18/06/2014 Dealing with mass fatalities

Posted on 18 June

This week Charlie Maclean-Bristol discusses mass fatalities.

Recently I went to an excellent seminar in Dundee organised by the Tayside Local Resilience Partnership titled “Managing responders needs during a mass fatalities incident”. The day was mainly aimed at the emergency services and the local authority, who would respond to an incident with mass casualties and discussed how to look after your staff who have been involved or responded to the incident. The main presenter was Dr Lucy Easthope, an academic, who was excellent. There was also a case study presented on the Clutha incident in Glasgow where the helicopter crashed into the roof of a bar.

Listening to the lectures and people taking about their experiences was quite humbling and very much brought home to me the reality of the incidents we plan for as business continuity people. When we develop business continuity we are very much focused on objects, buildings, telephony, IT and suppliers and sometimes I think we treat our staff as another object. Our plan for lack of staff is to go to a temping agency and hire new staff and we often ignore or play lip service to all the “people issues” which are associated with death or serious injury to our staff. Going to the seminar reminded me of the human aspects of an incident and how even just the death of one person in the workplace, not even as part of an incident, can have a major impact on an organisation.

Some notes from the seminar, which I thought, I would share with you.

1.    I like this quote “There are usually existing cracks and the emergency just makes them bigger”. This could equally refer to flaws within your processes as well as the effect on people.
2.    Of those that responded to events with mass fatalities, 25% had symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia after the event while 35% of people felt better about themselves. For us this is important as if we have a major event involving our organisation up to 50% of our staff may not really be interested in getting back to the day job and working.
3.    There was also another similar quote that many people, who experience a near death event, revaluate their life and leave their existing job within 18 months. This could have large business continuity implications if one of your key team members was involved in a major incident.
4.    We expect emergency services to be the first responders to a major event and so perhaps we think we don’t need to have to put into place the same processes for looking after our staff. A point made at the seminar is that, based upon a number of incidents, those that respond to events are a mixture of emergency services, bystanders and those actually involved in the incident. The Clutha incident showed that a number of those passing by the pub rushed to the scene to help. This gives us the issues that members of our staff could have responded to an event not involving our organisation, which could be very traumatic. Do you have plans in place for looking after them?
5.    Some of the practicalities of managing the aftermath of incidents were mentioned. Glasgow City Council, for example, had to find suitable staff for a number of days to man the book of condolence.
6.    If you have an occupational health service is it within their contract to provide a service to look after your staff after a major event, and do they have a capacity to provide a service if a large number of staff are affected?
7.    When is it time to disengage from incident mode, reinstate the normal boundaries of the workplace and return to business as normal? Who makes this decision?

The final points which came home to me is how sensitively these situations must be managed, especially when we say, “people are our greatest asset”. We cannot forget how time consuming the situations can be, and therefore how much of an impact they will have on your workplace. Finally, how long an incident can go on having an impact on people - Hillsborough was mentioned a number of times and how, 24 years on, the incident is still having a major effect on the lives of those directly and indirectly involved.