Florida IT leaders work on a COOP plan

Concerns over a possible outbreak of avian flu late last year prompted Florida information technology officials to get started on continuity plans in case of a pandemic.

Months before the swine flu outbreak caused a scare across the globe, Scott McPherson was growing concerned about the possibility of a pandemic.

McPherson, chief information officer of Florida’s House of Representatives and chairman of the state’s pandemic preparedness committee, saw a red flag go up late last year when Panasonic ordered employee families back to Japan from parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe. The company was worried that an outbreak of avian flu could reach pandemic proportions.

“Everyone went ape,” McPherson said. “What does Panasonic know that we don’t? There’s no other way to take this than the company has a suspicion that a flu pandemic will hit by this year.”

To date, no pandemic has happened, whether of avian or swine flu — at press time, Florida had five confirmed cases of the H1N1 swine flu virus. But the possibilities have prompted Florida to be ready. McPherson, other state agency CIOs and information technology managers on the committee have been working on continuity-of-operations plans for enterprise systems should an outbreak hobble the state’s IT workforce.

McPherson met with pandemic committee members via teleconference. “We had a conference call for CIOs in state government after the Panasonic announcement. We had to get our pandemic coordinators back together.”

Like other states with free-falling IT budgets and reduced IT staffs, Florida is behind the curve in developing plans to keep its mission-critical enterprise platforms running if an outbreak of flu or other disease cripples its workforce. However, the state does have disaster recovery or emergency management plans for its systems. For example, Florida school districts must respond regularly to widely disruptive events, such as hurricanes that flood server rooms or knock out entire IP backbones.

Maintaining early warning medical reporting systems that link to federal pandemic flu reporting systems is a big part of the state’s preparedness effort.

Florida’s Department of Health, for instance, builds platforms on top of its health management systems so it can collect and send data on flu-like illnesses, lab reports, vaccines, prescriptions, and other patient information to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

County health departments focused on interoperability with the health department's systems during a broad, two-week emergency planning exercise near Apopka, Fla., early this year, said Jim Huber, bureau chief of strategic IT at the department's IT division.

"There were 980 of the things, and they were primarily business systems for county health departments, including children medical services, systems that schedule appointments, store patient information, systems to order lab tests, all of those things,” Huber said. “We have to ensure that they are running to the service-level agreement in event of disasters such as hurricanes and pandemics.”

The county health department data is sent to the state and then sent to CDC and other federal agencies for early warning reporting.

The exercise also focused on cross-training staff members and determining how long the health department can function without a particular service, he said.

The World Health Organization suggests government agencies standardize IT on a consistent software infrastructure across heterogeneous application, database, server, and storage platforms to give IT staff members the control they need to continue to perform their duties from any location.

Florida is working on that, said David Taylor, chief of the state’s Agency for Enterprise Information Technology. Taylor, also the state’s CIO, said his agency is chartered to craft a strategic technology plan for Florida.

Part of the plan “is a 10-year plan to streamline and reduce agency mainframes, servers, storage appliances and other disparate hardware from hundreds of sites around the state to fewer than five centralized data centers,” Taylor said. The move also will standardize e-mail platforms throughout state agencies.

Nobody says Florida’s ready, McPherson said, but it's more prepared than other states.

“Some states say they’re ready for a pandemic, but Florida never made that claim,” he said. “We’re going to have our staff and systems as ready as they can be.”

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