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Considering the variable in crisis management



This week marked the end of a three week inquiry into the Hazelwood Coal Mine fire. The fire in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley burned for 45 days, costing tax payers $32.5 million. The effects on local residents, many of whom were displaced and may experience ongoing health problems, is not as measurable.

Though the findings of the inquiry will not be handed down until August, there is staggering evidence that the fire was handled improperly by GDF Suez, the parent company that operates the mine.

Back in March, we discussed the Hazelwood fire and how it was likely foreseeable. During the inquiry, this statement was underpinned by a number of facts, the most damaging being that the mine experienced a fire in 2008.

Following that fire, a number of recommendations were made that were not implemented with GDF Suez’s legal counsel stating there was no legal requirement to implement these recommendations.

The fact is, when a crisis happens, stakeholders, including law enforcement, government, clients, and shareholders, consider whether or not the company took reasonable measures to prevent it.

Each organisation has an ethical obligation to develop a risk mitigation strategy and crisis management plan that considers the organisation’s unique risks as well as legal requirements. In this instance, one would assume that extra safety precautions should be taken when mining a highly flammable material in a bushfire prone area.

Many organisations are tempted to put off preventative measures due to cost and difficulty. Ultimately, this is much more costly in the long-term. A good crisis management plan is like an insurance policy: it can be difficult to see the value of the initial investment until something goes wrong. In this case, a backup power supply and increased fire management facilities could have greatly reduced the scope, damage and overall cost associated with the fire.

Beyond costly measures, staff was ill prepared to deal with the fire and the organisation’s communication strategy was weak. After the fire started, mine workers missed a critical step when no one called 000. Some of the oversights in the response were attributed to the fact that key personnel were away.

One thing we stress to our clients is the importance of ensuring their organisation is able to operate at all times. We have all seen sports matches that have taken a turn for the worse after one player gets injured. Whether you’re an AFL team, a university, or a mine, the same fact holds true: your success cannot be reliant on any one individual. Policies need to be in place to ensure each critical task gets covered even when team members are away.

It’s important to note that GDF Suez was not the only organisation that needed a better response. Relocation advice from Rosemary Lester, the state’s chief health officer, was noted as being “too late” and “too gentle.”

Communication in a crisis must be clear, authoritative and concise. This holds particularly true in cases where public safety is at risk. If the public needs to perform a task, whether that’s evacuating or taking preparative steps, communication must be urgent without creating panic.

Though this type of crisis is unique to the mining industry, the lessons learned are not. A robust crisis management plan and clear communication are critical for all organisations. Cases like this one should serve as a lesson to other organisations about the importance of investing in advanced preparations.

During a crisis, the last things an organisation wants to deal with are unforeseen challenges and variables. At Briggs Communications, we consider all the variables and can develop a plan that will improve your organisation’s crisis response and increase its resilience.

How prepared is your team to handle a crisis? We offer a range of crisis training, planning, and testing services; Click here to get in touch with our team today.

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