Right to the Point (5/14/09)

Are families and businesses prepared?

May 14, 2009

By Mike Benevento

It looks like the United States avoided the big one. At this time, it appears that the recent swine flu outbreak is easing. Thankfully, the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus has not been as deadly as the 1918 influenza virus — when an estimated 40 million people throughout the world lost their lives.

When the swine flu outbreak first started in Mexico, the media preyed on fear in order to increase revenue. Many treated the flu as another Black Death, only showing people wearing masks and sensationalizing every little bit of news. The media failed to stress that each year, seasonal influenza viruses kill hundreds of thousands more than the swine flu. As a result, many Americans panicked. Later, as the outbreak slowed, they believed health officials greatly exaggerated the threat. The risk is that these Americans will now do nothing and may ignore future flu warnings.

The H1N1 virus remains unpredictable and potentially could become pandemic, especially in the fall. Even if it continues to be a relatively mild illness — as the Boy Scout motto advises — everyone must still “be prepared.” It’s a good excuse to review family and business preparedness plans. Now is the time to prepare for the next crisis — not after it occurs.

While the swine flu is the genesis for this column, Americans need to prepare for all types of emergencies and disasters. Some to consider are winter storms, ice storms, flooding, fire, terrorist attack, windstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados. While technically not a disaster, power outages, heating or air conditioning loss or even Internet viruses can significantly interrupt business and family life.

Families should consider that in emergencies local responders might be overwhelmed and unable to assist them. Thus, families should strive to be self-reliant. Even in the best of times, it makes good sense to have a two-week supply of food, water and medical supplies (including prescriptions). Money, credit cards and seasonal clothing are also important.

When daycare or schools close, childcare needs to be coordinated. Additionally, all family members should know to contact a specific person in another state should they get separated from the rest of the family during a widespread disaster.

Do not neglect preparing for pets in a disaster. Realize that in emergencies, responders will try to save human lives first. As many southerners found out during Hurricane Katrina, there may not be resources available to rescue and shelter pets and farm animals.

Out of the ordinary events can wreak havoc with businesses — causing some to fail. Therefore, companies, restaurants and stores of all shapes and sizes need to develop business continuity and disaster recovery plans. The plans need to consider how the company will (or will not) operate without power or the Internet. How it can function with people out sick — or at home caring for others? The plans need to take into account how important the business is to the community. Does it play a vital role, like an electric company, or does it deal with nice to have items, like pizzas?

Businesses can remind employees about personal hygiene practices that reduce absenteeism during the yearly flu season: hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette and the use of hand gel and tissues.

Remind people not to come to work when they are sick. One unhealthy employee can infect an entire company. Also, consider alternative work options such as flexible hours and working from home.

As pointed out by Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the technology advisory firm the Enderle Group, telecommuting may save the company during a pandemic by limiting the spread of disease. In addition, if there is an outbreak at work, personnel working from home will likely survive and can keep the company running.

Businesses should not send employees to outbreak locations and should avoid unnecessary travel. Video and telephone conferences are inexpensive (and healthier) alternatives.

Give time off to those who traveled to an outbreak area (whether for personal or business reasons). The same goes for a person who has had contact with others who were in an infected area. In-home mini-quarantines will help reduce the chance of an office outbreak.

Pandemic planning expert Dr. Stuart Weiss writes that communication is crucial during a disaster or crisis. Because of this, focus on how businesses will disseminate important information to employees, outside agencies (like suppliers) and customers.

Develop plans for reduced operations, designate key employees and train back-up personnel. Finally, determine procedures for business closing and reopening.

For free downloads of the 2009 “Family Emergency Preparedness Workbook” or the “Business Disaster Preparedness Workbook,” please visit Vermont Emergency Management’s Web site at www.dps.state.vt.us/vem/.


Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.