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How NOT to Test Emergency Preparedness

Matunda Nyanchama, PhD

December 2nd, 2015

On November 30th, 2015 Strathmore University in Nairobi carried out a mock enactment of a terrorist attack on campus. The ensuing melee and subsequent pandemonium left one person dead and many others injured. This is in addition damages, yet to be assessed and reported, including a soiled brand of an otherwise reputable institution!

The act was akin to shouting “fire!” in a packed theatre!Strathmore - 3

The university authorities say they worked with the police to conduct the exercise; others say otherwise. There are allegations that live bullets were used, an accusation that security authorities deny. The truth will surface over time for, as they say, time is the greatest healer and solution provider!

Clearly, things went wrong with the exercise considering the level of unwarranted damage incurred. A life was lost and many people were injured; the physical and emotional toll will linger for many for a long time to come. In addition, the institution which has been sailing high among peers, had to work hard to regain the dented trust of its stakeholders.

Emergency preparedness and response are important components of any forward-thinking organizational plan. They are part formal business continuity management and integral to institutional risk management. Failure to manage risk has been a cause of demise of many organizations.

Emergency preparedness and response plans are becoming even more crucial in Kenya. The need for preparedness has never been greater in this country and region. What with the events that are in daily news: terrorism, accidents, fires, floods and more. With rapid urbanization and mushrooming institutions that linked via a complex web of interconnectedness, there is a need for systematic review and assessment of potential risk-related occurrences that could cause loss and damage. There is a need for systematic planning on how to prevent, detect and respond to potentially damaging events.Strathmore - 1

Organizations that fail to prepare accordingly place not only themselves at risk but also those associated with them. All organizations across the country and region (be they big or small; public or private) should treat emergency preparedness as a matter of urgency for the reason that Kenya has been a target of terrorism in the recent past. Events at Garissa University College, Mpeketoni and Westgate Mall are too fresh in our minds. Even when we do not know where they will strike next, our preparedness can help minimize potential loss in that eventuality.

And there is no shortage of knowledge and practice in this area. We should be prepared to learn from those that have lived under threat of terrorism for years. Emergency preparedness is a subject that has been honed over years. Organizations can benefit from experts in developing their preparedness and response plans that do not cause undue risk or damage as happened in Strathmore University.

These plans include training and awareness for all participants pertaining to preparedness, detection and response to incidents. It includes clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and a showcase of how these roles interrelate in an emergency situation. It includes working with parties such as law enforcement, medical emergency services and other third parties that may be related to the institution.

In the Strathmore University case that was a clear lack of awareness, on the larger segment of the university population, on of how to respond. This is demonstrated by pandemonium that broke out during the exercise. You would not have people jumping off buildings if they were aware that cool heads should prevail even in terrorist attack situations. They would have known to stay calm, follow instructions taught to them previously and respond in an orderly manner that is unlikely to cause them injury.

Clearly, the university needs to do more in training and raising awareness of its population.Strathmore - 2

And because of complexity of the environments that pertain today, it is important that training and awareness be thorough. It must be relevant to those involved with the aim of eliciting predictable behaviour anticipated by the plan. In the case of Strathmore University, students would form the core target for training considering that they are the single largest constituency in the institution.

Plan testing is part of the entire emergency preparedness and response. However, there are various levels of plan testing. Indeed, professionals recommend incremental testing (which also helps with training and awareness) and only recommend full-blown testing under extreme caution. Full-blown testing, as professionals understand, can cause substantial unintended damage as happened in Strathmore University.

One can envision, as part of training, the enactment (in small groups) of terrorist situations. Planned and executed in a safe environment, the exercises can include role-playing and debriefing thereafter. Doing the exercise over an over gives participants a chance to learn and adjust their responses in line with what is anticipated by the plan.

Strathmore University’s approach, unfortunately, was akin to shouting “fire!” in a packed theatre. This is a no-no act as far as emergency response goes. Such acts cause unintended damage that may be worse than the benefit they seek to bring.

A key principle of emergence preparedness and response planning is business impact analysis. One must ascertain what would happen should an eventuality (such as terrorism) happen and how that would impact the business of the organization.

The same is true when conducting testing. It requires asking the question of the impact of the testing on business, e.g. how much disruption would happen. What would be the associated cost? And more.

The impact of testing can be worse (as seems to be the case in Strathmore University) when participants in the testing haven’t been trained on how to respond.

An old adage goes that there is no such thing as failure, there are only learning experiences. There are a lot of lessons to learn from the happenings at Strathmore University. When the heat has dissipated and things have settled down, the post-mortem of the events (prior, during and after) the bungled testing can offer good lessons for others.

Dr. Matunda Nyanchama is a consultant and trainer on risk management, including Business Continuity and Emergence Preparedness.