Coping with the domino effect of disaster

Oxfam is no stranger to picking up the pieces, but last year's tsunami posed the agency's biggest challenge and highlighted the need to keep business continuity simple

When the Boxing Day tsunami hit southern Asia, business continuity - and, indeed, expansion - planning proved crucial to Oxfam's relief effort.

Oxfam IT director Simon Jennings had three priorities. First, he had to ensure that the UK-based systems for shipping emergency equipment, such as the replenishing and warehouse system in Bicester, were sound.

Second, he had to provide as much assistance, staff, kit, and above all, communications facilities as possible to those in the affected areas.

And finally, he had to scale up Oxfam's ability to collect and process the vast increase in donations that came flooding in from the public.

"The scale of the tsunami put an enormous strain on our organisation," said Jennings. "Our staff were prepared to put their lives on hold to help."

The experience of the tsunami relief effort provided Jennings with some wide-ranging lessons in continuity.

Keep it simple

Having a simple continuity plan confers flexibility, giving staff in shock and distress a better chance of coping. Although no Oxfam staff died in the tsunami, there were unexpected issues from snake bites, exhaustion and what was happening to staff's family members.

Simple, flexible plans allow rapid staff replacement. "You can have the same plans but different people," said Jennings.

The scale of the disaster produced a domino effect, as Oxfam brought in staff from further-afield to support or replace local staff.

On the home front, keeping it simple meant such things as pre-cutting inventory and custom documentation on CDs rather than doing it in real time. Also provided were donation-line call centres with scripts and donation forms that were easy for emergency volunteer staff to follow, and were specifically adapted to what Oxfam needed for the tsunami disaster.

Keeping the business continuity plan simple and flexible also meant it was agile and responsive when it was put into action.

"Getting people on the ground, fast, was critical," said Jennings. "You have to be able to move to where the need is and work with others."

Front-line staff know best

It is essential, Jennings said, to let local staff assess what they need in a disaster. "The guy on the ground is in charge. He has to be in communication with the authorities and with other charities."

Those on the ground also have to dictate the logistics. "Communications were a real problem. We lost a donated satellite dish because the donor sent it on an earlier flight, not the one we had chartered, and our local man could not meet the earlier flight at the airport. The dish disappeared into the freight mountain at Medan airport."

Back up skills

A further point is to ensure there is sufficient redundancy in your skills portfolio to cover for staff who are incapacitated or over-stretched.

"I have five people in head office who can back up field staff," said Jennings.

Even so, as Oxfam posted staff from unaffected areas to the disaster zone, it then had to replace the displaced staff.

Head office skills were also depleted to meet the crisis. "Purchasing experts went out to India to co-ordinate emergency purchasing there. We ended up with a skeleton staff in HQ."

Co-operation and standards

"One of our biggest lessons was to collaborate with other aid agencies, such as Save the Children and World Vision, and to do that you need to have a standard, coherent and consistent IT infrastructure," said Jennings.

"You want to use the same standard as others. There's no point in us all having incompatible laptops and communications, although standardisation will be tricky to achieve."

Provide active leadership

Active, visible leadership is also vital to encourage and reassure staff working under huge stress.

"I did a lot of walking around, across a lot of buildings and floors," said Jennings.

"I hadn't anticipated I would need to do so much - and that I would only have a mobile for communications."

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