The highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus – commonly called the Avian or bird flu – can be easily transmitted from birds to humans, and is deadly to both. Though it has not been detected in North or South America, it is reported that 332 human cases of Avian flu have been confirmed in the world since 2003, with 204 resulting in death (www.pandemicflu.gov). With little human immunity to the disease and a limited supply of the human vaccine, public health officials fear it could spread easily, leading to a global outbreak.
The potential implications of a pandemic are terrifying. Experts predict that whole communities could be lost and international economies could come to a standstill. Confusion and miscommunication within the workforce would wreak havoc on business, as fear of infection, illness and sick family members could keep personnel out of work for weeks or months. This loss in productivity would have a devastating impact on several levels – both financially and organizationally – and could ultimately cripple business on a universal scale.
Federal, state and local governments all agree that crisis readiness at the corporate level is integral to ensuring our nation continues to function in an influenza pandemic. At a minimum, this would require transportation (air, freight and trucking) to remain operational, the food supply intact and healthcare facilities open to tend to the sick. Likewise, businesses are equally aware of disaster’s sweeping effects, having experienced the physical, financial and emotional turmoil of 9/11. While pandemic influenza will not damage office buildings or shut down computer networks, extended employee illness and absenteeism could have equally damaging consequences on business stability if a company is not adequately prepared.
The Essence of Preparedness and Response: Communication
The most critical component of any contingency plan is communication. To help ensure business continuity and survival during a pandemic, organizations must develop comprehensive crisis preparedness and response plans that outline both short- and long-term operational objectives. Yet because the dynamics of pandemic influenza are so extraordinary, these strategies must be extremely flexible in design, allowing modifications to be made easily and on-the-fly. Appropriate emergency response will lower the risk of disease transmission and keep a company up and running.
A comprehensive communication strategy will include methodologies for immediately alerting key audiences – from employees to vendors to shareholders – when disaster strikes. It should uphold information integrity through the sharing of accurate, consistent details, so that people know exactly what steps must be taken to protect the organization, as well as themselves. And, it should utilize all available communications devices, including phone, pager, Blackberry and e-mail, to send and gather important facts about the situation-at-hand.
The plan should also include a practical, proactive means for providing those calling into the organization with additional information. Fear and uncertainty lead to incessant questions from employees, employees’ families, customers, suppliers and the media, and management cannot address each inquiry on a one-on-one basis. By providing individuals access to status updates, supplemental details and precautionary measures, confusion is minimized and decision-makers are free to focus on other elements of the response.
Solution: Emergency Notification Technology
As BC/DR planners assess the preparedness and response strategies of their respective organizations, too often they find they are not adequately prepared to face the numerous operational challenges posed by pandemic influenza. As a result, they are commonly recommending the adoption of emergency notification technology (ENT) as a viable solution for disaster communications in this and other business contingencies.
Used extensively in the public safety sector, and now more widespread in the corporate environment, ENT brings automation to the notification process, regardless of complexity or reach. It enables organizations to rapidly send voice or text messages to hundreds, or even thousands, of people using every possible device, as well as gather all-important feedback (e.g., “Are you okay?”) in any situation. Many ENT solutions also offer extensive conference bridge capabilities, helping companies bring individuals together in a virtual setting for group discussions; an inbound bulletin board feature for remotely accessible information sharing; and a comprehensive reporting mechanism for maximum accountability.
With ENT, the alerting of individuals, groups or teams is immediate and everyone receives a clear and concise message pertaining to their involvement in the response. While certain people may hear one message advising them to take necessary safety precautions, others may learn of their need to fill a particular role, such as a crisis action team manager. Some ENT solutions even provide the intelligence necessary to notify people based on their particular skills, personalized schedules, availability or responsibilities in executing an organization’s contingency plan.
ENT allows businesses of every size to prepare and test event-driven scenarios for critical and potentially life-threatening situations, like pandemic influenza, long before they unfold. Contact information (e.g., home phone, cell phone, e-mail and fax) for employees, management and others is easily stored and updated, ensuring immediate, error-free notification. Companies can also pre-record voice messages, such as evacuation instructions or medical precautions, ultimately speeding system activation and the overall response effort should it become necessary.
ENT brings speed and precision to any crisis communications effort, eliminating the guesswork and repetition associated with other notification methods, including manual call trees and text messaging. Executive management, system administrators and others know exactly who received word, and equally important, those who did not. Message receipt confirmation and documented responses to questions concerning one’s ability to respond or ETA ensures everyone is informed. Reports outlining the results of the notification provide conclusive, documented details should communication be in question or accountability need to be measured.
Organizations implementing ENT are better positioned to react in the event of a large-scale disaster, even if executives are routinely out of pocket. A company’s appointed administrator can typically set notifications into motion from any location using a phone or web-enabled computer, prompting the immediate distribution of vital information to everyone affected by the crisis. Moreover, advanced features like conference bridging help businesses bring individuals, such as crisis management teams and key management, together in a safe, virtual setting to facilitate group discussions, resulting in faster, more informed decision making.
Companies utilizing the inbound bulletin board feature of ENT will dramatically improve their ability to keep employees, clients, suppliers and other stakeholders informed. Executives or company spokespersons can easily record status updates at any time and from any location while other individuals can call as often as they want to obtain the latest details. This proactive method for continuous information sharing not only supplements the initial notification effort, but also lessens the burden of sharing non-critical, yet important details, following every situational change. This is especially beneficial in the wake of a pandemic, where conditions can fluctuate with each passing minute.
Examples of ENT’s potential uses during a pandemic outbreak include:
- Alerting company executives of emergency status and pertinent details, helping them accurately assess the situation and determine when or if to implement their organization’s pandemic response plan.
- Notifying affected facilities to alter or cease operations until further notice.
- Providing ongoing company-wide communications between management, employees and other stakeholders.
- Distributing corporate notifications to individual employees, reinforcing the message of working toward recovery and resumption of operations.
- Assembling crisis action teams in a virtual setting using advanced conference bridge capabilities.
- Notifying specific divisions or facilities about affected employees, alternate work procedures, illness/benefit information, healthcare resources and other relevant topics.
- Alerting suppliers and vendors of modified business hours, secondary locations and needs adjustments.
- Providing status updates via an inbound bulletin board, where employees, clients, vendors and others can obtain up-to-the-minute information.
- Sharing accurate, company-approved information with the media, company stockholders and investors.
ENT is typically deployed as an on-site system, utilizing an organization’s existing hardware and phone lines; as an off-site (hosted) solution, offloading notifications to the vendor’s infrastructure; or in some cases, a combination of the two. Either way, the technology typically allows remote activation and monitoring, empowering companies or vendors to manage their critical communications from any location and in any situation. This is especially crucial in an influenza outbreak, where organizations may find themselves unable to execute their pandemic response plan from inside their own company or use their own personnel and resources.
Most recently, the speed and effectiveness of ENT was evidenced during the wildfires that swept through San Diego and other parts of Southern California. During this federally declared major disaster, public safety agencies and county and city governments successfully engaged ENT to send thousands of messages to those in harm’s way. Following these widespread alerts of voluntary and mandatory evacuations, more than 500,000 families found their way to safety. However, far greater numbers could easily be achieved in the wake of pandemic influenza, where hundreds of thousands of people could be advised of an outbreak.
For years, public and private safety organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad have relied on ENT for immediate, widespread communications inside communities-at-risk, as well as global corporations. The technology has played a vital role in protecting human life in major crises, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Northeastern Blackout of 2003, and it will continue to do so with even greater results as the technology further evolves. With ENT, both the nation’s government and the global business community are better prepared to respond to, and ultimately recover from, man-made and natural disasters, including what many consider to be the world’s most imminent danger – pandemic influenza.
Like the wildfires that recently swept through Southern California, Avian flu could rapidly whip through the world’s population and leave a devastating trail of destruction. Although the timing and severity is unpredictable, scientists say a global outbreak is inevitable. As public safety organizations are making preparations now, the private sector must also follow suit if it is going to withstand the numerous operational challenges of this unprecedented disaster.
As with any contingency, communication will serve as the vital link between success or failure, and in this instance, life or death. Organizations with a clear strategy will be better poised to keep authorities informed, the disease contained, casualties managed and economic loss controlled. This is especially true of companies that choose to implement ENT, proven time and again to control the flow and integrity of information in critical situations. The time is now – before a pandemic strikes – for companies of every size to determine the methods and the means necessary to safeguard their employees, their business and their future.
"Appeared in DRJ's Winter 2008 Issue"