Preparing for a pandemic

Control Risks North America’s Brian Kaye discusses maintaining business continuity in the face of an influenza outbreak


A pandemic has the potential to cause greater, and more unpredictable, disruption to organizations than any other business interruption. As such, pandemic planning should be an integral element in a corporation’s business continuity capabilities.
 
The recent swine flu outbreak has forced corporations to assess their level of preparedness in the event of a pandemic. Unfortunately, a comprehensive, off-the-shelf pandemic preparedness plan cannot exist. The plan must be carefully tailored to meet the specific needs of individual companies and their employees. There are, however, important aspects of a preparedness program that can serve as a blueprint to steer companies in the right direction towards creating a reliable, consistent and flexible plan. In the event of a pandemic, how would your organization answer the ten questions below? Your answers will help you determine your level of preparedness and single out areas for improvement.
 
1. Have you defined reliable information sources to monitor for situational awareness on the influenza outbreak? 
 
Managers need sources they can trust when protecting staff and making difficult commercial decisions. In the early days of the H1N1 outbreak, news media frequently missed nuances when reporting government information. For example, on travel warnings, employers relying on media alone have faced extraordinary difficulty in maintaining a balanced perspective—both during the early “hype” and then later “dismissing” phases of reporting. At a high level, the risk hasn’t changed, even though the tone of reporting has.
 
2. Has top management documented a set of guiding principles that outline, among other things:
 
-         Commitments the firm will make to protect employees and ensure duty of care;
-         Types of preparedness measures the firm will create and maintain;
-         Budget available for planning; and
-         Individuals responsible for implementing these programs
 
Few observers would have predicted a new, novel influenza strain would emerge in North America (most eyes were still on Southeast Asia after the SARS and H5N1 scares). And fewer still would have guessed that so many people would be sick—and containment a failure—by the time we became widely aware of the outbreak. Indeed, many firms figured they would begin planning if and when a new strain emerged. In reality, firms without preparedness plans had little to no time to prepare for the H1N1 outbreak. And without strategic, guiding principles to guide tactical implementation, all many employers could do was stock up on soap and worry.
 
3. Does the firm have in place a robust crisis management and communications program that will allow executives to make key decisions on a timely basis and communicate messages to both internal and external stakeholders?
 
Someday, researchers will mine the treasure trove of information on the widely varied corporate responses to the most recent outbreak. Some firms were caught completely off guard. Weeks later, those firms continue to deal with the internal wrath of senior executives who were unsatisfied with leadership team’s response to the outbreak. Other firms appeared masterfully prepared and stepped forward with well-time communications to employees and industry analysts that, more than anything else, provided reassurance to worried minds. 
With events unfolding unpredictably in real time, management’s ability to make and communicate decisions remained paramount. Good decisions were of no help if employees and strategic partners didn’t get the message.
 
4. Is there a business continuity program in place that documents key products and services that will receive prioritized attention during a time of reduced staff availability? If only 50 percent of staff is in the workplace on a particular day, which business activities will be conducted and which will be deferred?
 
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