DTE002 Different Classes of Crises

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This module will take you through Different Classes of Crises.

  1. Understanding the Nature of Crises
  2. Case Study: Crisis Management and Heathrow Airport
  3. Hierarchy of Crises
  4. Major Incident
  5. Routine Emergency
  6. Crisis Events
  7. Mega-Crisis Situations

The information in this document is part of the Deltar
‘Level 4 Management Award in Advanced Risk and Crisis Management’

Understanding the Nature of Crises

As was described in the previous section, the vast majority of security management is based on a classical three-stage process involving Risk Assessment, Risk Management and Contingency Planning. The idea behind this system is that if we are able to identify a potential problem before it actually occurs we will then be able to develop security management policies that will prevent those situations from happening, and will minimise the impact of any incident that does occur. We do this by creating a pre-set series of security protocols that everyone on the team is familiar with, and which the team will have practiced and, in all likelihood, use on regular basis as part of their normal working lives.

However, in the 1970’s a new theory of crisis management began to emerge, that stated that in fact for a certain sort of problem, there was no effective solution. According to this theory, we are able to deal with simple ‘Incidents’, because they can be seen in terms of an isolated event, which could be solved using simple and well-recognised response protocols. These problems could be called ‘Tame Problems’, because they were no real danger to us, and we understood how they behaved.

However, as situations develop more complexity, they can no longer be solved using simple solutions, but they demand a higher level of cooperation between different organisations and agencies in order to create the necessary response. In this category of situation, there is no single obvious solution, but it demands that different teams need to create a solution through their own collaboration.

Although these situations are not the sort of problems that the people responding to them would be likely to be facing in the normal run of their daily lives, they are nevertheless situations which managers should be able to deal with, based on the basic skills that they have developed and are using on a regular basis in the work place. Although ‘Routine Emergencies’ are each unique, they can still be seen as belonging to a general class of problems that allow them to be managed in roughly similar ways. An example of different sorts of loosely structured problems sharing similar characteristics are a series of incidents that happened at Heathrow Airport.

Case Study: Crisis Management and Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport is often called the busiest airport in the world, and as a central hub of European air travel, as well as acting as a main connector between Europe and US, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it is clear that even the slightest disruption to Heathrow’s operations would have a knock-on effect across the world. At the same time, any event that affected the flights in and out of Heathrow would also have an immediate effect on the tens of thousands of people using it every day, whether they are family travellers, international businessmen or the thousands of aircrew who man the flights. Despite this fact, Heathrow has regularly been affected by situations that, from a crisis and risk management perspective, should have been well-modelled and planned for, but which actually turned into major international incidents.

In January 2003, the airport was closed because of snow, leading to the cancellation of 300 flights. In 2009, volcanic ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused cancellation of flights across northern Europe for almost a week. In 2007, Heathrow airport was closed because of a terrorist threat following the ‘Shoe Bomber’ scare on a plane from London to New York. Although all of these incidents were different in themselves, as a class of problems – ‘Closure of airport leads to massive disruption’ – they were all extremely similar. Given the expertise that it takes to run an international airport ,and the clear potential for some sort of incident to cause major disruptions of flights, which in turn would have significant secondary consequences both on international travel and the thousands of people in the airport, you would expect that there would be a range of possible response options in place to deal with these disruptions.

A properly designed and well-practiced Crisis Management system would allow the various stakeholders and decision-makers to be brought together, so that they could analyse the problems, create solutions, and then put them into practice. However, the truth is that once these incidents occurred, the breakdown in operational functionality, crisis management and organisational leadership was almost immediate.

Hierarchy of Crises

In order to understand the nature of a crisis, we need to differentiate between three different levels of crisis situations. Each of these has different characteristics, creates different challenges and demands different sorts of responses. It is important to clearly differentiate between them, because an attempt to respond to one class of crisis by using the tools that have been developed to respond to a different sort of crisis will result in significant breakdowns in response effectiveness, and may well lead to ultimate failure where the use of the correct set of response tools may well have resulted in a successful outcome to the situation.

Major Incident

A major incident is something that goes beyond normal operational frameworks, but which nevertheless is something that you would be expected to be able to deal with using your existing skills and experience. It is the sort of situation that you deal with as a normal part of your working life, and for which you should have pre-set response programmes in place that allows you to respond in a way that is understood to all of your team. An example is a fire station that is called to respond to a major fire in a block of flats. Although the incident is undoubtedly larger than the normal incidents that the fire crews are responding to, it is still characterised as a well-understood situation, for which they-should have well-developed response protocols that are well-rehearsed and are known to everyone involved in the operation.

Routine Emergency

A ‘Routine Emergency’ is similar to a major incident, in that it is something that the people involved in should have the capabilities to deal with, but it is something that also demands a higher level of cooperation and collaboration between different divisions, teams or agencies. An example of a routine emergency would be a road traffic accident at a major junction in a city, or on a major motorway. It is clear that the knock-on effects of that incident would soon be significant, and would involve serious disruption to many people, but nevertheless this is also something that is likely to happen on a fairly regular basis, and therefore the people in control of the response operations should have a good idea of what it is they need to do, who they need to call, and what needs to be done to both solve the immediate problem and to manage the secondary consequences.

One of the predictable problems that happens in ‘Routine Emergencies’ is that although each division or agency understands their own role very well, and are able to deliver the services that they need, it is when the solutions they develop are dependent on cooperating with other teams that things start to go wrong.

Crisis Events

Whilst the examples given for major incidents and routine emergencies called on normal agency skills and capabilities to deal with them, whether it is responding to a fire or a road traffic accident, a ‘Crisis Situation’ is of a different nature. To continue with our example of a fire service, a ‘Crisis Situation’ would be a major fire in a chemical factory. This is not just a matter of putting out a fire, but also involves the possibility of a major explosion and the release of toxic chemicals. It would probably require the evacuation of a major area around the factory, as well as the provision of specialist medical facilities in the event that poison gas did escape, both on the ground in terms of specialist ambulance crews, but also at hospitals that would be put on stand-by to prepare their specialist response teams. There would be a need to coordinate this with the police and health services, as well as the local council. There would also be the issue of whether the water the fire service used to put out the fire could carry toxic chemicals with it, and therefore where would it would run off to.

Given the possibility of chemicals being released into the air, there might be a need to contact the meteorological office to see what the chance of rain was or which direction the wind would carry the gas cloud. That would also lead to a question of how quickly such a cloud would spread, and therefore what would be the size of the evacuation zone. All of this would need to be put in place with the constant awareness that the explosion or gas cloud could happen at any minute. The need to coordinate a wide range of different teams, many of whom would not be used to working in such stressed environments, whilst under immense pressure, little time, not enough information and the constant possibility of a catastrophic event, are all characteristics of a true crisis.

A good example would be a major train crash in an underground tunnel. The different agencies involved in responding to that situation have all developed their own levels of expertise in responding to that sort of situation, but it is when they need to work together that things go wrong. They may use different terminology, they will have a different way of developing plans, their communication equipment may not be able to work together (one of the first things that goes wrong in any crisis situation is that the communication systems break down). All of these things mean that when they actually have to start working together to create joint responses, there are likely to be problems that they hadn’t planned for, and which will severely affect their ability to respond quickly and effectively to the situation.

Mega-Crisis Situations

As can be seen from the examples above, although major incidents and routine emergencies are undoubtedly serious situations, and demand a high level of professionalism from the responding agencies, they still fall within what could be called ‘normal operational capabilities’, and as such we could expect those agencies to respond in a timely, effective and well-managed manner. Even in the crisis situations, even though they are relatively rare, when they do happen the people responsible for responding to them have a strategic overview of what the problem is, an understanding of what needs to be done, and can visualise what sort of actions they need to take.

However, there is also a level of crisis that goes beyond even that. Although it is not really the focus of this study programme, a ‘Mega-Crisis’ is a situation where the nature or the scale of the event are so far beyond what is ‘normal’, that there is literally no plan in place to deal with them. However much the security managers in offices in New York had planned, they couldn’t have been ready for what happened on 9/11. The hotel managers in various countries around the Indian Ocean could not have prepared themselves for the tsunami that hit on Christmas day 2005. The blackout in north India in 2013 that left 600 million people without electricity created problems on every level of society that no security or emergency planner could ever had prepared for. Although these are not issues that we would deal with on a daily basis, they nevertheless are possibilities that should be considered when performing risk assessments, especially in areas where the possibility of major disruption because of national infrastructure, natural disasters or catastrophic weather patterns are higher than normal.