When crisis strikes: why staying in touch is vital

Policies urging employees to keep in touch with each other are as important in a crisis as the technology itself, says company affected by the London bombings

On the morning of July 7, 2005, Kenneth McCrae left his hotel in central London and headed for Baker Street Underground station. It was a warm day and he remembers looking longingly across the street at the green grass and trees in Regent’s Park before heading down to catch his train. McCrae boarded at 8.42 am along with the millions who jam the city’s famous subway system each day. On a whim, he decided to take the Metropolitan line instead of the Circle line. It turned out to be a good choice. At 8.50, a series of powerful bombs exploded underground, and one of those seriously damaged a train on the Circle line, just two trains ahead of McCrae. Above ground, another blast would rip apart a bus in Tavistock Square nearly an hour later.

Meanwhile, McCrae and his fellow passengers sat in the dark, silently, for 20 minutes. It wasn’t until they left the train, filed down the dark tracks and walked up the stairs into the daylight at King’s Cross station that they realised something very, very bad had happened.

The terrorist bombings in London that day killed 56 people, wounded 700, crippled lines of communication and effectively shut down one of the world’s largest cities. As sirens blared, McCrae, managing director of real estate management company Gale Global Facilities UK, a division of Gale Global Facility Services, pulled out his BlackBerry and called his boss in New Jersey.

“My immediate thought was, ‘how lucky have I been?’” says McCrae, who splits his time between his home in Scotland and a hotel in London. “Then I knew I had to get in touch with the home office. I had to somehow check on the safety of colleagues in London.”

Even though much of the area’s phone and cellular networks were quickly overwhelmed, McCrae was able to reach New Jersey as well as a colleague in Toulouse, France, who went immediately to the company’s intranet site to open an “incident report”, that would soon chronicle the day’s events and help account for the location and safety of Gale GFS employees in the London area. McCrae used his BlackBerry to communicate with his colleagues in London, around Europe and in the United States. Within 90 minutes, Gale was able to account for all 80 of its London-based employees. The company’s Incident Reporting System, or IRS, which sends out email alerts to the cellphones, BlackBerrys, pagers and laptops of those concerned and also informs employees via a sort of web chatroom on their home-built company portal, helped spread the news of the unfolding crisis. And because of it, Gale GFS never stopped operating.

McCrae’s experience — and the company’s ability to communicate broadly through a variety of channels — shows how companies hit by disaster can effectively track employees using simple web and mobile technologies. During the London bombings, many companies suffered from a total information blackout because most communications lines were blocked. Gale GFS, however, was able to find its employees, make sure its properties were safe and send alerts to those in charge within a short period of time. This kind of system, which relies on cellphones, emails, BlackBerrys and pagers to communicate, is simple but, unaccountably and unfortunately, rare. Many companies simply don’t have the systems in place to keep track of and communicate with employees during and just after a crisis, experts say.

“It’s not just putting out fires; it’s about staying in business, and one of the essential steps is tracking employees,” says Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. “Technology can help you do this.”

The limits of email

Gale GFS’s crisis management system was born out of the company’s desire to better communicate with its employees on a day-to-day basis. The company started to build its Incident Reporting System in 2003 when its largest client, AT&T, asked for help. The telco giant was looking for a way to let employees know, in real-time, what was happening when there was a major incident — a hurricane or power outage — at one of its locations. “They wanted to be able to let everyone know what was happening even as the situation was changing every few minutes,” says Chris Messineo, assistant VP for IT at Gale GFS (a unit of the Gale Company), which manages and oversees properties around the world for clients including AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM and Toys “R” Us.

Messineo, working with Gale GFS president and CIO Ian Marlow, decided they needed to create an alternative to email, which can be an inefficient way to find employees during a crisis because it can create a tangle of messages that cross each other. The two had initially designed the company portal in 2002 in an effort to share information inside the company, and had more recently added functions such as file-sharing to allow vendors and clients to use it as well. Messineo stresses that the system, built using Microsoft’s ASP.net and SQL Server, was designed with simplicity in mind. “In fact, its power is in its simplicity,” he says, noting that — so far — it has never locked up or crashed and that all of the code used to run it can fit on a single floppy disk. The system had to be robust and easy to use, even for employees connecting from dial-up modems in airports. And unlike more complex web conferencing systems, employees access it directly from any browser and don’t need to download software to do so. Messineo says his team was successful because they kept the application simple. And while AT&T was the first to request such a system for its property managers, all of Gale GFS’s clients can now use the IRS.

Keep it simple and flexible

Gale GFS employees agree that policies urging employees to keep in touch with each other are as important in a crisis as the technology itself. Adding the Incident Reporting System — which operates as a sort of business blog — to Gale GFS’s portal site was not complicated, Messineo says. Essentially, an employee can log on to the web-based system with a user name and password and write about a hurricane, an explosion or any other incident. Gale GFS designed and built its system to automatically send out an email notification to everyone in the region. Through an online control panel, administrators can determine who gets notified by region and by company. Email alerts pop up on cellphones and BlackBerry pagers, as well as on computer screens. Originally, Messineo says, AT&T said it wanted to be able to track 40 fields of information — ranging from precise locations to detailed weather conditions and number of employees — for each incident. That level of complexity, however, would mean that the system would be slow. To speed things up, Messineo decided to reduce the number of categories within each type of incident to a maximum of eight. The result: employees can connect to the system using a 56K modem with pages loading in under three seconds. And they can also access the system from an internet café or any other web connection.

According to Marlow, who is also COO of Gale GFS’s parent, the Gale Company, the main challenge was to make sure that top executives could communicate with employees from inside an affected location using multiple forms of communication. Just after the 9/11 attacks, for example, telephone traffic was re-routed and it was impossible to call the World Trade Centre area using landlines. In the case of the London bombings the cellular network was essentially shut down, but internet and BlackBerry communication was still working.

Blogging for safety

When a Gale GFS employee first logs on to his computer he or she sees a welcome screen filled with company news and announcements, similar to countless other corporate intranet sites. Gale GFS’s, however, has a small box in the upper left-hand corner: the Incident Reporting System. Depending on the employee’s location, that box may contain information on power outages, fires or impending hurricanes. Like a journal or blog, the entries track developments and conversations between employees.

For example, a property manager in Houston logged on to the IRS on September 23, 2005, alerting employees in the area as Hurricane Rita approached. The subsequent back and forth between the property manager and other employees chronicles the weather reports and developing plans to secure property and account for employees. Each time an alert was placed on the intranet site employees were notified on their mobile devices and via email.

Each case or incident is archived in the system so that others can retrieve them from the database in order to study them. “From reading and analysing the information we can gather best practices and bring them back to the company as a whole,” says Chris Furlong, manager of education and training for Gale GFS. Each session, however, is available for viewing only by the employees working with a specific client so as to maintain security. For example, if an AT&T site experiences a power outage, only Gale employees working on that account (and, of course, their client, AT&T) will be able to see what’s going on. Furlong says that new employees can be trained on the system in ten minutes.

Before the IRS system was developed, employees had to stay on the phone for long stretches in order to stay up to date, says William Mellin, a Gale GFS VP. With the IRS, people can do their job while they check the site, or get information via handheld devices. “It’s more productive to have people working than tied to a conference call or webcast,” Mellin adds.

People versus property

When the London bombs went off, Marlow was watching the early morning news on TV at his home in New Jersey. He immediately picked up the phone. Within minutes an incident report was opened on the company intranet and Marlow had accounted for the safety of the top four executives in the region, including McCrae, who had provided the initial information to a colleague in France. Then McCrae got in touch by phone with the manager of Gale GFS’s account with GlaxoSmithKline, one of its largest clients in the London area, who was able to log on to the intranet and account for all employees at those London facilities through the IRS.

When all employees in the London area had been accounted for, Marlow sent out a worldwide email alert. “As a global company, we have people all over the world, and in the event of a major disaster, everyone wants to know about people’s safety,” Marlow says.

Meanwhile, in London, McCrae had convinced the owner of a pub in Leicester Square to allow him and two colleagues to hole up there for the afternoon. With the trains and buses stopped, traffic closed, and phone and cellular networks failing, McCrae spent the next hours sending and receiving information from New Jersey via his BlackBerry, which was drifting in and out of service. “That day was filled with lots of uncertainty, and many companies struggled to communicate,” says McCrae, who was able to feed information about the attack and its aftermath to colleagues who then updated the IRS.

“I didn’t realise the power of the portal until then,” he says.

Gale GFS isn’t the first or the only company to use a combination of internet and mobile technologies to keep track of employees and monitor crisis situations. Companies are increasingly looking at building websites that can account for the whereabouts and status of employees (and in the hotel industry, guests), says George Washington University’s Harrald.

Others are looking into web conferencing systems that can provide infrastructure for emergency meetings around the world. And some are considering using companies such as iJet and UK-based Control Risks Group to provide web conferencing services that can keep tabs on far-flung employees and also provide a dashboard on which executives can monitor employee whereabouts and safety.

Security software vendor SunGard Availability Services has offered a “notification service” for the past three years that allows companies to keep in touch with employees through multiple channels. Don Norbeck, product manager at SunGard Availability Services, says the service was initially hard to sell, but no more.

“Technology is starting to replace traditional call chains,” says Harrald. Up until 9/11, companies viewed crisis management primarily as an exercise in property protection. After the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon that perception changed. For example, Harrald knows an employee of a large bank who, in the wake of 9/11, had to call the homes of thousands of employees to see if they were alive. “Companies are trying to get away from that,” he says.

For organisations looking to build a system to track employees and share information during a crisis, Gale GFS serves as a model for those who want to add a discussion board to an already existing intranet or portal. Mellin, who is a portfolio manager on the AT&T account and has been using the system for the past three years, says he would recommend the simple, internet-based system because the need for training is very low. By adding a forum or chat module to an existing secure intranet site or portal, companies can quickly document an employee’s safety, while sending important information to those in the field. Messineo says that such modules are relatively easy to develop internally using tools such as Microsoft .Net and are very easy to maintain. All data can be backed up each day on a standard Dell server and on a duplicate server offsite.

Preparing for “Next Time”

While McCrae sat in the pub in the aftermath of the bombings, he was frustrated that he couldn’t feed information directly to the IRS. The system was built before every executive carried a BlackBerry, so it did not allow for direct feeds from the device to the site. Instead, McCrae was sending comments about his well-being and the condition of employees to colleagues in the United States and France, who then logged the information on to the intranet.

That will change. Messineo and his IT team are now working to allow BlackBerry and cellphone users to send text directly to the IRS. This involves new coding that will accept BlackBerry messages as real-time updates. By the third quarter of this year, if a hurricane hits, a power line goes down or a bomb explodes anywhere where Gale does business, its employees will be able get in touch with the IRS instantly, says Messineo, from any device.

Although McCrae hopes there won’t be a next time, he believes his experience in the hours following the bombings taught him some key lessons.

“It’s important to imagine how you would respond to a wide range of crises,” he says. “Then, you’ve got to have a system that will allow you to communicate using multiple devices. If you have flexibility, you have a much better chance of finding your employees and making sure that your property and systems are in place.”

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