Business Continuity Incident: Water Contamination

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The Havelock North water contamination crisis is a painful reminder of how much worse the impact of infectious outbreaks can be when proper planning isn’t in place, an emergency planning specialist says.

Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor’s research centres on the best way businesses and other organisations can prepare for rare, extreme events such as pandemics, terrorist strikes, natural disasters and economic recession.

“Better planning could have minimised unintended consequences and downstream effects that make the disaster worse,” she says. The fact that contaminated water was brought in to Havelock North in a tanker was “staggering”.

“Now there is no faith in the water supplies and 55 000 households have just been told to boil it.”

She says “public-private partnerships” led by relevant local authorities should develop contingency plans for different kinds of emergencies, and run exercises to rehearse responses.

“The council and the DHB should have had a broad emergency preparedness plan in place,” she says.

“The plan should involve all stakeholders in the community and private sector partners such as local business associations, and they should have rehearsed for scenarios such as this – especially after contamination of one of their water bores in 2015.

“The number one priority should be to stop spread of infection, the second to keep amenities functioning. It’s about the benefit of foresight.”

Critical elements of that plan would include: A communication strategy involving multiple channels – social media, radio, printed media, posters, to reach all parts of the community – and careful co-ordination between key spokespeople to ensure consistent messages

Supply chain planning – provisions for food, clean water, bedding and other supplies to be brought under different scenarios

Arrangements to bring in reinforcement workers, for example extra doctors

Planning by individual businesses and associations, working with local authorities, with clarity around implications for private insurance or public compensation

Planning by local schools, including capacity for temporarily providing lessons remotely online/via email; again working closely with council and other relevant bodies, and clear direction as to schools should close

Planning around when to close public amenities such as libraries, schools and galleries, and when to restrict movement of people and stock to contain the spread of an illness

“Havelock North should have gone into temporary lockdown when campylobacter was found in the town’s tap water supply,” says Dr Sullivan-Taylor, a senior lecturer in Management and International Business at the University of Auckland Business School.

“Stopping the movement of people and trying to find the source of the problem should have been key priorities. That could have contained the spread of the illness, which has now affected over 4100 people and more than half the town’s households at the latest estimate, and possibly been a factor in one woman’s death.

“A lockdown would have also given clarity to business owners that they could claim insurance for disruption to business due to forced closure. Business continuity management aids a quick economic recovery,” she says.

“And school principals should have been relieved of the unreasonable expectation to assess the risk to their community without sufficient information or guidance from the DHB and council.”

She says that individuals within the authorities and wider community who worked hard to contain the crisis were let down by a lack of co-ordinated planning.

She queried the government’s refusal to officially declare a water emergency. “There is a shortage of uncontaminated water and a lack of confidence in water security so I would say that there is a water emergency.

“Water security in general should be a major concern for governments, in case of chemical or biological attacks or this sort of thing. Water is an example of critical national infrastructure.”

Dr Sullivan-Taylor began researching organisational, community and business resilience in Britain at Aston University and Warwick University, and advised officials during the review of the United Kingdom’s national security and Civil Contingencies Act in the early 2000s.

She’s noticed a similar complacency and scepticism towards the likelihood of extreme events among organisations here and in Britain.

“New Zealand is very well prepared for earthquakes, but that’s not the only risk we face.”