True life lessons: emergency communication

There's nothing like actual disaster stories to justify going to work in the morning, is there? For that reason, I strongly recommend Susannah Patton's story about crisis communications in the August 2006 issues of CIO magazine or CSO magazine.

There's nothing like actual disaster stories to justify going to work in the morning, is there? For that reason, I strongly recommend Susannah Patton's story about crisis communications in the August 2006 issues of CIO magazine or CSO magazine. The story describes the experiences of the managing director of Gale Global Facility Services, a multinational facility management company, during the July 2005 London bombings. Gale GFS' parent, Gale Real Estates Services Company, employs 500 people, counts General Motors, IBM and Pfizer among its clients, and is owned by the Mack-Cali Realty Corporation, a real estate investment trust (REIT). The lessons described in the article reinforced my views on emergency communication. International notification and escalation
The first calls the London-based MD completed after the bombings were to the company's headquarters in the U.S. (where it was about 5:00 a.m.) and to its office in France. Most escalation ladders I've seen are local, presumably because most of us assume that coordination of emergency response will be local. In this case, not only was the escalation trans-Atlantic (and trans-Channel), but subsequent management of the emergency was trans-Atlantic, as well. The MD and his crisis management team (CMT) established their London command center ad hoc--at the back table of a pub in Leicester Square. Only in Britain, right? The CMT's ability to function and manage from a pub depended entirely on communication via PDAs and mobile phones with its U.S. headquarters, where employees relayed e-mail messages from the MD's BlackBerry to employees by posting them on the company's Incident Reporting System (IRS), an intranet Web site. In turn, headquarters staff relayed news posted by employees on Gale's IRS back to the management team in the London pub by BlackBerry and by phone. The MD's BlackBerry functioned--intermittently--even when London phone lines were jammed. Not the way you'd plan it, but effective. Gale plans to improve its IRS to make it possible to post directly from SMS messages and e-mail messages. Very slick. Where is everybody?
Accounting for the whereabouts of employees is glossed over in the business continuity plans that I see, and isn't rehearsed even remotely realistically in most fire drills. But it becomes the top priority in a real disaster, as it was for Gale GFS. After all, a business continuity plan never even gets started if the people to execute it can't be located. From an individual quoted in the article:

'Recent disasters have shown that companies focused on the process of finding their employees after a disaster are more resilient than those intent only on keeping their systems running', says Yossi Sheffi director of MIT's Center for Logistics and Transportation.

Most companies in Asia, in my experience, don't have procedures in place to ensure that the fire wardens on each floor have access at all times to an up-to-date list of employees. For their annual, pre-announced fire drills, roll call lists of employees--that couldn't possibly be produced in an actual fire or explosion--magically appear. To be useful, lists must be accessible to fire wardens within seconds after the alarm goes off, so that they can carry the lists to the assembly point as they lead their colleagues down the (dark) stairs and out of the building. The most logical department to be responsible for maintaining and distributing lists of employees is Human Resources, of course, but I rarely find an HR department that can produce a list of employees sorted by floor or location. I believe this is a feature that could be added easily to most payroll programs. The best system I've seen for this was at a company where the lists were updated each week by the HR department and copies were stored in holders by each exit door. Here's a picture.
Very simple, very effective. Everyone into the pool
In Gale's situation, many of its employees were not in the office at the time of the explosions, creating the challenge of using greatly-impaired communications to find everyone scattered all over London. One solution is self-reporting. As the article says:

'The first thing would be to instill in your employee the importance of getting in touch after a disaster,' says Sheffi.

A notification call "tree"--a staple of contingency planning in the past--just doesn't work reliably for a list of more than twenty or thirty people, in my experience. There are too many broken "branches" in the tree, too much time taken to execute it and too much work to maintain the contact names, numbers and tree structure. And a call tree is best for getting information to a group of people, not for getting information from those people. The most effective procedure for locating employees is a call "pool" (my term): a single phone number that everyone is taught to call to report his or her status as soon as possible. In a call tree, each employee depends on the willingness and ability of other employees to call each other. In a call pool, each employee depends only on himself or herself. I know an oil company in Australia uses its 24-hour spill reporting system--outsourced to a call centre vendor--for its self-reporting call pool, so that employees calling in a disaster can talk to a live (and trained) person when they call. Notification automation
I think there are two kinds of companies in the BCP world: those that have automated emergency notification systems (ENS), and those that don't. Yet. "Technology is starting to replace traditional call chains", according to the director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster & Risk Management at George Washington University in the U.S., quoted in the article. According to reporter Patton:

'This kind of system, which relies on cell phones, emails, Blackberrys and pager to communicate, is simple but, unaccountably and unfortunately, rare.'

The need for an ENS is obvious for large companies like Gale with geographically-dispersed offices. As web-based ENS services expand, however, and competition among vendors drives down the price of both web-based and PC-based systems, they will become deployable for much smaller companies. One company in Asia that I know requires 75 people to arrive at its DR site within 45 minutes after the plan is activated. The company has 650 employees and is obligated by its regulator to be functional with 2 hours after any interruption. There's no way to make those things happen with a notification call tree. So they bought and installed a PC-based ENS. The recent high profiles of ENS vendors like MessageOne, Envoy Worldwide, Enera, Dialogic Communications Corporation and SendWordNow indicate to me that an ENS will eventually be considered de rigueur for prudent planning. The sound of one hand clapping
The most important lesson from the story corroborates my own experience: while it's important to 'get the word out' in a disaster, it's just as important--and a lot more difficult--to find out if everyone heard it. In one exercise in which I participated last year, for example, the crisis management team's main lesson was that they couldn't know if every employee--working outside the office during a simulated influenza epidemic--had received and understood their messages. And it wasn't enough for Gale GFS just to locate its London employees last July, either. The company also depended on all hands being able to communicate back, to report what they saw, to share their lessons, in almost real time. Gale GFS is a pioneer, it appears, in using an in-house, bidirectional discussion board on its Incident Response System Web site for this purpose. These days, we'd call this a blog. I think BCP blogs will soon be essential parts of every company's crisis communication plan. Weblogs are superior ways to "push" messages to targeted audiences, because of Really Simple Syndication (RSS). Blogs are better than Web sites, which require users to log in to "pull" information onto their computers, and better than e-mail broadcasts, which require their senders to maintain up-to-date lists of e-mail addresses. As far as I know, Singapore Exchange Ltd (SGX) was the first company in Asia to use BCP blogs, during a May 2006 financial industry exercise. They created and populated separate blogs for their employees, for their member firms in the derivatives and securities markets, for the press and for the government regulators. The main complaint they received was the blogs weren't updated quickly enough; they have since improved the speed of the posting process. The story of Gale GFS' experience reminds me why I like True Life Stories: In addition to the vicarious thrill they provide, they often contain infectious doses of 'See, I told you so!' that I can use later with non-believers and recalcitrant managers. Is that true for you, too?

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