Swine flu puts disaster recovery in spotlight

It was the end of the mid-night shift at a Richmond Hill, Ont-based specialty printing plant and Skanda, a senior laser printer operator, was waiting for his relief to finish the critical printing order which was due that day.

Within minutes, he would later find out that he would need to do an unscheduled double shift.

Skanda’s replacement, who was the only other person formally trained to handle the firm’s two high-speed laser printers, was unable to come to work because he was one of the people ordered by the Ministry of Health of Ontario shortly after fatalities were reported due to an outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in Toronto.

Thankfully, my family and I were found negative for the disease that would later claim some 38 lives in Canada. I don’t know who else in our organization besides me was quarantined, but the firm’s printers and mailing machines were kept humming on schedule with the help of staff rescheduling and timely help from a temporary staffing agency.

When the SARS epidemic hit in 2003 I had no idea about, business continuity planning,or disaster recovery planning and I doubt if my company had figured in a pandemic in their BRP. Many businesses were also caught flatfooted. The Canadian economy was estimated to have taken a $519 million to $722 million between 2003 and 2006.

As the swine flu makes its way even deeper into North America, Canadian technology industry watchers are saying the disease is once more putting the spotlight on disaster planning.

While the Ministry of Health embarked on a multi-million program to develop a technology-based systems that would enhance disease surveillance and event reporting for Canada’s healthcare workers, pandemic-related planning for many firms might not involve much IT, according to analysts.

Roberta Witty, Gartner research VP, said it is reasonable for managers to expect absenteeism rates of 40 per cent or higher in their own companies or among suppliers and partners, Gartner said, “resulting in severe operational disruptions”.

“Starting today, IT managers should meet with senior executives, line-of-business managers and other high-level decision-makers to answer any questions,” she said, so that there would be “a broad, ongoing commitment” to being prepared.

“If the swine flu were to escalate into something like SARS, it would likely affect Canadian businesses in two crucial areas – staffing and the supply chain,” according to Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ont.

The main challenges, Levy said, will not likely affect technology as much the 2003 North America Blackout did.

“Offices will probably lose access to workers who have fallen sick or deliveries of supplies coming from other countries such as Mexico might be delayed or halted.”

Just as companies plan for data duplication, they should also map out strategies for redundancies in staffing and supply sources, Levy said.

For instance, certain key functions should not be dependent on a single person. There should always be alternates adequately trained and prepared to takeover in case of emergencies.

Prior arrangements with temporary staffing agencies can also be helpful to fill in any unforeseen absences that could occur at a critical moment.

In the printing company I worked for, staff cross-training was put into high gear after SARS incident to make sure that all positions were covered in case of emergencies.

Alternative supply routes and suppliers will also help ensure that business operations continue despite disasters.

Companies must also have access to contact their employees either from home or remotely in the field, said Levy.

“Public transportation disruption or quarantines might prevent people from reporting in. Business must plan out arrangements for teleworking or other alternatives.”

They key, he said, is reliable communication so that managers can relay information to employees or determine who can do what.

“Working from a remote location is an enabler that IT can help with but at the same time, that’s not the only answer,” according to Richard Cocchiara, chief technology officer for the business continuity and resiliency services of IBM Global Services.

If businesses want to prepare for a disaster, they should start by thinking about enabling their employees to work remotely, he said.

Apart from deploying technology, this initiative would include obtaining worker buy-in and training.

“We’re talking about human capital here, so you’re going to have to have the ability to track employees and track their ability to work,” he said. Apart from ensuring communications within the company, business must also be in close contact with government agencies and perhaps even news agencies involved in the disaster, according to Darin Stahl, lead analyst with Info-Tech research group in London, Ont.

“Businesses need to keep tabs of these organizations because these organizations handle such services as power and transportation and are responsible for getting them back up,” he said.

Stahl said coordinating with business partners is also necessary as a process of due diligence to ensure their recovery efforts, or lack the lack of it are not affecting the other companies or vice-versa.

Granting that you’re employees have been briefed about how to prevent the spread of disease but you haven’t made up a business continuity plan yet, here are some things to consider:

– Set up a team composed of managers and employees that will make up the disaster prepareness team, to plan and head implementation of the business continuity strategy

– Identify the essential operations that need to be kept going during the emergency and find ways to support these operation. Identify process that can be delayed or set aside. Plan for at least 2 to 3 weeks of disruptions and then again a second phase of the disruption that may occur months later

– Set up cross-training programs and substitution schedules for employees in the event personnel are unable to come to work. In the extreme, consider setting up a “clean team” – workers stationed at an alternative site away from the affected area

– Plan for remote operations or teleworking for employees. Consider the technology involved such as equipment and bandwidth needed

– Plan for keeping supply and delivery lines open. Map out alternative distribution routes or supply providers

– Keep commuication lines open. Have the disaster prepareness team ensure communication with workers is unhampered and that access to government and emergency agencies remain open

Asked when is the best time to begin disaster planning, Stahl said: “Before disaster strikes.”

(With files from Leo King – Computerworld UK)

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