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What if?

02 Mar 2011

The Long View

The power of planning and scenario planning for possible future events is well known and yet plenty of organisations still fail to plan.  A Guardian  newspaper article published this week about the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London exposed a woeful lack of foresight on the part of the emergency services in the city and highlights how easily things can get out of control when the situation is extremely demanding.

Okay so terrorist attacks throw a massive set of problems at the services in a very short space of time and create levels of stress and fear that are not the same as dealing with other emergencies.  So under such circumstances proper forethought and planning is even more vital and its absence is really unforgiveable.  When people die from a lack of planning on the part of emergency services then there is a real problem that needs to be solved.

I am not against the emergency services here, I have served in the military and know exactly how hard some of these situations can be to deal with but I also have an expectation for how they will be handled.  As someone who was in London on that day and knew people who were way too close for comfort to the bus bomb I got a first hand impression of things, and the overriding sense was not the calm controlled response you might hope for in such a situation.

If you look at the foreseeable mistakes that were made it is fairly depressing

Emergency communications by SMS

Oddly enough the mobile phone network went into overdrive and messages did not get through.  SMS doesn’t work in the underground where 3 of the 4 bombs were planted.

The response – revert to using pagers – please correct me if I am wrong but I thought these relied on the very same overloaded network and still don’t work underground.

Command posts not functioning

The backup command post was never brought online and the telephone number issued to attendees was incorrect leaving them out of communication for the entire event.

Misdirected resources

Because panic set in there were reports of bombs all over the place which created difficulties, however, ambulances were sent to Tavistock Square an hour after the area was given the all clear.

7/7 Bus

There is a massive difference between rehearsing disaster scenarios and dealing with the real thing.  No rehearsal can prepare people for the shock of seeing the dead and maimed at such an event which makes it all the more important that everything else functions exactly as it should.  Processes have to be checked and double checked and planning assumptions must be understood and thought through.

There are plenty of things that can be done to avoid some of the issues that arose on that July day in London.  The appropriate techniques are no less relevant to organisations preparing for potential disaster scenarios on their business.  Taking the time to think things through and prepare scenario plans for possible situations is an insurance policy against events that hopefully never happen.  When the twin towers in New York were brought down the previously sensible plan of backing up computer systems between the towers suddenly seemed terribly short-sighted.  While the concern for saving lives was quite correctly the main consideration at the time things still have to be put back together afterwards.   Building processes and systems to cope with potential scenarios is key to coming through a real situation with minimal impact.  Sometimes it will be difficult, sometimes it might lead to changes in approach or increases in cost to operate but the cost may be worth it in the long run the same as any insurance policy.

Anything less is planning to fail.

You can read the full text of the Guardian article HERE.  For advice on scenario planning or process evaluation contact us at

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