Can we cope when all around us is in chaos?

2005 will be remembered for the power of nature and its ability to destroy what man has made. The Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the earthquake in Kashmir have provided demonstrations of how fragile communities are when faced by such disasters.

The first call is to save life and to provide food and shelter for those who are made homeless. This responsibility falls to the local and government authorities, working with NGOs and voluntary organisations. In such major disasters as a tsunamis or earthquake, international aid and assistance is also essential. Such disasters however also destroy the economic life of the community and without the ability to work and gain reward these communities will continue to suffer into the future. There is a duty therefore on the authorities to ensure that economic stability is regained as soon as possible.

How should authorities discharge this duty? It is not the responsibility of local government to recover the businesses but the business community itself. The role of government, both central and local however is to raise the awareness of the threats that could face the community and to provide advice on how they can build greater resilience into their organisations. At the time of the disaster the business community must be able to affect its own recovery.

This is where business continuity management (BCM) has a part to play. BCM is defined as a holistic management process that identifies potential impacts that threaten an organisation and provides a framework for building resilience and the capability for an effective response that safeguards the interests of its key stakeholders, reputation, brand and value creating activities. It is a management discipline that has gained acceptance across the world and has been used to great effect by some of the world’s major corporations to deal with natural disasters.

One example of where it has recently proved of great value was in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Wal-Mart has comprehensive plans in place to deal with a range of disruptions to its operations. These plans are prepared and executed by the BCM team and when hurricane Katrina was forecast the team considered what would be the effects on their operations and pre-positioned supplies of essential goods close to, but outside of the storm’s predicted path. In the aftermath of the hurricane these supplies were shipped down to the devastated areas as quickly as possible. Not only was Wal-Mart able to restock its stores with essential supplies but also was also able to play its part in assisting the authorities by providing food, water and other vital supplies to the stricken community. The praise that Wal-Mart has received contrasts to that given to FEMA in the handling of the disaster.

Although major corporations have a role to play in a community the economic wealth of any community is supported by the small and medium enterprises run by local people. These SMEs are the lifeblood of the community, they need to be able to recover quickly and yet do not have the resources of the major corporations behind them. So what can be done to help them?

In the UK the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) was established following the lessons learnt from the foot & mouth epidemic, the fuel crisis and the increase in flooding across the UK. It is designed to build greater resilience into the UK, to protect the people, the country and it’s wealth creating activities. It sets out the responsibilities of local authorities, emergency services and critical infrastructure players at the time of an emergency. The Act requires the creation of Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) whose responsibility is to prepare the emergency response to local disasters. There are key elements of the act that are designed to assist the recovery of the community in such situations; the identification of the risks that the community faces, creation of plans to manage emergencies, the rehearsal of these plans, the establishment of BCM within the key public bodies and the promotion of BCM advice to both businesses and voluntary organisations within the community.

Having identified the risks there is a requirement on the LRFs to publish a local Risk Register. This will enable organisations within the community to judge their own vulnerabilities and to consider what steps they can take to protect them if the risks should materialise.

Local authorities are required by the Act to provide advice and assistance to those undertaking commercial activities and to voluntary organisations in relation to Business Continuity Management in the event of emergencies.

To achieve this they must have an ongoing BCM promotional programme in place by 15 May 2006. This programme must provide general advice and assistance to the business and voluntary sector communities at large; may provide specific advice and assistance to individual organisations; and may give advice and assistance to organisations in relation to the engagement of business continuity consultants.

Other organisations that are promoting BCM to the community are the police and fire authorities. It is the responsibility of the LRFs to co-ordinate the advice on BCM being given to the community by the various authorities.

Whilst the CCA recognises the contribution that business and voluntary organisations make to the wellbeing of the community and attempts to encourage them to achieve a greater resilience to disruption, there are other actions that could be taken before and during the disaster. The guidance that supports the CCA, Emergency Preparedness, sets out the key players that must be part of the LRFs, it does include any representation from local business.

This omission is a weakness for two reasons. Firstly, if protecting the economic wealth of the community is seen as a key element for the LRF then local business needs must be built into any local emergency plans. The second is that the resources which local businesses hold, plant, machinery, manpower, etc. may be needed at the time of a disaster. If businesses are represented on the LRFs it is possible to identify appropriate resources and build these into the emergency plan. As seen with Wal-Mart in the US, major corporations also wish to play their part locally when a disaster strikes.

In London the London Resilience Team, responsible for co-ordinating the response of the authorities to emergencies, has recognised this benefit and has created a Business Team with the role of ensuring that the needs of London businesses, both large and small, are taken into consideration in the emergency plans.

When disaster strikes there will be a need for a central point to which businesses can turn for advice and assistance. In the days following the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York the Mayor’s office established such a centre in the Empire State Building where help and advice was available to local businesses. It also acted as a clearing house for those offering assistance and services to the business community. In the UK the Corporation of London has established a close working relationship with City businesses and provides a similar facility, this was last used on the 7th July this year.

The Civil Contingencies Act does recognise that the economic resilience of the community is important. Whilst it sets out key steps that the authorities must take to promote BCM awareness it does not go far enough to ensure that the business community will recover quickly. We in the UK are not immune; to date we have had major flooding in Carlisle and tornados in Birmingham. Whilst not on the scale of the major natural disasters across the globe they have caused major disruptions to the businesses in the affected areas and impacted on the economic well being of the local communities.

There is an opportunity to learn the lessons from the 2005 natural disasters and for the UK to go that extra mile to be better prepared.

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