From Sparks To Inferno

In the same way that some of the most serious fires and explosions begin life as a mere spark if left unchecked, the same can be true with major incidents and organisational crises, write Julian Penney and Chris Gallant of Pharos Response.

Seemingly minor incidents or complicated customer complaints can develop into serious situations if they are not dealt with swiftly by a senior member of staff. Such situations can be highly costly not just financially but in terms of personal welfare, reputation or brand damage, and management time involved in dealing with the response.

All this points to the fact that quick and decisive action is needed to deal with low-level incidents or complaints to defuse the situation and extinguish the flames. For activity providers, health and safety is a major part of what they do day-in, day-out. This is why they are good at handling incidents on the ground. However, some may be less strong at dealing with the aftermath and handling the sensitive communications with parents and schools who may go to the press, vent their frustrations on social media or pursue a legal claim if they feel their situation is not being well handled. So what tools are available to activity providers to help you respond quickly? Fortunately, there is a whole range of ‘fire extinguishers’ available and the good news is that most are straightforward and easy to implement internally.

1. Incident reporting systems.

It is important that those who are ‘in the field’ or ‘on the ground’ have a simple and effective way of informing management when a potentially complex incident has occurred or when a complaint is likely. Activity instructors may not always make a suitable assessment of the organisational impact of a situation so it is important that information is escalated quickly to someone who can do so. Instructors and leaders should be confident that they will have management support and, importantly, that they are available, including out of hours.

2. Complaints and incident handling procedures.

Most activity providers will have some form of emergency plan and it is important that this is communicated to all those involved in the process. Plans are best when they are kept simple and use checklists and flowcharts rather than prescriptive paragraphs of text and bullet points. These should be kept up-to-date and cover the full range of scenarios and incident severity – not just be reserved for a crisis event which is unlikely to happen.

3. Communication plans.

Whilst most activity providers have a reasonable incident plan, many are weaker when it comes to external communications. Such a plan should be written to identify the stakeholders specific to your own organisation and set out who will communicate with them and how. Clearly the media is a major concern to most, but social media, customers, families and staff are equally important.

4. Training.

Fire & Rescue Services frequently train their staff and so too should activity providers give incident handling training to their own staff. Such training can be very simple, involving scenario discussions and ‘tool box talks’, or it can involve realistic role play. Lessons learned from training exercises and simulations are invaluable when it comes to dealing with real situations and are usually more useful than any written procedure you will see! We often run scenario-based incident training for clients to test their response in a very realistic but safe environment, identifying areas for improvement.

5. Ethos and culture.

Your organisation no doubt values itself for being open and honest and doing the right thing by its customers, and this is likely to help prevent complaints and incidents from escalating into crises. Fear of litigation may prompt a defensive tone but this is more likely to make a situation worse. Similarly, delaying replies to customers or the failure by frontline staff to answer their phones will certainly add fuel to the fire.

6. Professional assistance.

Even with the best laid plans a little extra help can go a long way, as one AIM Member discovered after a customer’s tragic death from natural causes whilst at their premisies. AIM’s tailored arrangement with Pharos ensured that the Member had access to professional advice exactly when it was needed. A number of AIM Members have benefitted from Pharos’ services over the past year for “minor” situations which had the potential to conflagrate, such as minor climbing falls, a child accessing dangerous chemicals, or an allergic reaction to food provided on the premises.

So in summary our advice is simple: to help prevent the sparks of an incident from developing into an inferno, we advise activity providers to assess what tools they have at their disposal and prepare in advance for a speedy and effective response.