Bulletin / Prevention is better...

Prevention is better than Cure

Author: Charlie Maclean-Bristol

This week Charlie looks at how incidents can potentially be avoided before they have happened.

Last weekend, the team working on the Philippines project I talked of last week, went off for the weekend to a resort island off the end of Cebu. We had an excellent weekend diving, swimming and chilling. On the way back our minibus was overtaking a line of cars and hit the edge of the curb, over-corrected and skidded off the road, nearly rolling the minibus in the process. We were all uninjured and after some help from the locals, the minibus was pushed out of the verge and we continued on with our journey. I couldn’t let this experience go by without learning some business continuity lessons from it. 

The main lesson I learned is to try and stop the incident from happening in the first place. During the drive back from the resort the minibus driver was driving like a maniac, overtaking every car, motorcycle, motorcycle taxi and in fact anything that was in front of him. As he was overtaking, there were still motorcycles and motorcycle taxis coming towards us. Thrown into this mix were dogs, pedestrians and children trying to cross the road. In retrospect, I felt I should have said something and asked the driver to slow down but I didn’t. My excuse was that I felt this was culturally how you drive in the Philippines. Surely he was used to the conditions and anyway, was it my job or should someone else in the party have said something!  Perhaps it was the role of the person who was sitting in the front seat as they could see what was happening. 

This is a classic reason why incidents occur as lots of people recognise that something is wrong if they stop to think about it. However, companies grow their own culture where risk taking, poor safety and lax procedures just become ‘the way we do things around here’. It is then very difficult to speak out against the culture as it is so engrained in the way people act, and anyway, is it your job to complain? If you look at a large number of accidents and incidents such as Piper Alpha, Bhopal and many of the UK rail accidents, they all had cultural issues which contributed to the incident occurring. One of the roles of the business continuity manager is to challenge the culture, especially if you see it is likely to contribute to an incident. In these cases we can try and stop the incident occurring so that we don’t need to use the business continuity plan.

Back to the minibus; as soon as we stopped crashing, the locals turned up to see if we were ok and then a vast army of people started to try and help get our minibus out of the verge and onto the road. It was complete chaos, with multiple ideas of how to do it, lots of shouting and pushing in different directions. Eventually one or two people seemed to take charge and after about 45 minutes we were back on the road. 

People love responding to disasters and helping others, whether it is a crashed minibus in the Philippines, or the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ we often see after disasters in the UK. One of the dangers I saw was someone getting hurt in trying to push the vehicle out of the verge. Luckily this didn’t happen, but there was a high possibility that it could have. It was also very difficult to organise people, partly language and partly because everybody had their own idea of the best way to get it out and were not listening to anyone else. 

Within our plans, do we take into account people who spontaneously turn up to help? They can often be more of a hindrance than a help and you don’t want to cause further casualties during responding to an incident. You perhaps need to have within your plans, tasks which can be allocated to volunteers or have some guidance on what volunteers can and cannot do. As you don’t want to lose their goodwill but you also don’t want them to further complicate the situation.

My final point is about rewarding people after incidents. Once the car was back on the road we wanted to say thank you to those who had helped and a couple of locals were making it clear that they should be recompensed for their efforts. We had a whip round, but were not sure who we should reward and by giving money to some would this cause agro as others felt they should be paid? My solution was to give the money to a shopkeeper 50 metres down the road and ask her to buy the crowd (soft) drinks with the money. The focus of the crowd was now on the shop and we escaped to continue our journey. 

Often after the incidents we would like to reward people and I have seen in the past ex-gratia payments given or a party has been thrown for those involved. This is easy in a small organisation but more difficult in large organisations to define who gets the payments and who gets to attend the party. Insensitivity in rewarding people can squander the goodwill generated during the incident and make people less likely to help out next time. Sometimes not rewarding people, apart for simple thank you, can be the best action.

 I often wonder if we as business continuity managers are actually very good at managing incidents or whether we are better at teaching the subject than responding ourselves!

You might be interested in the following stories

The Importance of Debriefing

You may be interested in the following course

BCI Incident Response and Crisis Management course

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