Utilities in organised chaos

Water companies are working hard to hone emergency planning strategies in accordance with the 1998 DETR directive. John Shaw, of UPM, reports crisis simulation can fine-tune procedure

Crisis simulation is all the rage nowadays as water companies strive to make their emergency plans meet the onerous requirements of the 1998 Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' (now the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Security and Emergency Measures Direction and expectations of their customers. Faced with the need to cater for circumstances, once regarded as barely thinkable, the industry's planners are having to prepare for worst-case scenarios of daunting dimensions.

Under previous plans, some companies would have struggled to meet these provisions for customer populations in excess of 40,000. The demands have provoked a rethink by virtually every emergency-planning department.

Now utilities must consider a much more wide-ranging impact. In the most extreme cases, some could be looking at affected populations of 150,000 or more. When large towns and cities fall within the boundaries of the emergency seven-figure populations could be involved.

With so much at stake, wise companies are leaving nothing to chance. Rather than half-heartedly going through the motions and paying lip service to the requirements, they are opting to submit their plans to end-to-end simulations conducted under circumstances as realistic and as testing as they can conceive. The simulations may not iron out every single operational wrinkle but they should prepare the company so that it performs as it intends to in the white heat of a genuine crisis of major proportions.
One company decided to put its planning to the test with a simulated incident affecting 60,000 properties. The incident centred on a water source contaminated sufficiently to necessitate the deployment of alternative water supplies.

The simulation was designed to test how efficiently the company's strategic management, incident and communications teams handled the crisis, with particular reference to internal and external communications and the deployment of materials, plant and staff.

None of those directly involved had pre-knowledge of the incident, although all were aware that it would take place sometime in an eight-week period. Importantly, those who did know the date, managing director, operations director and certain senior managers, played no part in the simulation, the aim being to see how teams performed without direction from above. External authorities such as the then DETR, DWI and Environment Agency participated in the exercise.

Two referees from the company and two from UPM, a specialist consultancy, were appointed to observe the simulation and introduce intrusions from external bodies such as the media and the public. They monitored specific aspects of the company's responses, notably by the on-site people, the media relations department, the customer services operation and the incident and strategic management teams.

Prefaced by a code word to avoid confusion with a real emergency, the simulation was initiated by simulated customer complaints of 'foul tasting' water to a company call centre. These were transmitted to the operations control centre and customer services. The incident team was appointed and the simulation unfolded over a seven-hour period, conducted by the referees who followed a prepared programme of events. A set of checklists was prepared to ensure that progress was monitored in the requisite detail.

Overall, the performance of those involved was shown to be of a high standard. Many found the simulation startlingly realistic; one individual had to be deterred from ordering the shutdown of a works.

Old technology figured in internal communications rather more than new. Telephones were much in evidence, with many falling back on the network of internal contacts built up over time. An inability to convey emotion, the sense of urgency and the absence of guaranteed feedback, probably gave e-mail low priority.

Although the simulation was judged a success, it highlighted deficiencies. For example, the strategic management team could have deliberated and acted in a more focussed way, with better monitoring of resources and communications with outside bodies. The incident team failed to make full use of all the available facilities, while the communications team did not ascertain that enough people were available for leaflet deliveries. It also took too long to issue a press release and missed chances to involve the press in a proactive manner.

These were seen as serious shortcomings, given the importance of communications in crisis handling. They and other faults have been corrected by refresher training for senior managers, concentrating on the issues involved in emergency planning and the implications of their roles and responsibilities.

In parallel with the revision of procedures and checklists in the emergency manual, training was provided on legislation, strategic planning and the role of senior managers. A series of exercises included the handling of the worst-case scenarios.
The company is now as confident as it can be that it is ready for the official audit of its emergency plans and the most taxing crisis that fate can deliver.


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