Here in the UK, we are fortunate that we have a reliable supply of clean water that rarely comes under serious threat. Water suppliers have comprehensive emergency plans and contingencies in place, backed up by extensive emergency management training programmes. So how does a provider of critical water supply respond in an emergency? We found out when Severn Trent was flooded by unprecedented flooding in Gloucestershire in the summer of 2007 and the Pitt Review that followed.
On 22nd July, their Mythe Water Treatment Works were shut down to avoid electrical failure, and as news broke in the media that supplies were soon to be cut off water usage more than doubled, thus depleting supplies even further. Severn Trent exceeded the requirement of the Security and Emergency Measures Direction that a minimum of 10 litres of drinking water per person per day through the provision of bottles, bowsers and tanks; however it quickly became apparent that this would not satisfy their customers, who use on average 138 litres of water every day.
Around 1,800 Severn Trent employees were involved in the emergency response, as well as close liaison with other agencies such as the armed forces, emergency services, local authorities and other water companies and suppliers. At this scale, communication and efficient co-ordination were vital to the response; pre-determined but never tested command and control structures were implemented; the scale of the incident, the inter-agency operations and their respective roles and responsibilities were unfamiliar and evolved to be able to cope with the unprecedented scope and size of the incident.
Broadcast media was the primary channel for communication with customers throughout the incident. There were with daily press conferences given by senior representatives and a total of 136 formal broadcast interviews, 20 news releases and regular radio updates were released throughout the incident. Existing customer communications channels could not cope with the huge numbers of enquiries – the company website crashed, and the customer helpline was inundated. In response, a secondary customer call centre was set up specifically to deal with enquiries about the Gloucestershire flooding and a simplified website was set up with details of bowser locations, affected area maps and advice.
Following the return of ‘Safe to Drink’ water supplies to the 140,000 homes that were affected, debriefing workshops were carried out for Severn Trent employees and staff from other agencies that were involved in the response. There were also a number of customer ‘drop-in’ sessions to gather feedback from the public about the response. There were many lessons learned for improving disaster preparedness and emergency management that have been taken forward for future planning.
Critical National Infrastructure (such as water, electricity, energy and telecoms) in the UK is built to resist disruption, and there are extensive contingency plans and emergency measures in place to ensure the continuation of supplies to businesses and the British public. However, there are always an unprecedented, unanticipated threats – see our previous blog post ‘Thinking the Unthinkable: The psychology of crisis preparedness’; this has been evidenced in the recent major floods across the UK, and we are becoming increasingly aware of the threat of malicious cyber attacks and the likelihood of critical infrastructure becoming a major target of cyber warfare.
Clearly different organisations – from hospitals to manufacturing plants to office workers – have different levels of dependence on water supply, but all would do well to consider the impact a disruption to water or other critical supplies would have on their operations. This can be done through a business impact analysis (BIA), the results of which should inform business continuity plans and whether mitigation and contingency measures – such as storage tanks and generators – should be put into place. Individual businesses came up with innovative measures to deal with the flood crisis in 2007, and all agreed that better business continuity planning and greater crisis preparedness would have improved their resilience.
Building resilience is a major 21st century imperative, and responsibility lies with national and local government, private suppliers of Critical National Infrastructure, and the preparedness of individual end users – businesses and the general public.