Federal professionals focused on ensuring business continuity, or Continuity of Operations (COOP), have long prepared for the possibility of a pandemic flu, but last year's outbreak of the H1N1 virus brought an even greater sense of urgency to planned exercises. Several agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, updated or changed their testing parameters to incorporate the reality of H1N1, along with worst-case scenarios that included widespread employee absenteeism, severe demands on remote access systems and bandwidth, and more reliance on telework.
Among these were the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which this past fall tested its capability and capacity to telework during a pandemic, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which developed a tabletop exercise that tested how well the agency could hold up if the H1N1 outbreak mirrored the extreme health and societal effects of the 1918 Spanish flu.
The Teleworker interviewed COOP planners and telework officials at DISA and FDIC to discover how these exercises went, what they learned, and what contingencies and lessons will be incorporated into their future business continuity plans.
DISA: Stressing Telework
For the first time, in September 2009, DISA held a COOP exercise that focused on testing telework and its ability to enable social distancing without negatively affecting the agency’s ability to meet mission requirements.
Planners wanted to maximize the number of employees who were able to telework by ensuring that all eligible employees telework at least once during the exercise; increase employee awareness of pandemic influenza; and stress test the agency's Virtual Private Network (VPN) capacity to see how the mission would be impacted during a crisis. The exercise also was intended to determine how many employees actually had access to the necessary equipment to enable work from a remote location.
Aaron Glover, Telework Program Manager at DISA, notes that the emergence of the highly contagious H1N1 virus in the spring of 2009 caused continuity planners at DISA to rethink how they would manage a traditional COOP event. With a flu pandemic, he explains, "you would not relocate possibly sick personnel from an infected area into a relocation site or a non-infected area. For this reason, agencies must rely on teleworking employees to sustain the mission."
The exercise proved a success, as nearly 3,400 civilian and military employees, all furnished with agency-owned laptops, worked from home during the designated test dates (contractors did not participate), while 7,000 members of the workforce (including contractors) received H1N1 training.
Jeffrey Mains, DISA COOP Team Lead, notes that the exercise resulted in several key findings:
- Preplanning was critical to success and helped reduce the learning curve for first-time teleworkers
- There remains a need to further stress VPN capacity and Internet Access Point architecture
- A plan of action must be developed to identify and correct any shortage of laptops DISA-wide
- Contractor work performance agreements now are being reviewed to include required service and performance levels for support during a crisis situation
Glover says the test ultimately proved to managers that telework is a key tool in the agency's ability to meet mission requirements while also providing the social distancing required during a flu outbreak. "Telework will continue to be a critical part of the agency COOP plan," he states.
DISA is planning to hold its next pandemic influenza COOP exercise in the spring of 2010.
FDIC: Looking Back and Looking Forward
The FDIC already had planned to conduct a series of regional disaster preparedness exercises that featured a pandemic flu scenario. However, when the H1N1 virus emerged in 2009, emergency planners, including the FDIC Health and Safety Officer, quickly changed gears, incorporating a much harsher reality that mimicked the type of nationwide outbreak that public health officials fear most: the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, which ultimately sickened an estimated 25 million Americans and killed more than 500,000.
The FDIC exercise scenario was designed to test how the agency would respond if it experienced a 40 percent employee absenteeism rate across all of its regional offices, a strong mandate for social distancing, and a major strain on national resources, including Internet bandwidth.
"We recognized that in such a situation, telework would have to play very heavily," says Tommie Barnes, Assistant Director for Security and Emergency Preparedness at FDIC. "Telework would be critical to addressing those types of shortfalls in our workforce and ensuring continued productivity."
The FDIC already is well prepared for a mass telework requirement. Its remote access network has enough capacity to accommodate up to 60 percent of the workforce at any one time. As of February 2009, approximately 27 percent of FDIC employees teleworked on a regular basis, according to FDIC Worklife Program Manager, Susan Boosinger. However, her office estimated in its annual reporting in early 2009 to the Office of Personnel Management that 5,654 employees and contractors, or more than 85 percent of its total workforce, could telework during a long-term crisis. That is how many have the telework equipment and the SafeWord tokens needed to enable secure, remote access to the FDIC network.
Still, Barnes says that even with a staff of trained and equipped teleworkers, the FDIC would face severe challenges, mostly related to communications and bandwidth limitations. "A lot of agency officials think about how their own networks will hold up under a large user load, but the bigger question is the Internet itself, as well as the phone systems," Barnes says. "There's an assumption that everything will be normal, you'll just be working at home, and you'll be able to use your phone and get on the Internet and have constant access for eight hours every day. But the reality is that in a national crisis like this, much of the national population, not just your employees, will be trying to use the phones and access the Internet, and as a result, you might not be able to have continuous access to resources and work like you normally would at the office."
Recognizing this fact, the FDIC has worked out action plans that incorporate more employee flexibility. Teleworkers might be required to work different shifts, not just the traditional 9 to 5 workday, to remain productive or they might need to go online just long enough to complete mission-critical tasks and then complete the rest of their tasks offline.
Another take-away from the exercise, Barnes says, is that employees and managers will need to be flexible and forward-looking. "We wanted them to think about how they will make sure that the full mission of the corporation is performed, as opposed to just the daily duties that those individuals might be used to doing," he explains. "So, for example, supervisors and employees might have to use their telework time and training to work call center activities or other sorts of tasks needed to assure the general public that we are still there, we are still supporting the banking community, and their funds are safe."
In the end, the exercise proved a boon to emergency awareness, Barnes notes. "I think it was a real eye-opener to our senior executives and supervisors about why we need to continually train and prepare for how we are going to continue corporate operations under truly disastrous conditions."