Note: I came across this in an old folder, while looking for some reference material for the next BCM/DR book: “Essence”. I wrote this 2 years ago (so it says in my notes) and decided to keep it the way it was written so the original spirit is still there, rather than editing it and making it into something else. Even the “Now Available” section doesn’t even mention the 2nd book; Made Again. I take full responsibility for any hiccups it may contain. Enjoy…
Like many of you, I get asked this question quite often; ‘What is a disaster?’ I’ve been asked this by executives, employees, curious friends and families and from those are just curious as to what I do. I started writing this as a little article but as I got going it got bigger and bigger – to the point that this might actually become a book at some point.
On the surface, we can say a disaster is something like a bomb, fire, flood, earthquake, a building collapsing and anything else that might harm people. Honestly, that is the way the general public see a disaster; something that can be seen with the naked eye and has impact on people and facilities. These disasters fall into two categories; the man-made disasters (terrorist actions) and the natural disaster (a peeved Mother Nature).
Yet a man-made disaster can be intentional and unintentional. Terrorism and the actions of 9/11 was very much a disaster but it was man-made; conceived by (mad) men and executed by men and had an incredible impact on not just the World Trade Centre but the city ofNew York, surrounding areas and the world in general – which is still being felt today.
An unintentional man-made disaster can be that of someone who starts a fire while working with a blow torch and an explosion ensues. It might just be carelessness or negligence but it’s not an intentional act. Or it could be someone who left a candle to burn all night and it catches the drapes/curtains or the bed spread and ‘poof!’ up goes the house. Again, it can be a disaster but it’s not an intentional disaster. What would we call the Great Fire of Chicago (1871), when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern? It wasn’t man-made, it wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t started by any natural phenomena, like a lightening strike. Maybe we need a new category for things like that. (For the record, it was never established that the cow started the fire, as a reporter some 20+ years later admitted to starting the ‘rumour’ and the story took off just like the fire did.)
I typed in “Define Disaster” into a search engine and these are some of the things that popped up (minus the punk rock band reference I found);
- a failure
- an unplanned, calamitous event with widespread impact
- something that causes great distress or destruction
- a state of extreme ruin and misfortune
- unrealized expectations (like a big budget movie that flopped)
- time limiting, though the impacts may go on indefinitely
- something that warrants an extraordinary response from outside the affected community area
Disasters come in many sizes, styles and circumstances. Not all are those related to our classic BCM defined definition(s);
- Personal Disasters – What might happen to a single person doesn’t affect the organization. This is not to say that a disaster to a single person isn’t important just that it rarely affects the operations of a corporation. It can however, have impact on decision making if the disaster (whatever the situation) impacts a key member of a team. It may delay decisions and delivery times if that person cannot provide the appropriate response when needed.
- When People We Know Are Impacted – Using the example above, we see can see a disaster when something occurs to others. We may wonder how we’d respond under the same circumstances and may wonder why the situation seems overblown. We may also feel it is a disaster because the situation has hurt or impacted someone we know personally. When that happens we are closer to the situation and can be inadvertently impacted by it – it becomes out disaster as well. With respect to an organization, if a member of the team has a terrible accident, it can impact all those that work with him or her. Personally, I recall coming back to the office after Monday lunch to find that a co-worker (who sat beside me) had passed away over the weekend. It impacted out entire team because for days it was hard to look at the ‘empty’ desk.
- When People Are Powerless to do Anything – We will also believe things are a disaster when we are powerless to stop things. For instance, right now there are terrible floods inPakistan and if you watch the news and view maps, it looks like half the country is under water. Not only is it a disaster because of the flood, it’s a disaster because we – the general public – can’t stop it. We can help those in need by providing supplies, food and financial support but that doesn’t stop the mudslides, the rain or the water from flowing. We are powerless to do anything about the disaster itself but we do have the ability to provide a response to it; all the while the water continues to flow.
- When Corporations Experience a Disruption – We watch the news; we know that a simple issue for a company can have disastrous impacts on people and other corporations. If you’re wireless provider has a hiccup with their service – even a small one – it can mean you loose emails, tests and calls to your personal device, which depending on what the contents were, could mean the loss of business, miscommunications or a wrong decision being implemented because no one received all the details. When we don’t get what we’re used to –and don’t see any progress to fix the situation – we feel that the situation is a disaster. It’s not being managed properly and we aren’t being compensated for the situation. Years ago I recall a situation where a Financial Institution (in Canada) had an issue with their internal systems. It was down for a significant amount of time – over 24hrs if memory serves correctly – and during this time people had checks bounce, mortgages default and other issues. Because of what a bank does, people saw it as a disaster for the bank and questioned their internal recovery processes. Sure it was a disaster for the bank but people experienced a disaster too because of the problem; dealing with creditors, other banks, credit card companies and anything else financial related. This situation alone proved that the company needed a stronger BCM program – and they have by the way. Again, corporations can experience a disaster and we don’ feel it is anything significant until we feel the ramification and impacts of the situation.
- When Something That People are ‘Attached’ to No Longer Exists – This can mean people losing their jobs, the death of a loved one, the burning of an old historic building, an earthquake that changes the landscape, volcanoes that destroy lush forests and so forth. When we are attached to something, we – as humans – want it to last forever; at least while we are alive and can experience it. But nothing is permanent. Everything changes and change is one thing people don’t like. Depending on our proximity to the situation, when something is gone it hits us hard and we have to face reality – that nothing lasts forever. When our home burns to the ground we lose everything; it’s a disaster. However, everything in that home can be replaced and a new home can be rebuilt. We were to attached to the way things were that when it’s gone we experience a disaster. Same thing with corporations. When they are riding high on profits selling, selling and selling they eventually will run out of steam because they may have oversold and under produced; they simply can’t handle the continued growth. They are attached to the money and prestige that was coming their way but now when it begins to ebb away, they feel the company is in a disaster even if it is of their own making.
- When Something Foreseen as Manageable Becomes Out of Control – Sometimes some issues are manageable due to the reoccurrence. There are many instances where email has a hiccup every so often and based on daily operationally protocols can be fixed quickly and things just continue back to normal. However, if it’s the same issue over and over again and it’s not investigated and resolved, those little incidents pile up and now you have something that can’t be fixed so easily. Picture a single pebble on a trail. One pebble doesn’t cause too much trouble and is easily fixed but if more pebbles being to pile up without ever investigating what’s causing the pebbles to get there n the first place, you can end up with the path being blocked. Now you have a bigger issue to deal with; one that might not be resolved so quickly. It now has greater impact upon operations because things can’t continue. All those quick fixes need to be reviewed to see what has to be changed and how to find the root-cause of the situation; when that should have been done earlier. What was thought to be manageable now escalates into something greater and slowly gets out of control. Now, you‘ve got a disaster on your hands.
- When Expectations Aren’t Met – When corporations experience crises, we expected that they know how to rectify the situation and set things right (cough). They have plans in place to ensure that a product or service continues to be delivered as soon as possible with the least amount of impact to clients, customers and partners. I think many individuals can understand that, well, crap happens, and will continue to happen. That, I think many of us can grasp. What we won’t grasp and won’t tolerate is the fact that a corporation doesn’t know what its doing and doesn’t have a plan to make sure I – as a customer – and continuing to get my product or service. I might tolerate a day or two of downtime and work around that but after a week with no progress; I’m not going to be so forgiving. I see that that what might had been an mild interruption escalated into an unmanageable disaster and now I’m not too happy.
- The Proximity to the Situation – If we are closer to the situation playing our before us, the situation becomes more a disaster. An earthquake on the other side of the world is a disaster but we aren’t there so we don’t feel the impact of it – we feel the impacts of the consequences of the earthquake by watching news reports and seeing photographs. Hopefully we feel strongly enough to donate aid. But, the disaster doesn’t have as great an impact as if it occurs to us. Suddenly, we expect response teams to help, aid to arrive, lives and homes to be saved and time is of the essence. This same feeling and need doesn’t occur when you watch it on the news – even if you ‘feel’ for those impacted. The closer the disaster is to us the more likely we are to be impacted by it and know individuals (and maybe family members) that are impacted by it. Our proximity seems to drive a need to response and need to help. The closer the situation the greater the disaster is perceived because it impacts us – no them.
- Personal Involvement and Impact – We are more apt to identify with a ‘disaster’ when we are impacted by it. This doesn’t mean impacted emotionally
by seeing news reports or the feeling of having the heart strings tugged, this is being directly impacted physically, financially and emotionally; meaning we are part of the disaster. The more involved we are with the situation the greater is becomes a disaster for us. If we loose our homes due to a flood – it’s a disaster. If see out neighbours home burn down and they find themselves with nothing, then it is a great disaster to us because we ‘feel’ for tem; loved ones (assuming they are good neighbours) are impacted and as such, we are – though admittedly, not to the extent of the family that lost everything. The point is, the closer we are to the situation – financially, physically, emotionally – the greater the feeling of something being a disaster. Watching the news a seeing someone’s home burning on the news may be a disaster for a short period but we change the channel or get up and get dinner. It’s not the same if we live beside the impacted family or they are members of our own family. Suddenly, the impact of the situation is greater and the disaster is closer to home – our personal involvement is greater.
There can be more added to this list but for the sake of time and space (on this page) I’m only listing these 10 things. You can add more based on your own experiences and beliefs. There can be many ways in which we define and classify disasters. A disaster is going to mean something different to every person and to each organization. What may affect and impact one, may not affect or impact another – at least not a severely. It is different for everyone.
The new book by StoneRoad founder, A.Alex Fullick, MBCI, CBCP, CBRA, ITILv3, “Heads in the Sand: What Stops Corporations From Seeing Business Continuity as a Social Responsibility.” Available at www.stone-road.com **