Monday, August 27, 2007

Pandemic Planning Not At Fever Pitch

Some IT execs are preparing for flu outbreak, but broad interest appears to be waning.


By Patrick Thibodeau

July 16, 2007 -- James Seligman, CIO at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may be among the first people to know if the U.S. is struck by a pandemic, such as an avian flu outbreak. Seligman’s IT staff is building a system that will enable the CDC to collect emergency room data in real time from hospitals around the country.

But Seligman is also focused on ensuring that the federal agency’s IT operations can continue delivering essential services to its employees during a pandemic or other public health emergency.

For instance, the agency has dramatically increased the capacity of IT systems to support employees working remotely. Remote access support has risen from several hundred simultaneous user sessions to several thousand as a result of an expansion in server capacity and the purchase of more Citrix software licenses, Seligman said.

James Seligman James Seligman

In addition, the CDC has crossed-trained IT workers in an effort to make sure that key systems can continue to run in an emergency. And it has installed showers and stockpiled cots, face masks and other supplies to make it possible for the IT staff to work long hours if necessary. Seligman thinks there’s no choice but to prepare for a pandemic. At the CDC, he works with scientists who are deeply involved in the issue and believe that a pandemic is inevitable. “It’s not a question of if, but when,” he said. “So the sooner that companies and families and communities and states are prepared, the better.”

But many other IT organizations don’t appear to be ready, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Ken McGee. At a Gartner data center conference in Las Vegas last November, McGee gave a presentation on the risk of an avian flu pandemic. He recommended that the IT professionals in the audience prepare a pandemic response plan by the end of this year’s second quarter.

Despite his admonition, McGee is worried that fears of a possible pandemic are waning in the U.S. Most of Gartner’s clients “would not be prepared if this descended upon the world tomorrow — they just simply would not be ready,” he said. “I think it’s just part of the human condition: You don’t put the stop sign up until after the traffic accident.”

Scott McPherson Scott McPherson

Scott McPherson, CIO of the Florida House of Representatives and head of the Florida CIO Council’s pandemic preparedness committee, tracks news about the avian flu daily. Despite the reduced rates of cases and deaths thus far this year, McPherson said he’s mystified by the lack of attention that the threat is getting in the U.S.

For instance, he said that if a pandemic occurs, expanding telecommuting programs won’t be a viable option because of network overload and a lack of broadband access for many employees. IT managers “need to prepare for what happens after the work-at-home plans implode,” McPherson said.

But Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at managed security services vendor BT Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., said the scope of the disaster caused by a pandemic would be so large that businesses’ contingency plans would be rendered useless.

“If everyone loses 40% of their workforce, the world is different,” Schneier said. “You cannot prepare for [that], and you’re wasting your time if you try.” That sort of planning can only be done by governments, not companies, he added.

Even in Australia, which is closer to avian flu hot spots than the U.S. is, media attention to the pandemic threat has diminished from last year, said Richard Constantine, CIO at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

But pandemic planning is a top-of-mind issue for Constantine, who sees it as a necessary part of a broader approach to business contingency planning.

Constantine said Swinburne is working to ensure that IT and other departments are aligned so that each is aware of what services will be delivered in an emergency and everyone understands exactly what needs to be done.

Choosing products is also part of the school’s planning process. “We’re always looking for technology that can be managed remotely,” Constantine said. Robert L. Mitchell contributed to this story.

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