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Gartner: Existing business continuity plans will fail in a pandemic

Shamus McGillicuddy

Companies that rely on existing business continuity (BC) plans for addressing a potential pandemic of avian flu will fail.

Speaking at his firm's annual Data Center Conference, Gartner Inc. vice president and research fellow Ken McGee said standard BC plans apply to only geographically specific disasters, such as floods, earthquakes and localized man-made disasters.

However, when a pandemic does happen, experts predict it will spread across the globe quickly and create simultaneous worldwide business disruptions. For instance, relying on a backup data center in India won't help a U.S. company stay in business. The Indians who run that backup data center will be just as sick as the company's U.S.-based employees.

If the pandemic spreads across the globe as quickly as some experts predict, worldwide social and economic disruptions will follow as governments across the globe enact quarantines that could last one to 12 weeks, McGee warned his audience.

"Eight percent of the human race, about 500 million people, cross national borders every year," McGee said. That's nearly 1.4 million people crossing national borders every day.

An instant electronic poll of more than 100 attendees at McGee's presentation revealed that while 41% had created new plans specific to avian flu, 24% said their companies have no plan; 16% will rely on their existing plans during a pandemic.

"Your current disaster recovery and business continuity plans will

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not serve you," McGee said. "The 24% [who have no plan] raises even more concern."

Have a pandemic response plan in place by the second quarter of 2007, he said.

The capacity of public networks will be stretched beyond their limits with everyone isolated, McGee said. It's essential, then, to identify the critical employees who will need access to the business during a pandemic because it is likely that not everyone will be able to connect remotely during quarantine.

Companies should train employees to deal with a pandemic personally, because employees who are struggling to support their families during a pandemic will not have time to support the business.

Be prepared to house employees on site for several weeks, he said. This means provisions such as food, water and medicine if employees are trapped on site during quarantine.

And start negotiating preferential treatment from vendors during a pandemic.

"Now is the time to negotiate with vendors about your particular needs during a pandemic," he said. "Once a panic sets in, all bets are off."

Attendees at McGee's presentation may fall short when it comes to having plans, but they get kudos from the analyst on ownership. Fifty-nine percent said they have a specific person to oversee planning and response to a pandemic; 24% said no; 17% were unsure.

McGee said he has been pushing the importance of a company having one person responsible for managing the pandemic planning process. Whether that person sits in human resources, information technology or another part of the business, it matters little as long at that person has direct authority up to the CEO.

That so many attendees said their companies had adopted this approach was a shock, McGee said. "That's remarkable. A year ago today, I couldn't get arrested on this topic."

Mark Baumgartner, technical coordinator of information technology systems and services at Management Science Associates Inc., said he was stunned by the high number of people who are actually planning for a pandemic.

"I don't know if we do," said Baumgartner, who said his company, a Tarentum, Pa.-based information management firm, conducts general business continuity planning. After listening to McGee this week, he said pandemic planning would definitely be on his agenda when he goes home.

"The first thing I'm going to discuss with my boss is whether we've thought about this [business disruptions] beyond snow days," he said