Crisis management and the Japanese earthquake

As crisis management plans go, Japan’s was a well-prepared one. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the Japanese have become world leaders in seismic technology and all modern structures are designed for earthquakes – and older buildings retrofitted appropriately. Buildings shorter than three storeys have reinforced walls and foundation slabs of a certain thickness, while taller structures have innovative earthquake-resistant designs that undergo regular review by structural engineers. Mid-rise buildings often rest on huge rubber or fluid-filled shock absorbers which slide from side to side, dissipating lateral motion and turning it into heat. Buildings sway in high winds but that helps to prevent them disintegrating into reubble when earthquakes hit. Every household is instructed to keep a survival kit with a torch, radio, first aid kit and enough food and water to last for a few days, and issued with instructions such as avoiding placing heavy objects in places where they could easily fall during an earthquake and cause injury or block exits; having a fire extinguisher to hand; and being familiar with the local evacuation plans in their area. Earthquake planning is a key part of all organisations’ business continuity planning, and the Japanese view crisis management planning as a core business activity – it is simply an essential way of life.

This is a country used to quakes as the Japanese archipelago is located in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. But the recent earthquake in the north of the country, measuring 8.9 on the richter scale, followed by a series of aftershocks many of which were larger than the earthquake which devastated Christchurch last month, a tsunami and the resulting nuclear emergency, demonstrated that no crisis management plan, however carefully prepared and well practised, can cover all eventualities. The crisis management plan for New York’s Twin Towers, for example, included the notion that a plane might strike the towers. But it was envisaged that this would be an accident on the way back to a New York airport and the planes would therefore be almost empty of fuel. Of course when the planes hit on 11 Septemmber 2011, they were full of fuel which exercerbated an already disastrous situation.

The crisis in Japan is expected to be the world’s costliest natural disaster – in the region of £100bn. As facilities professionals, all we can do is to plan for realistic and anticipated emergencies. No doubt, crisis management plans in earthquake prone areas are being revisited at the moment, and of course it’s a timely reminder for all facilities professionals to dust off the business continuity plan and make sure it’s suitable for today’s business – and continually rehearsed and updated.

But of course it’s not just earthquakes and natural disasters which can rock a company. Cotswold Geotechnical was fined £385,000 last month after becoming the first company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter. The sum amounted to 115 per cent of its annual turnover and could well result in the company’s liquidation. The message is clear: while the horror of earthquakes and the shocking loss of life make the headlines, a lack of proper health and safety management can quickly result in not only reputational damage and massive fines, but also in the company’s demise. And all this is in the hands of the facilities manager.

Cathy Hayward