Preparing for panic

The implications of some form of viral outbreak or natural disaster could be dramatic. The 2020 Project of the U.S. National Intelligence Council identifies disease pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy.

Similarly, a London Chamber of Commerce study found that only one in five businesses would survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu. Needless to say, the stakes for Canadian citizens and our government infrastructure are correspondingly high when it comes to this sort of health catastrophe.

Canada has in fact made significant strides in preparing the country for a disaster that could affect millions of Canadians. Still, governments needs to continually reassess its state of preparedness; to be certain it can deal quickly and effectively with a pandemic that might have dramatic repercussions on their business models. Statistics suggest that, without a robust contingency plan, we won’t survive a national health crisis.

Thankfully, in most instances the highest levels of Canadian government have taken appropriate steps to try to mitigate the results of a national pandemic. Canada has had a national pandemic plan in place since 1994, and the federal government has assigned the department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to assist Health Canada in dealing with any emerging crisis.

The government has also given the Public Health Agency a specific mandate to maintain contingency plans, while educating Canadians on related health issues. However, all this would be superfluous if health care officials were not prepared to fight any outbreak with the appropriate medications. With this in mind, federal and provincial governments agreed in May to increase the reserve stockpile of anti-viral medication to 55 million doses from 16 million.

Although government agencies appear to be prepared to deal with a catastrophe, there remain concerns as to whether “first responders,” including police, fire services and hospitals, are adequately prepared. But key communications systems, including data and voice, appear to be prepared to handle a widespread pandemic.

Existing commercial and dedicated police and military communications systems provide robust capacity and should be able to weather any resulting fallout from a national crisis. Similarly, infrastructure and response capabilities have been bolstered by provincial government agencies, and health care has either been addressed or is being dealt with by the same authorities.

However, government may not be prepared if a pandemic was complicated by additional circumstances, like unusual weather, problems keeping public order or issues with Canada’s power supply. Any concurrent problem that would require national response and coordination could prove difficult as the country’s emergency systems are largely untested in this area.

Some of the considerations for government in the event of a pandemic are clear. Measures will need to be taken within government facilities, including the careful monitoring and maintenance of air conditioning, and additional antiseptic cleaning of key “at risk” office facilities (e.g. telephones in a call centre, consoles and desks in a data centre operations bridge, etc.). Even measures such as closing the site’s catering facilities and providing pre-packaged food must be considered.

Governments must also give serious thought to business continuity and imbed continuity and disaster recovery planning into each part of their operations to be certain they can meet the challenges of a health or environmental crisis. Disaster recovery focuses on how to survive a disaster and what to do right afterward.

These plans are usually technology-oriented and focus on getting the network and systems up and running as quickly as possible. Business continuity deals with keeping the government running after a disaster and takes a lot more into account than just technology.

Governments at all levels need to consider how they would continue to operate should a large part of their workforce be incapacitated or unable to come to work, including their IT team, or what the impact would be if the business were to close down systems until the crisis subsided.

In order to best assess their operations, an organization should assign a key individual to track developments of any emerging health threats and plan updates as they may be required.

In fact, in order to deal with any possible threat, Canadian governments need to think of continuity and disaster recovery on an ongoing basis. Continuity needs to become a transformational initiative for government, one that is reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. Government bodies now need to think about the unthinkable on a regular basis.

Government entities should also deploy exercises and simulations to test their business continuity plans to ensure that they are effective and responsive.

Similarly, they should be testing their IT systems to ensure disaster recovery as well as the ability to manage more employees working remotely. As well, citizens in time of a health crisis will rely more on online health care systems and government resources than at any other time.

As part of such disaster recovery planning, government organizations also need to place a value on the disruption to particular processes and establish how critical they are and what the costs of downtime will be. Then they can sort these processes in terms of priority and cost on the highest value and service areas.

Finding enough employees to maintain operations, especially IT, will be the fundamental challenge facing all organizations should a health emergency arrive. Government entities will have to explore whether telework might be feasible and sustainable in some instances; many employees who are too sick to come to work will also be too sick to work from home. As well, in the event of school closures, many employees will have no choice but to look after their children at home. Similarly, if the health care system is overwhelmed, many could be cared for in their homes by friends and relatives.

Specifically, every government organization should have an operating plan in place that would allow it to continue functioning with a skeleton team of staff if the need should arise. When dealing with remaining employees, government organizations need to consider work schedules, including such options as split shifts to deal with the lack of manpower and to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

Similarly, Canadian government needs to work with the private sector to ensure back-up strategies for key infrastructure and information technology – including, and at minimum, a system back-up plan that would allow important data to be recovered in the event of an interruption in service. In addition, system changes to IT infrastructure should be limited, with resources focused on more pressing tasks and on support.

This is not a case of simply dealing with the situation once; rather, the concept and its application will need to be revisited time and again. While it is likely impossible to protect Canadians from every possible outbreak, by continually updating and embedding planning into key aspects of government operations, potential impact can be minimized. 067751

Graeme Gordon ( is Senior Executive with the Canadian Government Operating Group at Accenture.