Business interruptus: Prep now to avoid H1N1 flu outages later

Don't be fooled by the mild flu season so far. Even a contained swine flu outbreak could disable IT departments on short notice.

Last spring, when the first cases of H1N1 flu appeared, Gartner Inc. was getting lots of calls from alarmed clients wanting to know if and how they should adjust their disaster recovery plans.

Now? Not so much. "It's a very, very silent period right now," says Ken McGee, Gartner vice president and research fellow, who attributes the tepid reaction in the business community to the mild effects of the flu to date. Although there have been deaths, so far most people are simply ill for a few days and then back at work, he points out.

"Despite the fact that it's the first pandemic of the information age, it hasn't compelled people to the kinds of readiness activities we would've expected," says McGee.

That's a mistake, business continuity experts say.

As of late October, the swine flu was widespread in 46 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and on Oct. 23, President Obama declared the H1N1 outbreak a national emergency.

Meanwhile, production and distribution of the H1N1 vaccine has fallen behind schedule, even as public debate has increased over its safety and necessity -- meaning, potentially, fewer vaccinated people and more live cases. The CDC has warned that the pandemic could produce absentee rates as high as 40% at schools and places of business.

Further, there's no telling whether or when the pandemic will worsen. Unlike a one-time disaster, flu pandemics are protracted and tend to come in waves, says Scott McPherson, CIO of the Florida House of Representatives and a Computerworld blogger, who is on a crusade to push organizations to better prepare for the pandemic. For example, the H2N2 pandemic hit in 1957, then returned in 1959 and in 1962, he notes.

Business continuity plans typically deal with disasters that bring down infrastructure, but most don't take into account an illness that can bring down 40% of your workforce, even if only temporarily. This past spring, a joint survey conducted by Forrester Research Inc. and Disaster Recovery Journal found that 32% of companies polled had business continuity plans that did not include a workforce recovery component.

The 68% that did have such a plan indicated that they were adopting a range of strategies to ensure coverage:

Workforce Continuity Strategies

(multiple responses allowed)

Provision employees with remote access technologies: 86%
Use another internal site as an alternative site for work: 72%
Arrange for mobile recovery units: 26%
Subscribe to shared seats at a business continuity/disaster recovery service-provider site: 22%
Subscribe to dedicated seats at a service provider site: 17%
None of the above: 3%

Source: Forrester Research/Disaster Recovery Journal survey of 259 business continuity decision-makers and influencers

Is your IT department prepared for significant staff outages? Read on for some advice from business continuity experts on what adjustments your company should be making to weather the flu season.

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