Financial Industry Ready for Pandemic Flu

By Matthew Harwood

The U.S. financial sector is strong enough to withstand the onslaught of a severe global pandemic flu, says the U.S. Treasury Department.

Between the weeks of September 24 and October, 12, 2007, the financial sector held the largest pandemic flu exercise ever for the industry. The U.S. Treasury Department conducted the exercise in partnership with the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security (FSSCC), the Financial and Banking Information Infrastructure Committee (FBIIC), and the Securities Industry and Financial Management Association (SIFMA).

The exercise used progressive absenteeism rates—reaching as high as 49 percent—to test the contingency plans of participating organizations as well as stressing the critical infrastructure participants rely on to see how resilient they are during differing levels of a pandemic.

While the financial sector performed well, many weaknesses were discovered.

Before the exercise, many organizations said telecommuting was part of their planning to deal with pandemic flu. However, few employees telecommuted during the exercise. Another weakness uncovered by the exercise was insufficient testing of computer systems necessary for telecommuting of staff who perform critical functions. Large to medium organizations reported testing for less than half of the necessary staff, while smaller organizations said they had done so for less than 5 percent of such staff.

As the pandemic worsened during the exercise, 88 percent of participants said they did not have stockpiles of anti-viral medications or did not distribute them. However, 54 percent of participants had stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE) and distributed it to employees during the height of the pandemic.

Communication strategies are another critical part to any organization's pandemic planning. Before the exercise, more than 80 percent of participants said they had a communications plan for employees, customers, and suppliers during the pandemic. After the exercise, most participants said their plans had been moderately successful.

And although participants understood that they would be reliant on other sectors—such as transportation, telecommunications, and energy—during a pandemic, 97 percent said they would need to pay more attention to these interdependencies.

Nevertheless, the FBIIC/FSSCC Pandemic Flu Exercise report said:

By providing an opportunity to test plans, identify systemic risks and critical dependencies on other sectors through this exercise, 99 percent of exercise participants felt that the exercise met its objectives and was useful in assessing their pandemic planning needs. As a result, the exercise provided the participants the opportunity to examine key crisis management issues, foster strategic thinking, and strengthen the sector's overall preparedness. 

George S. Hender, chairman of FSSCC, said "The exercise identified a number of issues that can be addressed to further strengthen the sector's resiliency. Each organization needs to look at the lessons learned from the exercise and incorporate the appropriate enhancements to their pandemic planning."

Despite the weaknesses uncovered, large firms had planned so well for a possible pandemic, the report said, there was little impact on many operations for short periods of time even as absenteeism increased to 35 percent. More importantly, even as absenteeism moved closer to 49 percent, the financial sector could still "conduct its critical functions and keep markets viable" temporarily.




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