Your lessons are in the headlines: What oil spills, volcanoes, and car bombs teach us about preparedness and continuity planning

(CIDRAP Business Source Osterholm Briefing) – Daily headlines and newscasts this past month remind us that Mother Earth can be a risky place to live. I'm referring, of course, to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Icelandic volcano, and a botched vehicle bombing, and while these phenomena are not connected by any obvious plot line, they are vivid teachable moments for our governments and organizations. We should be studying how we could have anticipated these events and planned accordingly (but didn't) and how we have responded. We need to seriously challenge the practicality and reality of our on-paper preparedness and continuity response plans—and we must do far better.

Staying on our toes

At the outset, let me be clear that I realize some catastrophes may be nearly impossible to envision. But frankly, I believe such events are few and far between if we use any type of creative imagination. The current oil spill, the impact on air travel from Eyjafjallajokull's ash cloud, and the potential devastation from a strategically placed vehicle bomb could and should have been anticipated and planned for. They should not have caught us flat-footed—but they did!

While I come at this topic indoctrinated with the professional bias of public health—in which preventing problems from ever occurring is valued far more than mounting a heroic response—I know that catastrophic events will occur, despite human attempts to prevent or mitigate them. We all understand that earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and pandemics happen according to Mother Nature's schedule, not ours.

And I also believe explosions of truck bombs in heavily populated areas and construction errors at deep oil wells will occur despite our best efforts to prevent them. We're simply imperfect. But that's all the more reason why we've got to up the ante to be prepared to respond to potentially preventable catastrophes.

Unfortunately, from what I've gathered in recent discussions with a number of business continuity experts across the country, these recent events have not prompted new and informed planning that uses what I like to call "creative imagination." Yes, organizations scrambled to get critical employees to or back from Europe when volcanic ash shut down air travel. But beyond that, as BP and the federal and state governments struggle to contain the underwater oil geyser, we're bystanders looking on with a personal sense of horror about the unfolding environmental devastation and a professional sense of relief not to be working for BP or to be a Gulf Coast fisherman. And clearly, we're grateful that the Times Square bomb was a dud.

I urge you to use these events as opportunities to renew discussions in your organization about your own preparedness and business continuity planning. Capture the moment! I have some suggestions how to do so.

Rethink risks that may have been dismissed earlier

First, if there is ever to be a "call to arms" for future business preparedness planning, it will be this: Remember BP. In retrospect, how could a company not plan for a potential blowout in a well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface? By its own admission, BP didn't perceive such a possibility to be a "significant risk" (its own words.) The implications for having not prepared will span generations.

Action step. Find outwhat "deep sea well catastrophes" have been dismissed in your organizations in terms of prevention or response planning. Business policy and practice must set as its target zero errors and employee and customer injuries, but response planning must assume that the worst can and may happen. If BP had followed such a standard, it would have put in place procedures to deal with a fractured pipe 5,000 feet down rather than inventing its response by the hour, as it is doing now.

Action step. Seek out people who haven't been in your scenario-planning group to date, because "group think" can sometimes miss or minimize catastrophic possibilities. Creative imagination planning occurs sometimes after new minds and eyes look at your risk portfolio.

I surely don't want to come off sounding like I think I'm so smart, but in public presentations in the past I've raised the very issue of an oil well blowing out at that ocean depth—and I'm not in the oil drilling and delivery business. It's just not that hard to envision such a possibility if you allow for creative imagination. Try it!

Realize 'Eyjafjallajokull' is in your own backyard

Second, in the global just-in-time economy, any disaster that occurs almost anywhere is very likely to be of concern to your organization. What happens to Minnesota, for example, when a volcano in our northwestern US does an Eyjafjallajokull? Suddenly, an ash cloud could envelope most of northern North America.

Action step. Anticipate that Mother Nature–related events are a given. And don't just write them off as a nonissue if you live somewhere in the world where hurricanes or volcanoes don't happen. If volcanic ash disrupts air travel, including air freight, and such transportation is key to your business, do you have backup overland transportation support? Remember that in the event a volcano erupts in the northwestern United States, everyone in the northern part of the country will be looking for the same transportation support at the same time you are.

Plan for collateral damage

Finally, while we can anticipate both Mother Nature–related events and those associated with our own human mistakes, the catastrophic events I still worry the most about are those of terrorism. Why, you may ask? Take the recent Times Square car bomb failure. We are all thankful it was a failure. But think about this: What if the device had been successful and the bomb in that vehicle was similar to the truck bomb that took 168 lives when it destroyed the Alfred P Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City 15 years ago?

In discussing this possibility with a well-recognized bomb expert, I've learned that the casualties in Times Square could have been in the thousands, far more even than what we witnessed with the World Trade Center nightmare of 2001. Frankly, at some point some group or nut is going to be successful with an attack like this, or one involving potentially many thousands of people exposed to an anthrax cloud. You can't plan for such an attack with the same clarity as you can with the first two examples. You can only count on your federal, state, and local agencies to detect and deter such events from ever happening and, if or when they do happen, count on government agencies to have comprehensive and swift plans to respond

Action step. Anticipate the potential for collateral damage from an act of terrorism. If you conduct business in New York City, for example, imagine how many people would be afraid to travel there after a successful Times Square bombing. How would you work with federal, state, and local governments if such an attack occurred in a location where you do business or outsource aspects of your business?

Bottom line for you and your organization

Use these current world events to reinvigorate your organization's preparedness and continuity planning. I'd like to think you can prevent your organization's "BP moment." But if one does occur, I'd also like to think that you will be in a much better place to mitigate the damages, having used creative imagination to plan. Anticipate the fallout of Mother Nature–related events, wherever they might occur. And, finally, know that there are those who want to hurt us, physically, mentally, and financially. That unfortunate fact is not going away. Imagine the unimaginable. Then prepare for it.

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