Flu pandemic

A possible bird flu pandemic is causing growing alarm in many large Canadian organizations, say disaster recovery experts. Some are trying to put business continuity plans in place to cope with it.

Ralph Dunham, senior vice-president and national business continuity practice leader with Marsh Canada, says a lot of top executives are worried about it. Some companies are attempting to build in sufficient resiliency that they can operate with a 30 to 40 percent reduced workforce.

The terrorist threat is receding into the background somewhat while a pandemic is moving to the forefront of disaster recovery thinking, says Chris Toushan, country manager SunGard Availability Services Canada. Just about every large organization has given it some thought.

While some don’t see it as a serious threat, more than half fear it poses potentially grave consequences, he says. But far more companies are worried about it than are doing something about it. In many cases, it comes down to available resources and dollars.

Helen Polatajko, senior vice-president and CIO of CIBC Mellon, describes it as the next blip on the radar screen. CIBC Mellon is acutely cognizant of it and is systematically reviewing and evaluating options to be prepared in the event of an outbreak.

CIBC Mellon successfully worked through the SARS crisis in Toronto a few years ago without any downtime or loss of support to clients, she says. As it did then, the company is similarly analyzing options in the event of a pandemic, including possibilities to leverage the operations of Mellon in the U.S. and CIBC here in Canada.

“We are not doing anything out of the ordinary in this particular case; we are following our prescribed steps to prepare. Nobody really knows what could happen.”

Don Dixon, vice-president network and security services in the CIO office for Nortel Networks, says a comparable workforce mobility strategy that comes into play with Nortel’s plans for various disasters will also apply with a pandemic. These plans take into account where people are isolated and can’t get to work or can’t return home and have to work out of other locations.

“A lot of these disasters summon the same basic principles. You have to have mobility at all sort of levels, whether it is real estate available at other locations or wireless scenarios where you can re-establish a headquarters, or just wireless for allowing employees to work in different areas or from home.”

Brian Miller, president of the Disaster Recovery Institute Canada, agrees that workforce mobility is one tactic to use in overcoming a pandemic. It is coupled with identifying key personnel who are vital in keeping the business running. That identification comes from performing specific business impact analysis for pandemic planning to spot employees who perform vital functions and find ways to keep them home and able to continue delivering these services.

But it’s not sufficient just to have this contingency plan on the shelf, he says. It’s important to simulate this work-from-home activity at least once every quarter, even if it involves a large group of employees.

Miller conducts business continuity training. A year ago when he brought up risk assessment issues and pandemic planning many people in his classes weren’t even aware of what the word pandemic even meant. Now everybody knows.

One recent class was attended by Ontario government officials. Miller says the Ontario government is the midst of pandemic planning and may be more sensitive to the risk, having gone through SARS. As president of Vanguard Emergency Management, Ottawa, Miller is putting together a two-day course on pandemic preparations to deliver across the country in 2006, to get more people involved in planning for it in their organizations.

In a virulent flu pandemic, many people will refuse to congregate, take public transportation, or go to work, he says. It will have a major impact on the economy.

For most commercial organizations business demand will decrease, he adds.