Is Disaster Planning failing to keep up with communications technology?

Is Disaster Planning failing to keep up with communications technology?

Why, in an era when we have never been so rich in all the means of communications, have we seen three instances in the UK at the end of 2010 where a total breakdown in communications has occurred between major organisations and tens of thousands of their affected customers:

  • Heathrow Airport – where BAA closed the doors to its terminal buildings at no notice leaving those inside in appalling conditions and those outside in even worse conditions (families with young children standing in sub-zero temperatures) with no idea what to do
  • St Pancras Station – where Eurostar had thousand of people standing in a queue along the main road that was so long it was taking 8 hours in freezing conditions for customers to get from the back to the front of the queue
  • Northern Ireland– where thousands of households were left for an extending period with no idea where or when their next litre of water was coming

It is possible to put this down to just bad luck…and certainly the managers of the affected companies were quick to point out to the media that the levels of snow and freezing temperatures in December in theUKwere a rare 1 in 100 year event. The media were not slow to counter that exceptionally poor senior managers may be responsible, at least for the poor communications.

Each separate event deserves its own inquest but what interested me was the common thread of poor communications. There appeared both a huge internal inertia to put in place an appropriate disaster recovery plan to something unforeseen and even greater delays in getting the consequential information to those affected.  Since we have never been better equipped with all manner of information and communications systems this points to our society not yet having worked out how best to use these wonders of modern communications technology to serve those caught out in disasters. There appears to be issues of organisation, standardisation and…imagination.

Organisation: The relentless objective of all modern organisations over the past 50 years has been to improve efficiency. This has necessitated structures broken down into lean elements that rigidly adhere to tightly defined written processes. For me this explains why organisations will inevitably be slow to respond to something that has never happened before…there is no written process an organisation can switch onto at short notice. The people who are usually the first to see things sliding out of control with the current rule book of processes are the front line staff but with no power to change the rules. Those with the power to change the rules sit remotely at the end of a flow of daily or weekly financial numbers and it seems to take at least 2 days to get in place a quite novel disaster recovery process. Could a combination of better organisation and communications shorten this reaction time?

Standardisation: There was a time when everyone concerned with a disaster would turn to BBC radio to as the primary “standard” means of communications. It had the merit of being the only one around.  Today the channels of communications and the medium of delivery have proliferated…perhaps this is part of the problem.  Many companies find themselves split between their calling centres (that soon get overwhelmed), plan B is to get information up on their Web site but only after Plan A was overwhelmed (and is not much help to travellers on the move) and Plan C is the TV 24 hour news channels but there the message gets a bit mixed between the politics of who is to blame and getting information out to those affected. Would a bit of “standardisation” be helpful to both sides of the communications gap?

Imagination: The most effective of all the tools for getting to a sub-set of affected customers with targeted messages is the mobile phone… since it is the most widely penetrated in our society, is what most people have on them wherever they are and text messaging is very economic in network capacity…ie could deal with mass events. Yet today it is the least used of all the communications tools in disaster situations!

Perhaps a key public policy lesson is that all organisations have got to put the Internet at the centre of the disaster recovery and communications strategy and not as an afterthought. There also needs to be a means of affected customers registering the fact that they are affected in a way that organisations can address them individually or in groups…well within the capability of a modern Web site and the mobile phone. The public at large (and not just the early adopters) needs to be educated to see the smart phone as their opportunity to be kept informed when things go wrong when they are out and about.

For me the centre piece of a disaster communications strategy is not just to inform those affected what is happening but what the victims need to do for themselves to assist in the disaster recovery process…as surely I am not the first person to notice how these 1 in 100 year events seem to be happening more and more these days…but perhaps this is just my imagination!

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