Fiery Sydney riot warning dismissed as “unrealistic”

Crisis preparedness is not just about identifying potential risks.  It demands that concern gets turned into action. Too often the problem is not a lack of information, but a lack of imagination and initiative.

This failure was highlighted last week by evidence before the inquiry into the fire and riot which devastated the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney earlier this year

New South Wales  Assistant Police Commissioner Carmine Frank Minnelli  told the inquiry that his officers had done some scenario training for a riot or fire at Villawood,  and said he felt that his concerns had been somewhat dismissed.

“At the end of the scenario a debrief was conducted and I was told that the scenario was unrealistic and it would never happen,”  Mr Minnelli said, adding that he raised those concerns with the Department of Immigration just two days before this riot.

The Sydney top cop’s frustration is eerily reminiscent of what happened before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August, 2005. A year earlier there had been a massive multi-agency exercise involving the fictional Hurricane Pam hitting New Orleans and breaching the levees. But at the end of this very costly simulation, some of the participants felt it was not very useful because the scenario “wasn’t realistic.” When the very real Hurricane Katrina struck in an almost identical scenario, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tried to argue that the event was “particularly unpredictable” and “exceeded the foresight of planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight.”

The problem here – and the problem for managers and executives around the world – was eloquently captured by the official Federal report on the disaster, aptly titled A Failure of Initiative. The committee said “If 9/11 was a failure of imagination, then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership.”  The report concluded: “While there was no failure to predict the inevitability and consequences of a monster Hurricane, there was a failure of initiative to get beyond design and organizational compromises to improve the level of protection afforded.”

Whenever an organizational crisis strikes there are two things which always happen. The first is the hunt for someone to blame. The second is that, in the aftermath of the crisis, there is always someone who steps forward and says: “Oh yes, I knew about that.”

So for crisis preparedness and crisis prevention, the challenge for managers and executives is this: When you review your risk register or update your assessment of issues and potential crises, are any of your top priority areas where someone would step forward after a crisis and say:  “Oh yes, that was well known in our organization . . .  but no-one did anything about it.” If that might be the case, you’ve got work to do.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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