By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
If a flu pandemic kept 40 percent of the workforce away from the
office, telecommuting could help keep governments offices and many
businesses running -- but hardly anybody is properly set up to do
this, experts told the U.S. Congress on Thursday.
A report from the Government Accountability Office found that only
nine of 23 federal agencies had plans in place for key staff to work
from home, via computer, during a pandemic.
"One reason for the low levels of preparations reported is that FEMA
(the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has not provided specific
guidance on preparations needed to use telework during emergencies,"
the GAO report reads.
Only a few of the agencies documented that they had made the needed
preparations to effectively use telework during an event, GAO
Comptroller General David Walker told a hearing of the House
Government Reform Committee.
"None of the 23 agencies demonstrated that it could ensure adequate
technological capacity to allow personnel to telework during an
emergency," Walker said.
The H5N1 avian flu virus has spread rapidly in recent months, leaving
Asia and moving into birds across Europe and into Africa. It does not
yet easily infect people, but it has made 205 seriously ill and killed
115 of them.
A few mutations could turn this virus into a pandemic strain that
would pass easily from person to person and spread around the world in
weeks or months.
Experts agree that at the peak of the pandemic, 40 percent of workers
could be unable to leave home, either because they are ill, caring for
someone who is ill, caring for children because schools would be
closed, or simply afraid.
Many jobs can be done via computer, telephone or teleconference and
U.S. agencies have been asked to be ready to do this.
YOU CAN'T JUST DIAL UP
But it requires planning, said Dr. Jeffrey Runge, acting under
secretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland
"It is one thing to say we are all going to use the Internet for
work," Runge told the hearing. But there are fears that Internet
access could be overwhelmed if millions of workers all try to use
limited bandwidth at the same time.
"It turns out to be quite a more complex problem than saying, 'guys go
home and log on'," Runge said.
Linda Springer, Director of the Office of Personnel Management said
one agency needed to be put in charge of coordinating this, and said
rehearsing telework plans was essential.
told the hearing.
"Under an emergency, particularly a pandemic, you might have a lot
more people teleworking than normal. It is important to make sure you
have the technological capacity to do this, you have the software
licenses to do this. You don't know what you don't know."
Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry
Alliance, said no one had evaluated the total capacity of the
"We simply don't know about what the impact would be if, for example,
even half the 60,000-plus employees of the Department of Health and
Human Services -- who help coordinate the entire national health care
system -- were to attempt to work off-site," Kurtz said.
And, he said, agencies may have been reluctant to allow employees to
telework up to now because it would save them money that would have to
be returned to the Treasury.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: It seems to me we should be looking for
and expecting a _huge_ pandemic of 'bird flu' here in the United
States sooner or later; what do you think? PAT]