S'pore suits up for pandemic flu drill

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By Jeanne Lim, ZDNet Asia Thursday, July 20, 2006 07:48 PM

SINGAPORE--As healthcare workers in the island-state gear up for a flu pandemic readiness and response exercise this weekend, industry players are stressing on the importance of IT tools to sustain workforce availability should alerts reach escalated levels.

The two-day drill, to be held from Jul. 21, will involve over 1,000 personnel and is spearheaded by Singapore's Ministry of Health. The exercise aims to test how the relevant authorities react in the event of a flu pandemic, and will also assess national surveillance, responsive and operational capabilities.

Members of government agencies such as the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Immigration and Checkpoint Authority, and the Maritime Port Authority will also be mobilized for the exercise.

According to a statement from the health ministry, overseas representatives from the Asia-Pacific region such as Hong Kong, Australia and Malaysia, observe the proceedings to share the experience and "cross-learn" from the drill.

Meanwhile, industry observers note that with home quarantine a possibility, companies must prepare adequately for their employees to telecommute in order to ensure that business carries on as usual.

During a briefing held here last week, associate professor Dr Goh Moh Heng, who is the executive director for the Disaster Recovery Institute (DRI) Asia, noted that in the event of an outbreak, companies will need to "resume critical business functions outside of the organization with provision for security".

Citing that many small and midsized businesses were forced to shutter their businesses as they were ill-prepared for the impact of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus in 2003, Goh said: "The private sector must identify and ensure the continuity of critical business functions, and ensure that products and services function as close as possible to 'business as usual'."

When pandemic flu levels reach a similar stage, companies must be ready to encounter high levels of absenteeism as well as have precautionary measures to assure those who come to work are well-protected from the risks of infection, he said.

Tech companies such as Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems, are not taking any chances should employees need to work for home.

Sun, for instance, has deemed it necessary to package two business continuity tools: the Sun Secure Global Desktop (SGD) Solution--which it acquired from thin client services company Tarantella--and a staff tracking system called, HelloMobilize Pandemic BCP (business continuity planning) Edition. The latter was developed by Sun's partner, Hello Technology.

With the SGD Solution, employees at home can access via an Internet browser, the same Linux-, Windows- or Solaris-based applications they have been using at the office and in a secure fashion.

Wong Heng Chew, managing director at Sun Singapore, said: "[With SGD Solution] Sun today is able to support 100 percent of [the company's] employee [headcount] working from home". Wong added that he had drafted a business continuity plan for Sun employees in Singapore a few months back.

Besides enabling workers to work from home, the IT vendor is also touting a system that can monitor the well-being of its employees.

Designed to screen the health of employees who are stationed at home, the HelloMobilize tool is a two-way, one-to-many, and many-to-one enterprise messaging server that enables communication and mobilization of multiple groups of people.

Employees can use the messaging system to report their health status to their companies via voice calls, e-mail or short-message service (SMS). It can also be used to remind employees of proper emergency procedures, and to monitor the health status of employees instructed to work from home.

Mobilizing the workforce Cisco has also provisioned for its workforce to work from home, should the need arise.

Greg Dixon, Asia-Pacific IT manager at Cisco, highlighted that a pandemic flu situation would require a different business continuity approach from a traditional disaster scenario.

In traditional disasters such as fires, earthquakes or terrorist attacks, companies typically need to implement data center replication as part of their business continuity plan. During a flu pandemic, however, there is no actual collateral damage to the business, Dixon explained.

Rather, people will be displaced from technology or any access to their corporate network and applications, as shown during theSARS outbreak, he said. Cisco, for instance, makes sure that its business resilience includes the provision of office-equivalent functionality anytime, anywhere, he added.

In fact, the company has rolled out its own IP (Internet Protocol) telephony technology, such as video telephony for collaboration, and advanced telephony and voice-over-IP capabilities, to its staff to ensure they can work from home.

"Everything [put] on the Web makes distance less of a problem," said Dixon, adding that core applications needed to support the company's IP telephony infrastructure reside centrally in a data center located in the United States.