I’ve written here a few times about various aspects of incident management and, as one or two have remarked, maybe I’m a bit of an anorak about these things. They may have a point because, to some extent, incident management has been with me since I was in short trousers.
My childhood was spent living on country estates, more that usually with a farm attached. We didn’t own these places, my parents worked there so that explains my interest in customer service; I was, in fact, born into service. But the incident management side of things comes from that background too. In recent years risk assessments have become a fad in many ways, but they are just a formalisation of what I was taught to do in the late 1950s by people who understood such things intuitively.
So how does what I learned all those years ago down on the farm fit with the management of modern property? Well take one sort of incident management that a typical facilities management team should have down pat, that of fire. One of the things that we handled with considerable frequency was fire. Not just the risk of fire (and I have seen a barn fire at close quarters), but managing fires that we would start on purpose. We would have at least one managed conflagration a week as we burned refuse, burned off fields, bracken or whatever. And when I talk about burning refuse I mean bonfires that the average village would be proud of on November 5th; you can create a huge weekly pile from a 50+ acre estate.
These things are not done willy nilly, they are carefully arranged, taking into account the wind, time of day and nature of what you are burning. A compost heap large enough to keep Time Team busy excavating it for a week will burn for days if it spontaneously combusts. Siting the bonfire, compost heap or whatever is carefully thought through. Precautions are taken and what you’ll do if things don’t go as planned are worked out. We were taught to understand consequences and about accepting responsibility.
On a farm or large country estate there is a lot of serious kit and danger lurks all around. As kids we were brought up to understand and respect things, so maybe it should be no surprise that it is so ingrained in me. That’s not to say that I don’t take risks; I do, but I think about it first. From what I learned as a child I got to think about things like always checking my escape route(s) when I stay somewhere away from home, like counting the seat rows between me and the nearest two exits when I fly, like my winter survival kit that I carry in the car from November through March.
I had the benefit of learning about these things to the degree that it became automatic. It was only later in life when I became responsible for large numbers of people that I began to think about it and to analyse what I was doing and why as part of developing drills and desktop run throughs. When you have a bloody great fire every week on purpose you are doing it for real, but when you are running big buildings, thankfully, you don’t, so you need to have dummy drills.
Practice does make perfect which is why I have ridden my teams hard on these things, and that is why we coped so well with some of the incidents that have described in these columns. It’s in my blood.
Recently we have seen the worst civil unrest I can recall in this country, although the poll tax riots and other isolated incidents were pretty grim at the time.
The suffering of people affected by the theft and arson, whether they be the victims or those trying to help, is beyond anything that I can imagine and my thoughts also went out to colleagues in the facilities management industry who were responsible for some of the premises that were attacked or threatened. We always have plans to cover various scenarios, but on that scale?
The sheer wanton destruction of property brought to mind some of the predictions of what we could expect overnight on the 31st December 1999 and into the morning of 1st January 2000. On the run in to that date change there were a number of people predicting Armageddon as computers failed to recognise the new date and many people who should have been a lot more rational became almost panic stricken.
Later in 1999 I was summoned to a meeting with senior managers from some of my client companies to re-review the crisis plans for the end of the year. With many city centre properties there was an obvious concern over business continuity if large scope rioting were to occur and access to the buildings was restricted or denied for one or more days in the aftermath.
This was all good, basic, facilities management stuff. We had looked at all of the implications that we could think of, working with colleagues from IT, HR and others and had run three desktop exercises earlier in the year, refining the plans after each. We were well prepared, but not complacent because no-one really knew for certain what was going to happen. I was convinced that the millennium bug was a myth, but could partying get out of hand for example? We couldn’t be sure, but we could be prepared, and we were.
But the doubts of senior people would not go away, and they gradually became less and less rational as the weeks ticked by. Eventually one of them called me at home one Friday evening, “I’m just checking that the number in the emergency pack is right for you at home” he said, “I thought that you might have put a false one in”. Well, it was the right number, was there anything else?
Well there was. He wanted an assurance that I would spend the end of year night at one of the London offices. Why, I asked, and was told that it was essential that I was on site in the event of a riot. The idea was that I could take personal charge and prevent any mob accessing the building, although how was up to me. Err, no, my plan was that, at the first hint of trouble of any magnitude near any of the sites, we would pull the security team out and arrangements were in place for that. We knew that we could cope with the loss of a building; that was a long standing arrangement, and so the risk of any of our people being attacked or killed trying to defend one was to be avoided. We could not stop a mob.
After I put the phone down that Friday evening the Berkshire Belle and I discussed the concept of me stood outside of the front door of head office, arms akimbo ordering the mob to desist seemed a bit of a King Canute job really. Seeing the violence of recent events I think that we had made the right call.