By Edward Hruneni and Evan Rosenfield
You cunningly escape from your 9 a.m. meeting, and tiptoe back to your desk to check e-mail. The kick-off message, entitled “EMERGENCY - open immediately,” seizes your attention. The message cautiously advises you that one of your employees has been diagnosed with Avian flu.
The arrival of this warning is completely unexpected. To your knowledge, the Avian flu virus (also known as H5N1) has not yet sullied the beaches or airport runways of the United States. Yet here you are, lamenting the imminence of what might be a ready-or-not-here-it-comes crisis.
When confronted with this scenario, how would you respond? If you cannot decisively identify your immediate course of action, you may be inviting undesirable levels of risk, liability, public criticism, or even disruption of your business operations. If you hesitate for too long, prepare to brace yourself for a maelstrom of high-velocity decision-making.
The Pandemic Scenario
The good news is that, in the event of an outbreak, most material assets will remain relatively secure. While terrorist assaults or natural disasters might decimate and devalue whole structures, the Avian flu antigens cannot incapacitate the inorganic concrete, bricks, mortar, HVAC systems, plumbing, or electric wires of an edifice.
On the other hand, vital human resources may suddenly vanish during an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization and the U.S. government, the spread of H5N1 - with its staggering 50-percent mortality rate - could inflict prolonged personnel shortages. During a pandemic, you could lose access to your administrators, cleaning staff, security staff, inspectors, sales force, and even executive leadership.
A few absences from your workplace may not constitute an impediment to your operations. However, statistical models have actually projected that, at the peak of the disease, up to 40 percent of the national workforce could be absent or unavailable. On a national scale, businesses may struggle with staffing droughts. The same holds true for the nation’s critical infrastructure, including law enforcement agencies, food manufacturing companies, communications providers, transportation providers, financial institutions, medical facilities, and energy plants.
Think of your vendors and all the products they provide, as well as all the services they render. What would happen if manufacturers could no longer staff their own operations, or receive the necessary goods or materials? What would happen if, on a national scale, personnel shortages prevented maintenance of phone and e-mail systems? What would happen if freight companies and mass transit systems were so stricken with absences that food and gasoline languished undelivered? And what would happen if even the power companies could not maintain the necessary levels of employment?
Avian flu is more than a regular influenza bug. During most years, between November and March, the U.S. population is harried by H1 or H3 strains of influenza. In contrast, the H5 strain represents a classification of flu that has never previously spread among humans. Hence, it is unlikely that the vast majority of the population will demonstrate immunity.
When dealing with a disease of this ilk, against which people have no resistance, it becomes critical to consider the far-reaching, nearly inconceivable implications of rapid, simultaneous infection across the United States. This is the reason that organizations are engaging in careful contingency planning against pandemic eventualities.
Many leaders from the buildings industry - executives, building owners, and facilities managers - may bear a special burden with regard to Avian flu preparedness. Such individuals will fulfill essential roles at their own companies, as well as at client properties. The planning process for these individuals must therefore balance considerations of client expectations and internal business needs.
The Vital Necessities
The planning process should start with a thorough assessment of company needs. The assessment should identify mission-critical operations. In other words, a company’s leadership should collectively determine which processes, procedures, and material resources would be utterly indispensable when forced to carry on business in a no-frills manner.
A truly thorough analysis will likewise identify which processes and procedures are essential to clients. A careful review of existing contract requirements might be instrumental in determining the skeletal necessities of business operations. Additionally, candid interviews with decision-making clients would be invaluable in diagnosing the stripped-down, minimum operational standards for progressive phases of a pandemic.
The nature and scope of the planning process, and the resulting laundry list of needs, will vary dramatically from company to company, depending upon the size of the business, the strategy, the target market, the product line, and/or the services rendered. Yet, the purpose of the analysis will remain the same for all - to articulate precise operational requirements that will guide the development of prudent contingency measures.
Should the Worst Happen ...
After a company has identified the essential processes and resources, it should speculate about viable responses to the worst-possible case of influenza outbreak. The goal of contingency planning is to protect vital operations to the greatest possible extent, so that routine processes and procedures can endure potential disruptions.
A certain amount of creativity may be required at this point to anticipate probable threats. To spark your imagination, consider some typical contingency measures, as outlined below:
- Establish/Reaffirm Chain of Command. An H5N1 pandemic could leave the senior leadership of an organization ill, or worse. Be sure to clarify the hierarchy of authority. Make sure that there is a clear understanding and recognition of decision-making responsibilities.
- Consult Existing Emergency Response Plans. Each state and municipality has begun to develop response plans for influenza pandemics. You should familiarize yourself with local and state plans, so that you know what resources will be available (or unavailable). Be sure that your plans dovetail with those of your state/municipality.
- Provide Bio-awareness Training. In the event of a pandemic outbreak, many employees will be afraid and confused. To prevent the fear from igniting paranoia or unnecessary absenteeism, you might consider offering informational sessions to employees and clients regarding influenza transmissibility. Such sessions will be most effective when administered by health experts.
- Stockpile Vaccinations. An effective vaccination for the pandemic strain of H5N1 does not yet exist. However, some companies are considering stockpiling anti-viral medications, or even just regular influenza vaccines. The hope is that preliminary vaccinations might heighten immune system activity, and thereby prepare the body for H5N1 infection. On the other hand, administration of these vaccinations may require the presence of medical professionals, who will be in short supply during a pandemic. Be advised that procurement of certain medications may be illegal under the present state of international affairs. Potential buyers should be wary of product fraud, and should realize that stockpiling scarce medicinal supplies might deny the supplies to sick civilians who genuinely require treatment.
- Develop Communications. In the turmoil of a pandemic, it will be difficult to pause for communications planning. You might consider developing some pre-canned messages. Your messaging strategies should address the period before the pandemic, when people are afraid and need direction. You will also need messaging after the pandemic, when people will be grieving and unconfident. Identify a chief spokesperson that can address the media and inform partners and clients of your plans (and make sure the spokesperson is not a decision-maker, since the decision-makers will be too busy). A more effective campaign will focus on crucial audience interests (such as sanitation and safety).
- Cross-train Personnel. It is impossible to predict who will become infected. You might consider providing extra training to personnel, so that they can fulfill additional/alternative functions when the need arises. Make sure that several individuals can fulfill each essential function.
- Back-up Agreements with Vendors. Service and product providers may be taxed beyond capacity during a pandemic. Be sure to identify alternative sources for services and products. You might consider signing “preferred provider” agreements with vendors.
- Social Distancing. Influenza is typically spread through close contact between individuals. Teleworking is one of the best ways of reducing contact with others. Other distancing strategies include staggering shifts to minimize in-office personnel and increase spatial allocations. Travel can be limited or curtailed, as can face-to-face meetings and workplace visitations. Some companies might even resort to physical restructuring to ensure that workstations are separated by at least 1 yard, with inter-station walls. In the interest of delaying and segmenting disease progress, the most elaborate plans may entail the decentralization of normal offices to satellite locations.
- Sanitation. Sanitation materials and services will be in high demand during a pandemic. It may be wise to stockpile materials in advance. Companies might consider purchasing special anti-viral soaps. It may also be wise to set up hand-washing stations, and/or provide training on correct hand-washing procedures. Businesses should take care to frequently sterilize “high-contact” areas, such as elevator panels, door handles, and stairway railings.
- Update HR Policies. Employees may require extra time off to recover from illness, or to help dependents recover. Be sure that your emergency closure, vacation, sick leave, extended leave, bereavement, and evacuation policies are clear and known to all employees prior to outbreak. You may also need to document policies pertaining to flex-time, teleworking, and company-wide vaccination. Additionally, consider the development of corporate quarantine (i.e. work-from-home) policies. Be prepared to issue regular e-mail reminders regarding these policies and relevant medical benefits.
- Update Emergency Data Sheets. It may suddenly become necessary to arrange emergency support for an employee. Be sure that you have gathered emergency contact information from personnel. Be sure to gather contact information for family members and physicians, as well as information concerning allergies, home addresses, and preferred medical facilities. It would also be wise to consult with legal council regarding HIPPA regulations, storage and use of this information, and potential liabilities.
- Review Insurance Policies. Insurance could provide financial protection against the costly burdens of sick leave and operational failures, as may result from personnel shortages. It would be wise to review existing insurance policies to ensure sufficient coverage.
- Stockpile Survival Resources. During a pandemic, the government may impose travel restrictions. While unlikely, it is plausible that personnel could become stranded at the workplace. Consider stocking an emergency supply of food, water, and sundry medical supplies that will help control fever. An ample supply of non-perishable items, such as canned foods, would be ideal.
- Identify Transportation Alternatives. At the peak of the pandemic, ambulances and gasoline may be in short supply. Determine how you would transport or otherwise remove sick employees from the workplace. Consider reserving one or more vehicles for emergency purposes. Make sure that fuel tanks remain full.
- Reinforce IT Infrastructure. Surges in teleworking are likely to accompany the onset of a pandemic. Be sure to test all systems in advance to determine whether existing systems will have the capacity to handle the increased network traffic.
- Issue Personal Protective Gear. The World Health Organization has refrained from recommending the use of protective equipment since the effectiveness of this gear in preventing the transmission of H5N1 is questionable. However, some companies have considered issuing facemasks to public-facing personnel.
- Install Facility Technologies. As is the case with protective gear, officials have made no recommendations with regard to the use of special facility technologies. There are, however, a variety of relevant systems on the market, including air purification systems and non-invasive thermo-scanning equipment. Companies may also refurbish certain rooms and designate the areas as safe/quarantine zones.
- Implement Temporary Bio-safety Procedures. A variety of more creative solutions have been considered by organizations, such as the implementation of hourly temperature-taking by personnel. Such measures seem questionable, since disease transmission can occur prior to the onset of fever.
- Establish Contact Tracking Protocols. Sick employees may transmit H5N1 prior to the onset of symptoms. To inhibit the spread of the virus during the early stages of a pandemic, consider gathering data concerning employee interactions during the days and hours preceding illness. Be prepared to alert at-risk employees, and consider enforcing work-from-home policies with these individuals. Also, consider gathering personal contact information from all office visitors so that you can alert these individuals when they are at-risk. Be prepared to help health authorities by providing contact data. Consultation with a lawyer may be necessary to prevent legal claims when issuing or disclosing alerts.
- Escalate Security. There may be shortages in law enforcement, and thus opportunities for looters and vandals to desecrate your material assets. Consider incrementing the physical security at your sites. Establish the necessary contracts with security providers long in advance, since security providers will probably be overextended during a pandemic. When possible, sign preferred provider agreements (but be sure that the agreements will allow you to seek services elsewhere if resources are unavailable). As is the case with all vendors, make sure you are aware of alternative providers.
- Counseling Services. H5N1 appears to be highly lethal. Employees may lose several beloved family members during a pandemic, resulting in overwhelming levels of psychological stress and/or depression. Be prepared to help your employees carry on with their work and normalize their routine. You might consider providing counseling services as an extra benefit. It may also be necessary to shore up employee assistance programs.
It is impossible to predict the timing of the next pandemic. However, it is apparent that Avian flu is a highly lethal disease that has become endemic in Avian species throughout certain regions in Asia. The virus can already be transmitted among certain mammalian species, including mice and ferrets. Limited human-to-human transmission of the virus has also occurred.
In the coming months, businesses will need to balance the ever-competing demands on their resources as they plan for (or ignore) the threat of Avian influenza. The only certainty is that there will be difficulty in choosing between investment in immediate needs and investment in planning processes for pandemics that may never happen.
For each organization, the value of planning will probably be relative to the potential losses that would be incurred should the worst scenario transpire. Needless to say, the decision to prepare will be based on a probability calculus. Among other important factors, cost-benefit analysis should take public relations into account: No company would ever want to be charged with irresponsible reactions to a lethal disease.
More to the point, there is an inherent social responsibility in H5N1 preparations. The U.S. government has made it clear that resources will be limited during a pandemic. Businesses will have the opportunity to help avert disaster by implementing measures that impede the spread of the disease through employee pools and across the country. Projections indicate that 2-million lives could hinge upon the decisions of the private sector.
So what will you do?
Edward Hruneni is director of consulting and investigations, and Evan Rosenfield is director of business communications at Dulles, VA-headquartered American Security Programs (www.securityprograms.com), an American-owned security company that was founded in 1994 through the merger of several venerable and trusted firms. The company provides security manpower, investigation services, security consulting, and training services for a prestigious portfolio of government and private-sector clients.