The gas leak on the Strand on the 23rd of January tested the business continuity of many London organisations. The Strand, one of London’s busiest districts for both business and pleasure, was emptied all the way from Waterloo Bridge to Charing Cross station due to the dangerous levels of gas, forcing both Waterloo East and Charing Cross stations to close. Over 1,000 people were evacuated from hotels and clubs at 2am, and disruption to the trains and local businesses continued into the afternoon.
For urban businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector that rely on reputation to attract clients, a crisis like this is a test of their emergency planning. There’s not only the issue of having to leave the office (or in the case of hotels, having guests leave their beds in the early hours of the morning and file out in their dressing gowns), but everything else that comes with this scale of disruption. Commuters across the city can find themselves unable to get to work as the disruption to transport across the city experiences a ripple effect; those who work night shifts may find themselves without key decision makers to direct them until the next working day; unexpected office closures can make unplanned-for working from home impossible; and misinformation can spread fear, especially given the recent terror attacks in London. In fact, there were reports of people initially fearing that there had been an explosion until the situation had been clarified by the authorities.
However, disruption to business due to a gas leak is unlikely to be an isolated incident. A London fire brigade spokesperson said, “It has happened a few times recently. With the ageing pipes in London there is an ongoing programme at the moment to replace all the pipework. It’s just one of those things. It happens.” The risk of a gas leak is a perfect example of a threat to business continuity that cannot be controlled or avoided, only prepared for.
The challenges of communication between organisations
At the centre of a business continuity plan for instances such as the Strand gas leak is the challenge of communication. For an incident that affects a geographical area rather than one organisation, being in touch with a range of different businesses from different industries can pose difficulties, especially in the early hours of the morning. Stuart Turner, the duty manager of Heaven (the nightclub that had to close early due to the gas leak) found that the gas board and emergency services were slow to send over their senior staff. “At 3am you haven’t got anyone there. It was clear that it wasn’t something as serious as a fire or terror attack and that closing Charing Cross station was going to cost millions of pounds, so it was a rather woolly reaction from the gas board initially. There were lots of huddled discussions, but no one seemed to want to make any decisions.” Coordinating between emergency services, gas board employees and the security team at Heaven slowed down the response to the gas leak – in fact, it was 4 hours after the leak was reported that the club took matters into their own hands. “It was self-evident that we would be within the cordoned zone,” said Stuart. “We made the decision to close early and got everyone out safely within 20 minutes.”
For staff at the Amba Hotel at Charing Cross, the problem of coordinating across organisations had been anticipated. A respite centre was already set up at their sister hotel – the Royal Horseguards Hotel, and guests said the whole process was “well-organised, without panic and they followed like sheep.” The smooth emergency response between the two hotels is a clear example of how building continuity links between businesses can promote better resilience. This coordinated approach is already being taken by London BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) such as the Victoria BID who are in the process of implementing crisis communication software across all of their businesses.
Crises don’t just happen during business hours
Even the slickest coordination can break down during a crisis that happens at night. While some threats to business continuity are deliberately planned to affect businesses at peak times, accidental threats such as fire, flood and power cuts can happen at any time. The Strand gas leak is the perfect example of why preparedness needs to be a 24 hour concept.
While Heaven are used to operating into the small hours of the morning and had a full security team and duty manager on site, other businesses were less equipped. For the Amba Hotel at Charing Cross, the late hour posed a problem. As the gas leak happened at night, there were fewer members of staff. With fewer hands on deck, being well-trained and practised is the only way to ensure success. Luckily, Amba practice for a fire with a full evacuation every week, so even with fewer staff they were able to direct guests to the fire escapes and there were enough staff members outside ready to direct guests once they had left the building.
Communication can alleviate domino effect disruption
For many Strand businesses, even if they had been made aware of the problem before the conventional working day began at 9am there was no way for them to alert staff on their way to work. This led to frustration for many who ended up stranded for hours and unable work or go home, but also exacerbated the crowding on the platforms with one Twitter user describing London Bridge as being like “a zombie apocalypse.” The knock-on effect from just two London stations – Charing Cross and Waterloo East – affected stations across the capital and beyond, meaning that businesses who aren’t located anywhere near the Strand had employees who were unable to get to work. Instances such as this are proof that an “It won’t happen to us” attitude is not good enough – it doesn’t need to happen to you for an incident to threaten your ability to continue business as usual.
Communication with the press in a crisis
After an incident has been handled, the next challenge to business continuity is reputation management. For Heaven, this was one of the greatest challenges due to the attention that the gas leak received in the press. “While we’re committed to improving how we manage crowds, the biggest learning curve was how to deal with the media,” explains Stuart. “The social media posts about a panicked evacuation were not accurate – I remember thinking, are we talking about the same night? We’re used to handling negative attention on Twitter from people who had been denied entry or refused drinks, but knowing how to handle this kind of dialogue after an incident like the gas leak – and to do it well at 4am – is going to be a learning curve. It’s definitely on our radar for next time.”
Clearly, communication is the biggest challenge and most powerful tool for crisis managers during any incident. As urban infrastructure becomes more integrated, supply chains become more complex (as KFC are currently learning the hard way) and expectations that companies demonstrate corporate responsibility grow, being able to communicate quickly and accurately under testing circumstances is key to handling crises like the Strand gas leak.
YUDU Sentinel is an app based crisis communication platform for the management of fire, terrorist and cyber attacks, or any other critical incidents. Crisis managers have immediate access to an independent two-way communication (SMS, voice, email and in app messaging) and can view key documents on mobiles. Sentinel is a cutting edge crisis management tool. Find out more at www.yudu.com/sentinel or contact us on Twitter @YUDUSentinel.