“Events, Dear Boy” managing incidents before they become crises

Introduction

You will probably recognise the quote. When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. The same is true for most leaders and organisations.

Events Happen. When they do a lot of things are at stake: lives, livelihoods, reputation. So knowing how to respond is a key survival skill for leaders and organisations of all kinds. In my own career I have learnt many of my most important lessons – including how to manage incidents – the hard way: by making mistakes. As President Kennedy liked to say: “Good judgement is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgement”.

I hope you will find the lessons I have learnt useful in your own world. And whatever world that is, whether it’s government, business, the NGO sector or something else, and whatever your own organisation does, I submit that knowing how to manage incidents is something that will come in handy. That’s because, to quote a third and slightly less successful political figure, Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Incidents, like events, have a habit of happening whether you like it or not.

So my aim today is to give you News You Can Use. I will outline how the Environment Agency handles incidents; give you my Top Tips for good incident management; and tell you how we in the EA are managing the unique challenges of Coronavirus.

The EA’s role in incidents

The Environment Agency is a Category One emergency responder under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. We work with the emergency services, the local authorities and other partners to plan for, respond to and aid recovery from emergencies affecting people and the environment across the country. Often we are the sole or lead responder, but on many occasions we are part of a coalition working with our professional partners in the 38 Local Resilience Forums across England.

We handle a wide variety of incidents. They include:

  • Pollution – fires, oil spills, radiation, nuclear, waste dumping, odours, noise, pollution of water courses. Examples: the Buncefield explosion at an oil storage facility in 2005, the serious pollution of the Thames by Thames Water in 2013 and 2014 for which they were eventually fined £20m, the Grenville Tower fire in 2017, the Salisbury Novichok attack in 2018.

  • Wildlife – threats to animals and habitat. Examples: Foot & Mouth Disease 2001, drought in 2018.

  • Water – too little and too much. Examples: managing the risk of environmental damage from drought, which we did in summer 2018 and are doing again right now; the risk to people from the Toddbrook Dam damaged in the 2019 downpours; and protecting and supporting communities affected by the February 2020 floods.

We handle a lot of incidents. Last year 76,777 were reported to us, which is one every 7 minutes. And we deploy our people to many of those: on average, an incident requires our attendance once every 40 minutes and about 5 incidents every week require significant deployment of our resources.

Our response depends on the incident. But we will always focus on the protection of lives, livelihoods and the environment. In big incidents we deploy a lot of people and a lot of hardware, including Incident Control Vehicles, pumps, temporary flood defences and drones.

Because we do a lot of incident response we are set up as an organisation to do that. We have daily reporting of significant events, so that all the key players can see what is happening and how we are responding. We have standard incident management procedures, with agreed command and control, so everyone knows who is responsible for what. We have over 6,000 of our staff trained and ready to join the response on whom we can draw. We have dedicated facilities at national and local level that we use to manage each incident. We have pre-agreed plans for how we will respond to particular types of incident. We practice, including with the military. And we measure how well we are doing: our capacity to respond well to incidents is one of our Key Performance Indicators.

Since I became Chief Executive in 2015 we have put a lot more emphasis on incident response, and more resources into it. We now respond to more incidents, more quickly and in greater numbers than ever before, and we have made incident response a core part of our business as usual. That is not accidental. Handling incidents well can save lives and livelihoods. Handling them badly can get people killed and ruin your organisation’s reputation.

Top Tips for Incident Management

As I said, much of what I have learnt about incident management during my career has come as much from making mistakes as it has from getting it right. So I offer the following

Top Tips with a large degree of humility

Lead:

if you are your organisation’s leader, you need to lead the response to a big incident. Don’t try and do the day job as well. The incident is the day job till it’s over. This is the moment when your organisation’s reputation will be won or lost, possibly for ever. So it’s worth your time. Be decisive: be prepared to take big decisions. In an incident the biggest risk is not taking a decision that later proves to be wrong (some always will): the biggest risk is not taking a decision at all, or taking it too late. You will not have all the facts: decide anyway.

Move fast:

Flick the switch early to put your organisation into incident mode. If you don’t get ahead of the curve you will never catch up. So over-resource at the start: people, kit, whatever. You can always scale back later. Establish your battle rhythm immediately – which meetings when with whom to do what – and clear roles and responsibilities.

Get on the ground:

The absent are always wrong. Being present and visible at the scene of an incident is as important as what you do when you get there. So get yourself and your team to the scene as soon as possible.

Have a strategy:

Be clear what your goals are and ensure everyone in your team knows. Be ready to adjust your strategy as the situation changes, because it will.

Win the air war:

The media battle (the air war) is as much a part of the incident as your operational response (the ground war). You need to win both. So use the

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