In contrast to much of corporate America, the financial services sector in the United States has taken a proactive move to prepare for a potential avian flu pandemic.

The Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council recently released a “Statement on Preparations for Avian Flu” for distribution to financial services companies within the United States. The council, whose members include organizations such as NASD, The American Council of Life Insurers, and The American Insurance Association, was created in 2002 with the charge of fostering and facilitating the coordination of financial services sector activities “designed to improve critical infrastructure protection and homeland security.”

The eight-page FSSCC statement goes into detail about different issues related to a potential pandemic, such as identifying critical operations that will need to be maintained or recovered quickly in case of a flu outbreak.

It also addresses several issues related to meetings and travel. One of the questions addressed is “If an employee travels to an area in which an outbreak occurs, what kind of policy will be implemented that says when that employee can return to work?” The statement goes on to say that travel, particularly over long distances, would likely be curtailed, and that most corporate contingency plans would call for the cancellation “of all but the most essential face-to-face meetings.”

If a flu pandemic occurs, companies will be looking at conducting more teleconferences and videoconferences, according to the FSSCC. These could include the establishment of so-called “reservationless” teleconference numbers for the sole use of particular offices or departments, so that their staff could more easily communicate with one another from remote locations.

In situations in which it is critical for employees to travel and meet in outbreak areas, some financial services companies have already drawn up contingency plans that are similar to those implemented by companies during the SARS outbreak in 2003. At that time, many Hong Kong companies, for example, required employees who had traveled to outbreak areas to stay out of the office for 10 days after they returned. Companies should weigh the possible legal issues involved in enacting such a self-quarantine program, the FSSCC warns.

According to a study commissioned by the European Union, only 7 percent of American companies surveyed have actually budgeted for pandemic preparedness. Asian companies, having experienced SARS, are much farther along in their planning — 25 percent of respondents have pandemic preparedness in their budgets.