Can Your Business Withstand a Flu Pandemic?

By Lloyd F. Reese, CPP, CISSP

Security Implications

The US government Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza suggests that various events could cause challenges for law enforcement.  Civil disturbances and disorder could occur as hospitals become overwhelmed, shortages in basic necessities take place, and people try to evade quarantine orders. 

The Harvard School of Public Health conducted a survey which showed that “when faced with a serious outbreak of pandemic flu, a large majority of Americans are willing to make major changes in their lives and cooperate with public health officials’ recommendations.” Reasonable people could be expected to give favorable responses when asked a hypothetical question today, but we do not know how people will actually behave during a pandemic.  The Associated Press reported that surveys found only 10 percent of Americans were taking steps to prepare for a pandemic.   If people do not prepare, they may become desperate for food, water, and warm or cool shelter, depending on the season of the year.  As the number of fatalities rises and infrastructure fails, fear may also have an impact on people who would otherwise behave rationally.

When it comes to protecting critical infrastructure , the government in its Implementation Plan makes it clear that the private sector should take care of itself.  It suggests that these critical services need to continue without interruption and that security plans need to be developed with the consideration that local law enforcement assistance may be limited.

One must consider the traditional role of security guards in the US.  As confirmed in an interview with Cliff Enber, an attorney who works with contract guard firms, most have limited training. With a few exceptions, their role is simply to observe a given situation and report it to local law enforcement.  This is especially true if violence or weapons are involved.   However, as noted above, the police may not be available.  While the National Guard can potentially backup local police if ordered to do so by the governor, the National Governor’s Association has cautioned that their ranks may be depleted by callups by the Department of Defense.

An article in the Raleigh News and Observer describes preparations for a flu pandemic. Hospital security forces are making plans for crowd control and restricted access or “lockdowns” if needed.  WakeMed (Hospital) Police Chief Liasa Pryse stated “we got more serious after Katrina because we realized we did not need a bioterrorism event for there to be a threat to a key community asset.”  If mobile medical units leave the site as they did to provide assistance in the gulf area after Katrina, her officers will be there to guard the doctors and nurses. “We would not roll a truck out of here without an armed presence” said Bill Atkinson, WakeMed’s President and CEO.   By contrast, Carolina Medical Center in Charlotte does not have sworn officers and relies on local law enforcement to guard their personnel. When they headed to the gulf coast, SWAT team members from Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD provide security.  WakeMed appears better prepared for the pandemic than Carolina Medical Center.

Jay Schwartz is with North Carolina-based Alex Lee Inc, which owns a chain of grocery stores and also supplies institutions. At a recent pandemic conference he commented that "security is a huge issue." Large food trucks may be targeted by thieves. "Maybe we'll have someone riding shotgun for added security."

Attorney Enber notes that to supplement an existing guard force, contact guards are likely to be the only option. “Contract security companies are in a strong position to respond and cover you.  They have an inventory of security personnel they can call on.”  He pointed out their record of responding to requests for additional guards after 9-11.

A representative of a major guard company explained in an interview that his company was working closely with its clients to prepare for a possible pandemic.  This company made sure that its senior managers were fully informed about pandemic planning.  However, when asked how his officers would deal with the lack of police response, his response was “that’s a good question.”  

Technology such as cameras, sensors, lighting, and access control can certainly help to protect your employees and facilities. Given that power may have interruptions, anything that is truly important needs battery backup and generators with multiple refueling contracts.  It can take from six months to a year to have generators and fuel tanks installed. 

Partnering with the Community 

The Conference Board survey of companies regarding pandemic planning found that about “30 percent are working with municipal/ local officials about their organization’s ability to provide essential services and access to facilities, equipment, or staffs during a pandemic; and nearly 20 percent have coordinated with first responders.”

While much of the effort for pandemic planning has focused on the public health aspects, the non-medical issues are quite important. No business can operate for long without support provided by the local government especially water, sewage, garbage disposal,  and public safety.  Water and sewage facilities both need power to operate as well as certain chemicals.  Do these facilities have generators and how long will their fuel supply last?  How much inventory of these chemicals is maintained? Clearly more businesses need to work with their local pubic officials to determine how well prepared they are to carry out these functions and also how the company can help. 


If you are critical infrastructure (CI), you had better be well prepared. Even so, you could fail due to extended power outages and fuel shortages, but you still tried to prevail. Otherwise, you will face the anger of citizens, legislators, shareholders, and others. If you are less than CI, you need to do a careful assessment. Is it best for you to go into a "DOOP" if things get tough or should you try harder to stick it out longer? What will be the cost if you do and if you do not? It may be much less expensive to prepare for a pandemic than for a traditional disaster. You will not need another data center site or backup office space at another location. You do need to plan for how you can operate with 30 percent or more of your staff absent. That's a challenge, but it may not be that costly. Think hard about what is really important for your company to do in order to survive.

All companies need to think about how they will be seen in the communities where they are located. There is much that can be said for working with others to help the community. Many companies such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, large logistical operations, showed how well the private sector can respond to a disaster such as Katrina. Many other companies also have considerable logistics experience.  A pandemic is not simply a public health issue.  Surviving it requires getting critical supplies such as food, water, and fuel where they are needed.

Start by checking out your local government's web site. If they refer you to the state or federal government's sites, you need to be concerned.  If, when you call them, they say they have an "all hazards approach", you need to start asking tough questions about water, sewer, public safety, etc. Do not take avoidance and denial for answers. After all, you are a taxpayer!



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