Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lesson from Wivenhoe Dam - emergency response only as good as the manual

As someone involved in emergency and crisis communication, I often have to work with company emergency manuals.

Some of them are great and provide a logical and easy-to-follow guide to how to cope with the emerging situation.

But some of these manuals have been written simply to comply with legislation or policy then promptly placed on the shelf.
When something goes awry they are pulled out, dusted off and handed out to the team specified in Chapter 3, Section 2, Subsection 11.4. And that’s when everyone realises that something is very wrong.

Today’s report by the Crime and Misconduct Commission into the failure of processes surrounding the Wivenhoe Dam water release and subsequent downstream flooding in Queensland is a clear and compelling example of how bad the consequences can be.

Put simply, the Commission found conflicting information and flowcharts in the manual for a series of failures and cleared the three engineers involved.

In other words, the people putting the plan in place are only as good as the plan itself (read the ABC online story about the case here).

This is a timely reminder than emergency plans are not documents designed to simply tick a box – they are living, breathing manuals that should provide a guide to those professionals at the coal face when the worst comes to pass.
Whatever your business and whatever the risk, your emergency manual will only get you through if you observe the following:

1.  Write your manual based on best practice. Allocate the task to someone who knows what they are doing, not the person with the most time to spare.

2.  Test and test again. Only through testing will you discover if the thing actually works.

3.   Train your team. Make sure everyone knows what to do and has the skills and experience to do it.

4.  Practice, practice, practice. Handling an emergency is not something most people do every day. People need to practice to gain experience.

5.  Learn and grow. Practice and testing on a regular basis will also allow you to adapt your manual for changing circumstance.

6.  Update contact lists. When an emergency happens you need to be able to contact people. If you can’t reach them, you need to contact the next person in line. That’s pretty hard when your contact list is two years old. Make it someone’s responsibility to review contact lists monthly.