Fires, floods, pandemics: planning for the worst

Universities' business continuity staff are developing strategies for crisis response. Chloe Stothart reports

April 17, 2008

When a huge fire ripped through a computing and electronics research building at the University of Southampton in October 2005, the institution risked losing more than just valuable facilities and work. The crisis could have seen staff and students walk away from the university as well.

Bad press and delays in finding new accommodation could have damaged the reputation of the top-flight department if the aftermath of the blaze had been mishandled. But five days after the event staff were in temporary accommodation and within three months specialist temporary facilities were up and running.

The key, according to Jennifer Arkell, the university's corporate planning manager, was that the university had a clear crisis management plan.

"In a lot of cases, people do not like the temporary working arrangements (after an event such as a major fire) and they drift away from the university," she said. "A key thing was communication and keeping people talking even if there was no extra news about when they would get their office back."

Now the experiences at Southampton and elsewhere are being shared within a fledgeling organisation for university crisis managers.

The Higher Education Business Continuity Network (Hebcon), set up in June last year, held its first conference last week. It was founded to cater for a new breed of business continuity personnel who are tasked with getting universities back on their feet after major crises that could range from staff disputes, electricity blackouts, floods and fires to worldwide flu outbreaks, meningitis and even terrorist attacks.

"If I said there are 1,001 things we could plan for, I would probably be underestimating it," said Stephen Webb, emergency planning officer at the University of Birmingham. "If you can't continue to deliver teaching and research, the business could potentially fail."

There are no official figures for the number of business continuity personnel in higher education, but Hebcon has 45 members so far and over 100 people signed up for the inaugural conference.

"More and more business continuity managers are being appointed in universities," said Hebcon's chair, David Gregory, who joined City University London as its business continuity manager in 2007.

The increase in numbers has been prompted by greater awareness of the need to protect universities' reputations in the wake of several floods and fires at universities, said Mr Gregory, who was appointed in response to a fire at City in 2001.

A stream of media coverage of how Virginia Tech handled shootings on its campus in April last year also got UK universities thinking about how they would cope with disasters. New legislation obliging local authorities, the NHS, transport and utility firms to plan for major emergencies has also turned universities' attention to the issue.

"From our own perspective our main issue is the damage to our reputation. Most universities recruit and get their students on the basis of reputation and anything that undermines that can have a long-lasting effect," said Mr Gregory.

The Government has also turned its attention to one particular type of university crisis. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills began work last week on updated guidance for higher education institutions on dealing with flu pandemics, with a report expected by September.

During a pandemic, universities could expect to have 40 per cent of staff off sick in addition to regular levels of absenteeism; illness among public transport workers would make it difficult for academics to get to work; and without careful planning lectures could become a prime mode of germ transmission.

There are no official figures on how many universities have business continuity plans. Mr Gregory gives UK universities an average score of three or four out of ten on their readiness for emergencies.

"There is a fantastic amount of good work going on, but there is still a long road to travel," he said.


Universities are "way behind" other sectors when it comes to planning to deal with problems such as personnel disputes, an academic expert said this week.

Edward Borodzicz, professor of strategy and business systems at the University of Portsmouth, said his research had found that universities are particularly ill-prepared for staff disputes. They can, he said, result in protracted employment tribunal cases, spiralling legal costs, loss of morale among colleagues and damage to the institution's reputation.

One university internal auditor told Professor Borodzicz that he put "a couple of million aside a year" to keep such problems out of the public gaze.

Professor Borodzicz guessed that one especially lengthy and bitter dispute might have cost the university concerned £15 million over ten years. In that case, a tribunal over sexual harassment took up a large amount of management time, precipitated the loss of staff and eventually involved the department being shut down and reopened as two new entities, he said.

Many smaller cases are settled before tribunal but are still time-consuming, costly and damaging to morale and reputation. "Clearly a fire taking out a lecture theatre is a risk, but a lot of that is covered by health and safety legislation and insurance," he said.

"We do not have many floods or fires in universities, but we do have these reputational things happening in every institution all the time. It seems curious that no one I have come across in universities in business continuity focuses on that."

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