Pandemic prospect complicates COOP

The possible pandemic outbreak of a contagious disease could render many emergency management and continuity-of-operations (COOPs) plans moot, according to a panel of experts who discussed the topic this morning.

Speaking as part of the CIO Forum and Executive IT Summit in Falls Church, Va., the panelists said plans designed to deal with a bombing or a hurricane wouldn't necessarily apply to an outbreak of avian flu, for example.

The prospects of such an outbreak have accelerated COOP efforts at some agencies, said David Songco, chief information officer at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the 27 institutes that constitute the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

"The organizations had considered it important, but not so urgent," Songco said. "The pandemic flu threat changed all that. Now it's urgent."

But people would respond differently to a flu outbreak than to a truck bomb or a storm, he said. The changes wouldn't be just among the sick; healthy employees trying to avoid becoming infected would stay home.

"We always had a plan for continuity of operations after the first response, but we never figured on 40 percent of the people staying home," he said. Agencies may not have the bandwidth to accommodate that large a portion of their workforce trying to work from home, he said.

Steve Cooper, former chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department and now CIO at the American Red Cross, said the Red Cross' normal procedure is to establish service centers near a disaster area. But that wouldn't work in a pandemic.

"Nobody is going to show up at our service centers," in that case, he said. "That model gets turned on its head."

The panel agreed that they have time to develop plans that consider a pandemic, but they also agreed they need to work urgently to have them in place and tested before they are needed.

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