Fully prepared for the worst

The Life: Recent events including terror attacks and earthquakes demonstrate the importance of emergency response.

Nicholas Bahr of Booz Allen Hamilton, is an expert in emergency response planning. Silvia Razgova / The National
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The two earthquakes in Iran that recently sent tremors rippling across the UAE caused a certain amount of alarm if not minor panic. They showed that a number of organisations are not as prepared as they should be to handle a disaster. Farther afield, the explosions in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators raised questions in cities around the world about just how prepared they would be in the face of terrorist attacks.

Nicholas Bahr is the regional manager of the Middle East office of the consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton in Abu Dhabi. He is also an expert in emergency response planning. He would like to see better business continuity planning in the UAE and across the Middle East.

This means every government body and business would figure out in advance what their key services are, what the threats are, and what systems could be put in place - and tested - to reduce the effect of disaster. Such a drill would apply in the case of a cyber attack, a natural disaster or a political crisis.

"In the past, a lot of companies have looked at emergency preparedness ... emergency management [and] how to manage after an event and then maybe crisis communication during an event," Mr Bahr says. "Now what we are looking at is different. It's called business continuity: how do you manage your business in the middle of an event. It's sort of building up resilience."

This idea of business continuity is relatively new but catching on. It's also had more importance since the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority introduced a business continuity standard in December.

This was created by looking at such standards in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Singapore, in the context of the UAE's activities and services. It's the first business continuity standard in the Arab region.

The situation in the UAE is particularly interesting because of the large number of expatriate workers, according to Mr Bahr. One scenario that needs to be considered is a potential mass flight of foreign workers.

"What happens if expats leave suddenly [in] a mass exodus like what happened with the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein?" he says. "Here we have things like 70 per cent of the nurses in Abu Dhabi [being] from the Philippines, so imagine if relations between the Philippines and the UAE break down for whatever reason. Then all of a sudden you have a situation.

"Again, I think the concept is: how do I make myself, my company, my government more resilient so that as the vagaries, the unpredictableness of the world occur, I can just respond in a cost-effective and sustainable way?"

While the likelihood of a disastrous earthquake hitting the UAE is small (the country sits in the middle of a tectonic plate rather in the more dangerous location of where two plates meet), Mr Bahr says he noticed some less than desirable behaviours and consequences when separate tremors hit this month.

First, he saw many people evacuate their buildings by taking the elevator. As in the situation of a fire, people should get out of the building via the stairs. Second, he noted that few managers told occupants they could re-enter their buildings. Third, many people jumped in their cars to leave the area only to end up in a gridlock.

Unpredictable events "could be devastating for an economy so it's really important to plan ahead and think about it and test it," he says."This street by noon [last week] was like a parking lot. People just left and got in their cars and went home early; which is fine - but because of the [lack of] coordination there was very little traffic movement and statistically most people have less than a full tank of gas in their car at any one time. So imagine if there is a real call for evacuation: what do you do when cars start running out of gas getting out of the centre of activities?"

Mr Bahr concludes: "I think for me what I would like to see is all of us doing - government and industry together because I am a very firm believer it should be done jointly - is really come up with these business continuity programmes. It's really a joint effort because we are really joint entities now. We are not really black boxes."