Coping With Disaster: You Need a Plan

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Coping With Disaster: You Need a Plan
Published By: Mining Voice
Harry B. Brandon & Gene M. Smith
March 1, 1998

When the safety of personnel, property or equipment is at stake, the best response to crisis is preparation. God did not put gold under Paris. Nor any other mineral resource, for that matter. Much of what corporate America seeks in terms of natural resources comes buried in some of the most isolated and remote areas of the world. These regions seem prone to instability in various forms, including events commonly referred to as "acts of God.”

Under these uncertain circumstances - and given the massive investment, the magnitude of the potential return and the length of time until return on investment - careful attention is due the security of personnel sent to these regions, property, equipment and proprietary information. With the development of sites around the world, mining operations in particular have international dimensions that need careful consideration.

Under these uncertain circumstances - and given the massive investment, the magnitude of the potential return and the length of time until return on investment - careful attention is due the security of personnel sent to these regions, property, equipment and proprietary information. With the development of sites around the world, mining operations in particular have international dimensions that need careful consideration.

What Constitutes a Disaster?

Before racing through a perfunctory exercise aimed at addressing security issues, a good question to consider is: What constitutes a disaster? Unfortunately, finding out that your partner is cheating you blind is not the only disaster you have to consider. The list is long.

Political and Economic Turmoil

While political instability may not go hand-in-hand with economic difficulties in a country or region, any incident of political chaos certainly will have economic repercussions for a mining operation in a foreign country. Major issues such as the potential loss of ownership interests and nationalization of private property or companies certainly are disasters.

But in today’s world, with the globalization of business, the interdependence of businesses and governments and the simple desire for Western capital and know-how, the disasters more likely to occur are the coup d’etat, riots and other unrest which do not inherently target a specific company or industry sector. Such political unrest translates into dangerous conditions for company management and employees, and potential theft or destruction of company property. These are infrequent but real issues. They need to be addressed and prepared for thoroughly; they are best covered in an in-depth corporate security plan.

Natural Disasters

Obvious risks are hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes. But more exotic concerns challenge companies today that did not exist 10 to 20 years ago: virulent diseases that strike a specific area or region.

Pre-AIDS and pre-Hong Kong chicken flu, the idea of such a physical threat was virtually unheard of since the days of bubonic plague. But in today’s world of e.coli infections and mad cow disease, the speed and virulence of such infections are increasingly common and unpredictable. While not an everyday occurrence, any of these natural disasters can be deadly to individuals or to a corporate operation. Some provision must be made for them in the corporate security plan, and drills conducted to prepare for them.

Personal Emergencies

Whenever people are involved, the range of possibilities, including potential disasters, becomes astronomical. A manager, employee or foreign national worker may be affected individually, or the victim may be a member of his or her family. Each case will have to be dealt with in relation to both professional and personal aspects. Just because the actual victim is "merely" a family member doesn't mean the employee can continue to perform on a business-as-usual basis.

The personal incident may be as minor as a purse-snatching, with no personal injury, but the specific impact on the individual may be significant. With other possibilities, the impact may be more complex and far more damaging:

  • Criminal assault, with or without physical injury, brings a degree of trauma;
  • Car accident - may have far-reaching con- sequences, particularly if injury results, if others are involved or if the fault is uncertain;
  • Any significant physical injury or disease, especially in cases requiring hospitalization, where the health care facilities do not meet Western standards (and where the blood supply may be tainted with HIV or hepatitis);
  • Plane crash - speaks for itself, but what is of special issue is the status of contingency planning, including timely but not premature notice to family;
  • Terrorist threat or attack - a modern-day evil that can strike with or without warning;
  • Allegations of scandal or corruption - much of the world outside the United States does not choose to ignore sexual escapades, the use of illicit substances or payments that are subject to various interpretations (although this is such a complex area that generally it is beyond the scope of this discussion).

Property at Risk

Mining operations overseas don't fall into the category of mom-and-pop shops or franchise operations. Mining sites and extraction equipment represent massive investments. Disaster may come in any of the previously listed guises, but security of property interests has its own specific dimensions.

A mining operation may be targeted for political reasons or ravaged by natural forces but assault by the criminal element may come from anywhere inside or outside the company. Equipment may be damaged or stolen in the middle of riots, but it also may be stuck in customs or sabotaged by hostile labor interests. Whatever the line of attack, provision must be made for protecting valuable and irreplaceable company assets. Any review aimed at safeguarding property must include intellectual and proprietary property, as well, with careful consideration given to computer security. (See related story, page 34.)

Timing Is Everything

The question is: Does a situation arise with or without warning? Corporate clairvoyance is not a common trait among either executives or lineworkers.

Given that satellite technology can let us know when a storm front is building to the degree of being a once-in-a-century weather phenomenon, and political analysts can entertain us with one possible scenario after another in any country, it is important to remember that none of these predictions are infallible.

Does anything happen with total predictability? Geological formations are said to be harbingers of certain treasures, and the fork made of witch hazel is supposed to lead to water. But a good back-up plan is what really is worth its weight in gold.

Planning, Planning and Planning

Planning and preparation are the true answers to surviving any type of disaster. The worst thing to do is to try to come up with a response plan after you are in trouble. There are other things to do at that point, such as managing the crisis; and you are not going to be in a position to be thoughtful and far-sighted when coping with the survival of a site or of your people. While it is virtually impossible to plan and prepare completely for any and all eventualities, you can and should be prepared to react with speed and with a definite sense of purpose and direction. You can do this with careful, deliberate planning and preparation.

At the most basic level of planning, is there a defined chain of command or delegated decision-making authority for use when a disaster strikes? Do you simply assume the CEO or president will handle all decisions? If the ranking company officer makes up the entire decision tree, what if he or she is out of touch, or a victim of the disaster? The simple starting point of who's in authority becomes the center point of the plan. In short you must be prepared for the likelihood that your senior manager will not be available; and you must have a decision-making plan defining "line of succession" that is clear and understood by all.

With a crisis management decision-making tree must go the authority to make decisions. This may sound obvious, but without specifically delegating certain levels of decisions, the chain is worthless. Managing an emergency evacuation of your people from Zaire while they are under fire from insurgents, for instance, does not lend itself to convening your board of directors or trying to reach consensus between 10 vice presidents in order to decide whether it's time to tell your people to go.

The plan begins to take shape when the company decision-makers get together and decide which interests are vital in different crisis circumstances. This becomes the basis for developing the individual crisis management plan. In reality, this process is not painful, and it should be done in such a manner as to make the plan readily understood by all.

If there is a trained crisis manager – often the director of corporate security – the company should fully utilize his talents in designing the security plan. With the background and expertise this person brings to the table, he should be able to make the plan one which will meet corporate goals while providing for the safety of people and assets. In the case of international operations, with or without a trained crisis manager, having someone with specific country expertise (preferably with access to an in-country resource) could be a critical factor to the success of a crisis management plan.

Regardless of how the plan is designed, the key to its usefulness will be creating a document which actually proves helpful during a crisis. Unfortunately, many crisis management plans have grown into the all-too-typical giant manual that tries to cover every eventuality from a car accident to a mine cave-in or a terrorist takeover. A three-volume text too detailed to interpret or follow may render even the best plan useless during a crisis.

What is recommended instead is the creation of a basic process by which your company recognizes a crisis, has a procedure to immediately initiate active communications and begins the flow of accurate information to corporate decision-makers. This enables the company to initiate a calm and reasoned decision-making process relating to all those directly involved. Detailed eventuality plans should be drawn up, but they should come into play after the initial period of crisis management, be it one or 24 hours later. The elements of a practical plan are too varied to detail in this article, but with advanced planning and consideration, you can recognize your company’s needs and be prepared to meet the challenges of a crisis.

Practice Makes Perfect

Once a plan is designed, it must be tested. This process is no different than designing a new mine or starting a new extraction process. You plan, design, test and implement. The same thing should be done with a crisis management plan. You may have a brilliant plan, complete and useful, but it does not serve your company if it goes on the shelf and is not looked at until a crisis occurs three or four years later.

A crisis management plan is a living document and must be tested and revised in order to meet your needs. Of what use is a plan designed when your company had no overseas activities if it hasn’t been updated to recognize that you have people and equipment on the ground in a suddenly ominous Indonesia?

Without revision, a detailed and workable communications plan may be worthless. For instance, if you are counting on a U.S. phone system to support you, what will you do if suddenly you must depend upon a foreign system which is out of service half the time and has a very limited number of overseas circuits? The answer is to have it figured out ahead of time; review and test your plan on a continual basis in order to ensure that it is consistent with the current needs of the company.

Simply reading about what you are expected to do does not make you a crisis player or manager. One of the best ways to ensure full understanding of your crisis management plans and capabilities is to create situations which exercise your crisis team as well as your plan. Institute drills which prove the validity of your preparations, while training those who have roles to play. These periodic and unannounced tests need not run for days or even for a full eight hours. Once your team has had the chance to exercise and test the plan, you may only need to run a partial drill for a few hours.

This also allows the company to address different scenarios and modify the plan as necessary .As an example, it does little good if you continually run mine cave-in drills if your first crisis is a hurricane which shuts down an operation, jeopardizes both U.S. and foreign national workers and endangers a large capital investment. In short, realistic exercises enable you not only to test and modify your plan to meet corporate needs, but also to see how people react and how they make decisions under pressure. Exercising the crisis management team even a minimal two or three times a year will ensure a functioning plan and a cohesive team able to meet the needs of the company and protect its employees and assets.

Crisis management consists of preparation, training and practice. There are no shortcuts. Avoiding the process ensures that a disaster which could have been minimized is instead handled recklessly and with little regard for efficient, sensitive use of resources. The thoughtful leader makes a commitment to crisis management and supports the process. He or she can then feel confident that the company is prepared to protect corporate assets and, most importantly, company personnel.

What Others Are Saying

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