Organisations regularly test their crisis-readiness by staging simulation exercises. They are well worth considering as part of a programme of development and review. Run properly, they can give valuable insight into whether your plans are fit for purpose, exposing gaps or areas that appeared to work well on paper but not in practice. They also explore the emotional and psychological aspects of how people react in a crisis, and this is an area that can throw up some surprises.
Dress rehearsals for disaster can go a long way towards recreating the visceral quality of the real thing – sudden and immense mental pressure, the panic or paralysis of confusion. People performing different roles in your organisation will have very different needs and often entirely different views of the same situation, so any kind of dry run can help them better understand the pressures and demands placed on themselves and colleagues. In turn, this not only helps to build a stronger team, but also paves the way to improving overall performance.
Simulations have been in the news lately, and these two cautionary tales highlight the need for meticulous planning ahead of any full-scale exercise.
In May 2016, Greater Manchester Police ran into difficulties when it staged a simulated attack – an exercise codenamed Winchester Accord – to ‘test the emergency report to a major terrorist incident’.
More than 800 volunteers took part in the simulation at the intu Trafford Centre in Manchester. It was based on the marauding-style attacks in Paris and Brussels, and no-one can fault GMP’s motivation for holding it.
Assistant Chief Constable, Garry Shewan told the BBC: “It is a necessity for agencies including the police to train and prepare using exercises such as this, so that we would be in the best possible position to respond in the event that the unthinkable happened and an attack took place.”
So far, so good.
The exercise had taken five months to plan, and included great attention to detail. Volunteers wore make-up that simulated horrific injuries and screamed in pain. There was smoke everywhere, and people were apparently running for their lives. But before detonating their ‘bombs’, those playing the part of terrorist gunmen repeatedly shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’, and Winchester Accord quickly became Winchester Discord.
As news of this emerged, Greater Manchester Police found itself at the receiving end of a bitter wave of criticism and had to apologise for stereotyping Muslims as terrorists.
Assistant Chief Constable Shewan said: ‘…the scenario writers have centred the circumstances around previous similar attacks of this nature, mirroring details of past events to make the situation as real-life as possible for all those involved. However, on reflection, we acknowledge that it was unacceptable to use this religious phrase immediately before the mock suicide bombing, which so vocally linked this exercise with Islam. We recognise and apologise for the offence that this has caused.’
In terms of training, the exercise achieved a highly realistic dry run. But Manchester is a diverse city, and despite months of planning, one relatively small misjudgement had a disproportionately negative impact on the reputation of its police force.
Later the same month, bomb disposal experts were called to the 75,000-seat Old Trafford Stadium after what looked like an explosive device was found in a lavatory. Fans were pouring steadily in for a match between Manchester United and Bournemouth when a routine search uncovered a mobile phone taped to a gas pipe shortly before kick-off. A full-scale evacuation followed – a model exercise, as it turned out – but it soon became clear that the ‘bomb’ was a fake, planted by a security company as part of an earlier training exercise involving sniffer dogs. It had been left behind by mistake.
Greater Manchester Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd, was furious, describing the episode as a fiasco, and demanding an immediate and full inquiry. He said it had caused ‘massive inconvenience to supporters who had come from far and wide to watch the match, wasted the time of huge numbers of police officers and the army’s bomb squad, and had unnecessarily put people in danger’. Fiasco or not, the Premier League praised Manchester United for its handling of the incident, at least proving its crowd control and emergency procedures were in good fettle.
The club refunded all tickets, and allowed the ticket-holders to watch a re-arranged game a few days later.
As with the Greater Manchester Police simulation, the reason for the exercise at the football stadium was entirely sound, but one mistake made it newsworthy for all the wrong reasons. Salutary lessons were learned in both instances, and the core purposes of the exercises were met – testing operational readiness.
Properly planned simulations can be of enormous benefit, not least because they can help organisations learn lessons collectively. Their results provide boards of directors with tangible evidence about precisely how risk in the organisation is being minimised, and overall they will protect public health, safety and general wellbeing by ensuring a calm, effective reaction to crises, with information being shared in a timely and reassuring manner.