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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.
A pandemic could infect up to 30% of the population in the first wave, and 40% of the workforce would be out for weeks at a time, either because they're sick, they're caring for sick relatives, they're watching children who can't go to school, or they're afraid to venture outside, health officials say.

Greg Holdburg, manager of disaster recovery services for S1, a provider of software and services for the banking industry, began working on a plan about six months ago. The first step was to determine how well the company could operate with a 25% to 40% reduction in key staff. He randomly drew the names of half of his disaster recovery coordinators and then went through a planning scenario to find out if the company could adequately perform without the missing staff.

"The answer was no. There were too many missing holes," he says. S1 has since been implementing cross-training programs. Other actions include identifying which employees can work at home and documenting their access to laptops and broadband connections. The effort, Holdburg says, is far from complete.

It can be hard to convince executives that they need to spend money and resources to develop a pandemic recovery and continuity plan, Holdburg says. "Executives feel they got burned a bit on the Y2K scare," he says. "A lot of companies spent a lot of money on new software and equipment for something that never really happened."

That shouldn't slow down planning, Holdburg says. Resources dedicated to pandemic emergency efforts can produce other benefits, such as in creating more workable telecommuting environments that could be used if a building were lost because of a natural disaster.

Businesses can start with something as simple as a calling tree, says Neal Tisdale, VP of software development for NewEnergy Associates, a provider of software and services for the oil and gas industry. That's a lesson the company learned in the hours following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

"A pandemic means everyone stays at home," Tisdale says. "That's what we saw after 9/11. But we [first] had to determine where all our people were, contact their spouses, and arrange transportation. Having a phone tree in place can ensure people can be quickly found and communications disseminated."

Sun Microsystems thinks technology and the practices it has in place will help in such an emergency. Between 40% and 50% of its 38,000 employees already telecommute from home or work in drop-in centers instead of large company office buildings. "Some of these arrangements would work to our advantage if we are ever in a pandemic," Bill MacGowan, Sun's chief human resources officer, told Reuters. "A lot of our employees are used to working from home."

Companies that don't have such plans and technology in place need to move quickly. If they don't, the flu might hit their business as hard as a hurricane.