An Untested Emergency Response Plan is a Source of Reputation Risk

When last has your company conducted a fire drill? Is it still in the planning phase or just not on the agenda?

The lack of organisations to have adequate emergency response plans in place is worrying. Having served as Chairperson and observer on hundreds of OHASA Committees in companies, it seems to be the one point on the Agenda where all committees get stuck.

If I ask when last; fire drills and/or emergency evacuations took place, the answer is always one – of a few years ago to it is in the planning stages. In many cases senior management are always given the blame for not allowing such an exercise to take place, as it may interrupt operational requirements.

However this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Having an Emergency Response plan is a legal requirement and non-compliance with it is a reflection of a company’s enterprise wide-risk management system.

Some of the problems that I have encountered in organisations include:

  1. Emergency Response Plans that are not up to date;
  2. Emergency Response plans that have not been tested;
  3. Emergency Response responsibility delegated to a junior who does not have the authority to implement it;
  4. Emergency Response plans not linked to the communications plan. Very often plans of this nature are not integrated into the organisations overall crisis management plan, allowing for a disjointed approach.

The ultimate objective in any emergency is to ensure that the Reputation and integrity within the organisation is maintained, by ensuring that there is no loss of life or destruction of company assets. By not having an emergency response plan in place that have been duly tested is a recipe for disaster.

If a company’s emergency response plan has not been finalised, am I correct to assume that therefore its disaster recovery and business continuity and other contingency plans are also in doubt? Is your company ready to deal with the hand of fate?

Let me explain by using a scenario and questions:

There is an explosion and subsequent destruction of infrastructure, information and loss of life at your offices. Most major media outlets in Johannesburg rush to your organisation.

The building is evacuated. The authorities and 3rd parties are involved. The evacuation is chaotic and uncoordinated and filmed in time for the early evening news and is used by Carte Blanche as an example of lack of planning.

What will your stakeholders think? The issue thus is not just one of legal compliance. It is about the message that an organisation will communicate when:

  • They are unprepared to deal with an emergency and secondly,
  • The evacuation is a shambles or worst of all in a real emergency leads to loss of life.

An emergency response plan is far more than just a plan or procedure. It is a tool to protect the biggest asset of an organisation- its Reputation, its good name!

If a fire or explosion had to happen in your building and there had to be loss of life due to lack of being prepared, the company’s reputation will be severely tarnished, as the Media will have a field day showing that a company on the one hand writes that they are a caring corporate citizen (in accordance with the King 3 Code of Corporate Governance) but that perceptions and reality does not match.

In a Court of public opinion this will be seen as not caring and it certainly goes against best practice. These days words have to be followed up with compliance and positive actions and behaviour.

Without regular exercises to test emergency response & crisis management plans (In my opinion a Crisis Management plan is the over coupling plan that includes other plans such as Emergency Response, Media & Stakeholder Communication Response, Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity) , these strategies become dormant and ineffectual in the event of a real crisis.

A false sense of security can exist in a company simply because "we have a plan. The experience gained from training establishes the company’s reputation for being prepared and able to survive.

Several types of exercises are required for proper training. A three step approach is common: Notification and Activation; Tabletop Exercises; and actual Simulations.

Training is the final step in developing an emergency response program. It is also the most important step. Many companies overlook training because of their false sense of security based on having a written plan and the expense of employee time for training. An emergency response program, like any business process, must be evaluated completely to be effective.

Not being ready for an emergency when it actually happens is a foreboding thought. How well a company responds is dependent upon its preparation and a proper emergency response plan & procedure can go a long way in preparing a company to do battle in a negative situation.

If an organisation is worthy of its reputation and is interested in maintaining its credibility, then emergency response preparations are an absolute necessity.

When bad news occurs, there are critical audiences, including your own employees, who have expectations of your behaviour and ability to manage problems.

Every one of your stakeholders will focus on your organisation’s response. How it acted, what it said, all of these will either add or distract from the organisations reputation.

The question that companies should be asking themselves is How can I safeguard my Company’s reputation in an Emergency? Because how your organisation handles an emergency and the communication thereof can either sustain or damage your organisations reputation.