Disaster Planning in a Down Economy
Risk managers and emergency planners know that natural disasters and other threats don't wait for the opportune time to strike.
- By Louis W. Sullivan
- Jul 01, 2009
Whether in the public or private sector,
risk managers with limited resources
are constantly faced with the challenge
of prioritizing competing concerns,
managing the desire to take all possible steps to protect
the organization and its employees. In today's
economic climate, shrinking budgets are the norm,
and securing funding for things like emergency preparedness
can be difficult.
As Mike Osterholm, director of the Center
for Infectious Disease Research and Policy
(CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota,
recently told Reuters, "People are just trying
to survive and asking, 'Is this the time to be
preparing for a catastrophe?'"
In this time of economic uncertainty, it
can be tempting to ignore seemingly faraway
threats. Such may be the case with an influenza
pandemic—while there was urgency
behind pandemic planning several years ago,
the perceived threat seems less imminent
with every passing year, potentially slowing
Risk managers and emergency planners
know that natural disasters and other threats
don't wait for the opportune time to strike.
They occur at random—whether we're ready for them
While some organization leadership may be looking
at ways to reduce spending, risk managers understand
the danger that cutbacks can pose when it comes
to emergency preparedness. The threats remain, even
if the budgets don't.
This lack of resources can leave risk managers feeling
frustrated and discouraged. In such times, it's important
to remember the bigger picture: that there are
opportunities for collaboration in such efforts.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(DHHS), in partnership with other government
agencies, has identified roles for state and local governments,
the private sector, community leaders, religious
entities and individuals, and continues to provide
comprehensive guidance and an impressive array
of tools for each of these groups, available
at www.pandemicflu.gov. Initiatives such as
DHHS's "Take the Lead" program reinforce
that preparing our nation for a pandemic involves
Making a strong case to management for
the allotment of scarce resources is critical to
ensuring that an organization stays one step
ahead of looming threats. Indeed, there is a
strong case to be made for the continued investment
of time and resources in pandemic
An Insurance Policy
Experts contend we are closer to the next
pandemic than at any time since 1968,
when the last of the previous century's three pandemics
struck. The H5N1 strain of avian influenza
continues to spread among bird populations
throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa,
and has infected more than 400 people to date
with a fatality rate of 61 percent. Since January,
seven human infections were reported in China,
where the SARS epidemic began. Even if the next
pandemic were to start in a distant location such as China, it would likely reach American
shores quickly, bringing with it worldwide
economic and health consequences.
Pandemic planning should be viewed
as an insurance policy against the economic
damage that would result from
widespread sickness, absenteeism and
death. Dr. Shigeru Omi, former regional
director for the World Health Organization
in the Western Pacific, stated in a recent
newspaper editorial, "The economic
cost of a pandemic would be many times
any savings made by not preparing."
DHHS has also acknowledged the
economic risks associated with not increasing
our nation's readiness, writing
on the "Take the Lead" Web site, "If
America is not adequately prepared, pandemic
flu could seriously affect everyone
Build on Progress
Fortunately, indications are that the
Obama administration is maintaining focus
on pandemic preparedness. The spending
bill signed in mid-March by President
Obama contained more than $700 million
in pandemic preparedness spending. This
funding is a step in the right direction. But,
when you consider the potential implications
of a severe flu pandemic—according
to a World Bank report released in late
2008, a severe pandemic could cause $3
trillion of damage to the global economy—
the investment seems conservative.
The public and private sectors have already
invested significantly in pandemic
preparedness. It would be unfortunate to
abandon pandemic planning efforts in an
attempt to save money in the short term
because continued investment could lead
to substantial long-term savings, were there
to be a pandemic. The recession will undoubtedly
impact corporate and government
pandemic planning activities, but if
risk managers hone their strategies, they
can keep their plans going despite a smaller
budget and fewer resources.
Planners should focus on what can realistically
be accomplished while the country
awaits economic recovery. For example, a
full-scale mock pandemic exercise may be
out of reach at this time, but a table-top
exercise may be more feasible. Engaging a
broad, cross-company team in an effort to
update existing plans may be a challenge given leaner corporate structures and competing concerns. Perhaps
a smaller group can keep the plan refreshed until a full-scale
review is possible.
Ongoing Organizational Planning:
A Part of Something Bigger
The government's National Plan has successfully directed and
facilitated collaboration among multiple stakeholders, and
DHHS has led by example. Joining forces with the private sector
in new ways, DHHS has provided grants to vaccine manufacturers
to complement the research and development of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has stockpiled
new H5N1 pre-pandemic vaccines.
The government has also stockpiled quantities of the antiviral
medications Tamiflu and Relenza while encouraging
businesses to consider doing the same. Antiviral drug manufacturers
are working directly with companies through special
programs that help facilitate the stockpiling process. These
medications remain an important part of the arsenal; in a recent
article by CIDRAP News, experts characterized antivirals
as reliable tools that can help preserve business continuity during
an influenza pandemic.
Collaboration is also happening at the local, grassroots level.
For example, in the St. Louis area, executives from companies
including AT&T, Centene, and Edward Jones joined forces
with representatives from several universities, school districts,
hospitals, non-profit organizations, and city and county health
departments to establish PandemicPrep.org. This coalition is
helping educate others in the region about the importance of
pandemic preparedness by hosting free conferences and maintaining
a comprehensive Web site.
Risk managers should look to their own communities for opportunities
to build similar organizations. Even if their own organization
is unable to invest further funding into pandemic preparedness
at this time, they can connect with their peers in other
organizations to share their experiences and best practices.
These examples demonstrate that when there is a need for
leadership and action, government and businesses can work together.
In light of the financial burdens currently facing the government
and the private sector, it is critical that we continue to
work together to meet society's needs.
We must sharpen our focus on the threat that a pandemic poses
to our country, our citizens, and our businesses, as well as the
continued planning that it demands.
Preparing for potential disasters requires commitment, foresight,
discipline, and innovation. The leadership demonstrated
by the federal government with its pandemic preparedness plan
is an example of a great American tradition: When we put the best
minds towards a significant challenge and give all stakeholders a
seat at the table, we can achieve great things. It is critical to continue
these collaborative efforts.
This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.