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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

More than one crisis can happen at a time

Posted on 31st March 2020 at 09:10am

There is no guarantee that we will get through the current crisis without another coming to test our readiness at a time when the national and international efforts are aimed at fighting the coronavirus. Phil Trendall of Scott Trendall Ltd, a civil protection and security consultancy, explains how all organisations need to be able to look beyond the current crisis and he says that peering into the post-pandemic world is a necessity for public agencies and businesses.

Last week saw an earthquake in Croatia and an attempt to derail a high speed passenger train in Germany.  Both incidents could have been worse and would have been had not a few variables fallen on the right side of the incident/disaster divide.  We also have our continuing daily crises throughout the world: hunger, homelessness and disease all compounded by the fact that bad people will continue to do bad things even when the country is uniting to confront a present danger. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I saw that somebody in Northern Ireland thought that leaving a hoax device was a good way of distracting the emergency services from their pandemic focus.

Terrorism provides a good model for this aspect of our response. When a terrorist attack occurs responders deal with the scene and, hopefully, the suspects.  Others, including parts of the police and Security Service immediately turn their attention to the threat of further attacks. In fact, this two-tier method of viewing an incident works well across a range of threats and risk. I remember being asked by my boss during the London bombing in 2005 to consider how we would respond to the next attack. His next demand that we write down what we had learned from the day’s events so that we could do things better the following day was the best piece of fast time reflection I have seen in the middle of a crisis. Fourteen days later, when further attacks were inflicted on the capital we were much better prepared and had a clear idea of what we needed to achieve.

In recent years we have had much talk about maintaining situational awareness (SA), although rarely does the use of the phrase include the full three-stage concept of Perception, Understanding and Projection (as described by Endsley, 1995).  Developing and sharing SA is a key point in the Joint Emergency Services Protocol (JESIP) which is as relevant to the current situation as to any other. Nowadays we hear less about the OODA Loop – a concept once beloved by planners and command trainers. However the basics of the OODA Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act are highly relevant in creating agile teams that can better respond to additional incidents (Boyd, 1976).

What can be done to prepare for additional incidents? Staff will always do their best in emergencies – we can almost take this for granted. But the public demand and deserve a professional response. When things are moving quickly and resources are hard to come by there are things we can do to be ready for what might happen when ‘we least expect it’ (ie when we are least ready for it and really don’t want it). Here are some points that I would recommend, in no particular order, and I would encourage the making of a bespoke list relevant to your agency:

  1. Incorporate the concept of an additional event/s into advance planning – particularly strategic planning. If nothing else, ensure that plans contain a prompt or reminder that other things can happen. When exercising plans and people, ‘left field’ injects are often seen as ‘unfair’ but if properly crafted can help participants maintain an open mind
  2. At the start of a protracted incident or crisis, making a quick review of risk registers in the context of the ongoing event can bring a pleasing clarity of thought.  This only works if risk assessments are meaningful in the first place.  If not, an hour spent with colleagues around a (virtual) table conducting a ‘what if’ board blast will be time well spent
  3. Consider how the extant crisis changes the nature of internal risk.  For example many organisations have moved to remote working very quickly.  What are the cyber security implications of this for your agency?  What are the simple security implications such as theft of kit, burglary etc
  4. Think about planning conflicts. They are inevitable in multiple or complex crises but they benefit from early identification. Emergency planners can do this quickly if they are given space to do it. As an example there are numerous plans written about the temporary expansion of mortuary capacity in the UK. But the requirements of a pandemic are largely about volume (body holding). If an aeroplane falls from the sky mortuary requirements are very different. Can both be accommodated? Whenever, possible commitment to one course of action should allow for as much flexibility as possible
  5. Embed and share fast time learning from the main event quickly – this allows for a workforce that is empowered and fleet of foot, enabling them to turn towards the next threat with nimble dexterity
  6. Ask: “What can bad people (state actors, terrorists, criminals etc) do in the current crisis and how do we mitigate this (external focus)?”
  7. Some teams benefit from starting each day/week by confronting the question: “What if (insert additional incident) happens today?” This should not be an abstract question. The benefit of doing this on the day is that the disposition of people and equipment is known as are the programmed demands of the coming 24 hours.  Sub questions might include: “Who would go to the scene (if there is one)? Who will have command?”
  8. If an incident occurs that requires attendance at a large scene such as a train crash or motorway accident, it will be useful if you have discussed with colleagues in advance how the scene can be managed in a way that minimises the infection risk to responders, especially as the rescue phase moves into securing the scene, victim recovery and evidence gathering. Again, a quick desk-top scenario with a few key players will pay dividends if such an incident occurs

Nowhere in this blog have I mentioned organisational resilience or business continuity. These concepts are the product of both culture and process. Two things that are hard to build in short order, but if your organisation has fully embraced these concepts then there should be nothing here that comes as a surprise. However, I have encountered few organisations that are fully mature in this regard and therefore the message is simple: Think about what might also happen; talk about it; develop or adapt existing plans relevant to the existing situation; and make some lists.  

As professionals you are entitled to be shocked if more than one crisis occurs at a time. But you should not be all that surprised.

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