Response, recovery, resilience

Response, recovery, resilience

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry implemented a business resilience plan arising out of the first earthquake in Christchurch. This proved invaluable when the second earthquake struck, says Nigel Prince, deputy director-general business services.

The first Christchurch earthquake in September of last year gave the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry important lessons that were put to good use in response to the bigger quake of February this year, says Nigel Prince, deputy director-general of business services at MAF. After the September quake, his predecessor had put in place a detailed business resilience plan, which was able to be used to good effect in February. The ministry is, however, still learning from its performance following the larger quake, says Prince, who was MAF CIO prior to his current role.

Good logistics support is an important factor, says Prince. This means knowing what and where the resources are, and obtaining the necessary services and clearances to move them to the site of a disaster quickly and arrange cover for them back in their original site.

Competent logistics allowed MAF to assist with the general response to the problems of Christchurch, as well as its own staff and buildings. “MAF has an area that is trained to deal with significant events,” (such as biosecurity emergencies), he says, “so there are useful skills there already for other kinds of natural disasters.”

MAF’s links with rural communities and services were important in co-ordinating the top-level response at the crisis management centre in the Beehive. “We had a lot of offers from our key stakeholders in the primary sector,” he says. For instance, Fonterra mobilised its tanker fleet to bring millions of litres of water into the city.

Plan and adapt

Prince recalls the lessons of last year’s emergency. “When the September earthquake came, we were in the throes of the merger between MAF and Food Safety. It had been announced and we were working through the processes; I was CIO of MAF at the time.

“What happened initially was quite disjointed,” he says. “Because the organisation was going through substantial change, there was quite a disorganised response between the policy team that had people in Christchurch and the biosecurity team, as well as food safety, and that was reflected back to us after the event. We were quite fortunate that the [first] event was predominantly rurally based and didn’t have any loss of life or any major destruction in the city centre, as with the February earthquake.”

However, MAF also has a rural response role. “We take the lead role in advising the minister around establishing support trusts that support the rural community after any event. So we had to pick up that lead role.

“It was out of that September quake that we recognised our failings,” Prince says. “We certainly got the message from our staff.”

Out of this came the business resilience plan. “It started off building on the mistakes we had made in Christchurch. It was primarily focused on those lessons, but in effect it was for the wider MAF.” It recognised that business continuity from a technology perspective covers a much wider view than one site or its technology.

“We had to consider what we need to do at a site level in any event and what we need to do from a headquarters level. What we came up with was a model that effectively dealt with business resilience plans for each of our sites. We ended up with quite a detailed plan for Christchurch, which we were then going to adapt for Wellington, Auckland and our regional offices, as well as an overarching corporate response plan.

“Obviously this was handed to me as part of the [promotion to deputy director-general] and it was a task for me coming into the New Year to promote and progress the development of that resilience plan around the other regional offices.”

The merger became official on February 1 this year. “We got the new organisational structure, and in February we were still just in development mode, establishing our new organisation.

“In support of that on February 22 we were having an organisational strategy development session with the senior leadership team and our directors starting at one o’clock in Pastoral House [Wellington]; and I’ll always remember we turned up there at 12:50 and were catching up with a few directors. Somebody came to me and said ‘Have you heard there’s a major earthquake in Christchurch?’”.

“We immediately went up to our boardroom, flicked on the TV and started seeing some of the initial live telecasts of the destruction. Information was coming through from other directors who had been in contact with their staff in Christchurch, that there was major damage in the city centre, and we knew that this was going to be a significant event, and that we would need to invoke our resilience plan.”

People first

The cornerstones of the plan are what Prince calls the four Ps: People, property, power (and communications) and process.

Interruption of power was a constant challenge and clearly with so many teams working, there must be smoothly functioning communication, he says. Process must be clearly set out in advance to ensure the right resources are applied in the right place and that as far as possible no obstacles are encountered, and that nothing and no-one falls though the cracks.

Welfare of MAF’s staff comes first with measures to ensure assessing who is actually at the disaster site. “That may seem to be an easy thing, but it’s not,” he says. It involves counting the staff based in Christchurch, subtracting those travelling out of town, home sick or on leave and adding in staff from other centres that had travelled to Christchurch for the day.

“We did have a staff list, which again had been a lesson from the September quake; so we could contact people and assess their wellbeing.”

Contacting staff was still difficult because not everyone was equipped with a cellphone; nor was a complete list of cellphone numbers maintained. There was no established plan for people to work through PCs from home, Prince says. If there had been that might have been helpful.

To assist communication among staff for mutual reassurance in the aftermath of the quake, MAF lifted the block on accessing Facebook from work PCs so staff can get in touch with their colleagues, family and friends.

MAF has three sites in Christchurch — one at Lyttleton, covering the port, one at Sir William Pickering Drive, near the airport, and people at the airport itself.

The response centre was initially set up in Wellington, with the aim of moving to Sir William Pickering Drive as soon as possible. While a Wellington presence keeps contact with the government, it is important to have the task in the hands of locals as soon as possible, says Prince. “They are the ones who have the personal contacts with the people on the ground and are more aware of the geographical and natural physical issues.”

While there would not be much trade coming into Christchurch in the aftermath of the quake, MAF still needed to keep its biosecurity presence at the ports. As well as those travelling to Christchurch out of necessity, relief teams from overseas would be coming in. They and their equipment and dogs would have to be cleared “to ensure we didn’t create a biosecurity event” to add to the city’s problems, he says.

Relief rosters had to be drawn up. “We would have to arrange for people to be relieved from Auckland to come into Christchurch, so that our Christchurch staff could manage their own welfare and their individual circumstances.”

Food, water and washing facilities were provided at the workplaces for people whose homes were not functional. The husband of one of the women working on the team in a logistics role was the manager for Smith’s City, says Prince; “so we were able to get an industrial size washing machine and dryer to our Sir William Pickering Drive offices; fortunately, those offices were cleared [as safe] and we had power and water on,”

The Lyttelton office suffered major damage and staff had to relocate with Customs, a close partner of MAF.

Teams were sent out to check the security of laboratories and the quarantine station, and work coming into the laboratories had to be diverted to other facilities.

Also important was MAF’s food safety role. “We were able to provide support for the Christchurch City Council around running their campaigns for the boiling of water. Espresso units in cafes are directly connected to the water, the quality of the water coming through had to be ensured, as well as certification of food premises. Some of those were being closed because they were without power and then reopening; we had to check that they were fit for purpose.”

Within MAF in Christchurch, experience from the September quake meant the processes were there to set up a staff welfare fund to help relieve some of the longer-term after-effects.

The resilience of staff and Christchurch people as a whole is impressive, says Prince; “but it is still early days and people are now reacting to these latest earthquakes”.

The impact on people will change from day to day, he says. “The challenge and the opportunity is just in being there and supporting our staff.”

Nigel Prince, deputy director-general business services, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, spoke at the CIO Insights Breakfast on ‘Object lessons on business continuity’ sponsored by Unisys.


‘Focus on one outcome, not many causes’

A survey of attendees at recent CIO events shows, not surprisingly, that natural disasters were the biggest perceived continuing risk to ICT. One-third of organisations represented are budgeting for increased spending in this area. However, this was followed closely by risks arising from human error.

Cybersecurity attacks are becoming more sophisticated and should, perhaps, also rank highly in organisations’ awareness and counter-measures, says Brett Hodgson, managing director of Unisys New Zealand, which had conducted the survey.

When evaluating preventive measures against misfortune, says Hodgson, too much effort is expended on evaluating the likelihood of the risks of various events. “You can’t cover every scenario,” Hodgson says. Dispersal of effort on evaluating multiple risks “left some organisations unprepared for out-of-the-blue events or for the scale of some recent catastrophes,” he says. “It is much more important to focus on the consequences rather than the likelihood. Many different scenarios can lead to IT system failure, [you need to] plan to recover from that failure regardless of the cause.

“Another gap is that some organisations don’t have detailed business continuity plans around end user services that support employee productivity. Or that the plans have not been updated to reflect the greater mobility of workforces and diversity of devices being used. Thirdly, there is often an assumption built into plans that any crisis will pass quickly and employee productivity will be back to normal in hours, not days, weeks, or even months. We know better now.”

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Tags nigel princeministry of agriculture and forestry

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