Creating a pandemic response for your disaster recovery plan

As more and more people are affected by the H1N1 flu, companies need to include a pandemic response into their DR plans.

Disaster recovery (DR) plans, especially from an IT perspective, rely on a number of previously defined and tested scripts that will guide technical resources through the disaster recovery process for a single system or an entire IT infrastructure. However, disaster recovery planning for a pandemic brings in a whole new element that most IT planners are not as familiar with: people.

The impact of pandemics such as the avian flu, SARS, and now the H1N1 flu may not necessarily be destructive to your data center, IT systems or facilities. But disasters don't just affect your data center or place of work, they also impact your workforce. The following are some of the elements that should be considered as part of the development of a pandemic response plan.

Clear policies are needed in pandemic planning

When a virus becomes a pandemic, identifying the symptoms, detecting the virus and figuring out where it was contracted can become difficult but is crucial. One of the first steps to pandemic planning is for companies to develop a clear human resource policy that provides a mechanism for employees to report and track medical conditions. If a company is faced with a pandemic, employers should support employees, encourage them to immediately report any flu-like symptoms and tell them to stay home and seek medical attention before returning to work. These policies are primarily aimed at slowing down the spread of a virus that could affect a greater number of a company's employees, but also gives the employees a sense that they are looked after and their employment is not at risk.

Human behavior and predictability

Pandemic and disaster recovery plans must also take into consideration how employees will react in the event of a large-scale virus outbreak. Unlike a disaster that strikes a single facility or a specific area, a pandemic is more widespread. Not living anywhere near a disaster-stricken facility or moving your family to an out-of-state relative's house offers no comfort during a pandemic. In the event of a pandemic, expect employees to focus on the health of their families: Parents may have to deal with school closures, etc. Whenever possible, put measures in place that allow employees to work from home.

Technology support during a pandemic

There are a variety of technologies that support pandemic planning and recovery. Technologies such as Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenDesktop and VMware Inc.'s View allow users to have access to an "office-like" desktop environment from a variety of access devices such as a home PC. Cisco Systems Inc.'s Unified Communications and Microsoft's Office Communicator provide instant messaging, IP phone and video conferencing capabilities that can all be integrated in a single interface running on a PC.

These options provide great pandemic response capabilities as well as prevent the spread of a disease by offering the ability to isolate healthy employees from the disease. These technologies also allow convalescent or homebound employees to remain an active part of the workforce.

Assumptions and dependencies

Pandemic planning should start at the very beginning of disaster recovery planning and considered throughout the entire planning effort. When working out a pandemic response plan, you may realize that some assumptions have to be made in order to even complete the plan, let alone having to activate it one day. Going back to an earlier example, when a data center facility is destroyed by a natural or manmade disaster, you can call your offsite tape storage provider, activate the IT disaster recovery plan, call in your support staff and get everyone to work until the environment is recovered. In this type of disaster, a recovery is possible because you have physical data that needs to be recovered, and there are people and service providers that are there to assist you. But what if these people are affected by a pandemic?

In the event of large-scale and fast-spreading pandemics such as the H1N1 flu, your workforce may be affected to a point where you have difficulty keeping up with your usual service level to your clients. In that case, you can expect that your suppliers and service providers will face the same issues servicing their clients, including you.

In the end, your pandemic plan must be developed based on the assumptions that services will be available and that you can provide goods and services to your clients. In other words, your disaster recovery and pandemic plan should assume that there will be power, internet connectivity, transportation and public order. Your plan must also assume that your suppliers and service providers are planning, too. With proper pandemic and disaster recovery planning, your company should be ready to face the types of challenges that may affect your workforce.

About this author:
Pierre Dorion is the data center practice director and a senior consultant with Long View Systems Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz., specializing in the areas of business continuity and DR planning services and corporate data protection.

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This was first published in November 2009

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