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


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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