In 2005 a plane crashed onto Edinburgh bypass hitting a transporter loaded with nuclear waste. At least, that was the scenario for the emergency exercise code-named ‘Senator’ involving agencies from all across Scotland.

At the time, I was working for one of the participants – the Scottish Environment Protection Agency – based in Stirling. I upset our emergency planning manager, who was co-ordinating our involvement, by refusing to attend the exercise in Edinburgh until I had received a call that there had been an incident, because that’s what would happen in real life.

You see, the vast majority of such exercises I’ve attended over the years started off with the absurd notion that all the right people would be in the right place with the right resources. On this occasion, I truculently insisted that such preparation made the whole thing redundant. Unfortunately, such redundancy has been the default in emergency planning throughout my experience.

I’ve been involved in difficult events for more than 20 years, from covering a plane crash as a cub reporter to coaching senior executives on how to lead their way through a fatal workplace accident. And I find myself sympathetic to Dominic Cummings’ comments about the public sector’s crisis readiness. (His points probably apply equally to many in the private sector too, but most of them aren’t charged with the same responsibilities, obviously.)

As well as SEPA, I’ve worked for the NHS (where I was involved in planning for the Y2K bug!) and the City of Edinburgh Council. There was no shortage of events and crises between the three of those. Since being in consultancy, I’ve also supported many private sector organisations to be ready for the unexpected – although of course the unexpected is often entirely predictable. I even remember doing some pandemic planning around 2011.

In all of those roles, I have worked with some talented and committed people who tried extremely hard to help their colleagues with business continuity and emergency planning. Regrettably, they – and their work – were often treated dismissively. I lost count of the number of meetings I attended where people just wouldn’t bother to turn up, or where they wouldn’t do any of the things they said they would. I know that’s not unique to this topic, but it was clearly one of the worst regarded. Some colleagues would openly consider the whole process as a pointless irrelevance and those leading the work as wearisome doom-mongers.

Maybe covid will have changed all that. Maybe it will mean people realise the importance of keeping up-to-date contacts, or having a cascade system for reaching staff out-of-hours, or running meaningful exercises, or maintaining a battle box, or knowing where their back-up office locations are, or keeping a secure note of social media log-ins, or myriad other tedious aspects that are fundamental to having a resilient organisation.

Because, it’s usually the small stuff that compromises an effective response, by causing delays and distractions when minds are required on much bigger questions. Covid should prompt all organisations into some serious housekeeping – public or private – because that is the foundation of everything else.

If you’d like the peace of mind that comes from having a fresh and independent perspective on your readiness, then our crisis comms experts are ready to help.

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