster recovery and business continuity services. "And after every major disaster, there is always a lot of interest that doesn't necessarily translate into action."

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SunGard is still doing research and developing plans to help its customers cope with the potential impact of an extensive flu outbreak. "It may be that traditional disaster recovery services work just fine. But companies should be examining how they can run their businesses with a large percentage of their employees at home."

That can be more complicated than it would appear on the surface, says David Erwin, CIO at New Orleans law firm Adams & Reese. The experience of Katrina will help if the flu becomes a major problem, Erwin says. The firm's use of MessageOne's EMS E-mail continuity platform kept the BlackBerry devices used by lawyers and other employees in the firm operating despite the loss of cell phone service and other forms of communications in the New Orleans area.

During the storm and subsequent flooding, Erwin had to quickly relocate about 300 employees from New Orleans. The firm was competing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure homes and apartments in places such as Baton Rouge, La. Employees were able to use the BlackBerrys to communicate and secure real estate contracts for displaced employees and keep E-mail communications in place for the firm and its clients.

The law firm also is replacing its existing VPN concentrator with new gear from Cisco Systems to let it handle more simultaneous remote connections, which would let the firm implement a large-scale work-at-home strategy.

Making sure there are enough communications connections so employees can work from home is a good thing--if people have computers with them. While a large percentage of the workers at Adams & Reese use laptops, many didn't take them as they evacuated. "People packed for the weekend. They thought they'd be back," Erwin says. "We have a new policy that requires people to take their laptops with them."

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