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The Buncefield Disaster 12 years on: What have we learnt about business continuity plans?

Upon the 12-year anniversary of the devastating Buncefield disaster, we take a look at disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity plans, which allow your organisation to ke­ep trading and keep servicing your clients, following even the most disastrous of events.

In 2005, an enormous explosion ripped through the Buncefield oil storage site in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, forcing the evacuation of some 2,000 homes and affecting 92 neighbouring firms. The disaster is now known as Europe's greatest peacetime fire and the impact on businesses affected was catastrophic, causing implications far and wide. For example, estimates from Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce put the cost of the damage at between £500m and £1bn. An Impact Assessment commissioned by the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) in April 2006 reported that there were “923 temporary and casual jobs lost, while 410 redundancies were notified shortly after the explosion. Some businesses permanently relocated - costing the area 513 jobs and 8 companies temporarily relocated and were unsure as to whether they would return - risking a further 1,420 jobs”.

Although this uncertainty is one of the major factors persuading more and more companies to devise their own contingency plans, ensuring their businesses can continue when the unimaginable occurs, a large proportion of the business community still do not have business continuity plans in place. Read more about the business workspace recovery options Offices iQ offers here. Less than two years ago, Tech Target reported in their latest survey that “A third of respondents” confessed to not having any business disaster recovery plan at all. The focus of the study was on all potential vulnerabilities, including natural disasters, such as hurricanes or flooding, unexpected events such as explosions, and even trivial incidents, such as “Bob spilling his latte on that 24-core server hosting half the company's VMs”.

The reasons for companies not having a plan in place ranged from a lack of funds or resources to believing their current backup system was sufficient and even claiming they just hadn’t got round to it yet. A large chunk (39%) did claim, however, that they were in the process of developing a DR plan, perhaps suggesting the newly found importance companies are now placing on such strategies, and global risk management company IT Governance supports this shift. They believe that all organisations face business continuity risks, claiming “80% of organisations with a well-planned and implemented business continuity plan are likely to survive a major business discontinuity” and that “only 20% of those without a business continuity plan are likely to survive”, indisputably highlighting the importance of DR and business continuity plans.

This importance was no more evident than with online clothing retailer Asos, who opened its 85,000 square-foot warehouse on the Buncefield site only months before the blast. The company’s building and stock suffered extensive damage to the reported value of £5.5m, effectively shutting down the business. Asos was forced to suspend its shares on 23rd December and refund over 19,000 customers who had ordered from them over the Christmas period. Co-founder, Nick Robertson, said “there was a small disaster recovery plan in place but… we hadn’t got the substantial DR plans other companies probably have in place. That said, when you’re forced to focus on sorting out a problem it’s surprising how quickly things come together.” It was clear a strong action plan to set up a board meeting and the coming together of one hundred warehouse staff, who cleaned up and organised the good stock from the damaged stock, was the key to ensuring the company was able to get back up and running by the end of the following month.

It’s clear communication was a big factor for Asos getting back up and running as quickly as possible, but what other lessons can be learnt in terms of business continuity? We’ve devised a list of what you should take into account when formulating a DR plan for your business, to make sure you can keep trading and keep servicing your clients.

  1. 1. Communication is vital – Create an action plan and stick to it. Prepare a media and communications plan well in advance, linked to key identified risks. Anticipate both the emotional and the logical fears and questions from all audiences and prepare factual and careful responses, often needing to be communicated proactively and not just reactively. Remember that, if you don't fill the information vacuum on what has gone wrong and what the consequences will be, then some other expert (self-appointed or not) will be sure to do so instead.

  2. 2. Don’t assume that a worst-case scenario is too unrealistic to happen - The scale of the Buncefield disaster was unprecedented, but it was predictable.  The rapid and well-coordinated response to the incident is testament to good contingency planning. Scepticism is natural and there will always be the members of your business who feel certain precautions are not necessary, but just remember Buncefield is the ill-fated example to come back with.

  3. 3. Look beyond the boundaries of your business when making risk assessments – External factors introduce risk and, although it is often the case, don’t just look at your own organisation during risk assessment. You will need to consider the other organisations that are active in geographical locations close to your premises.

  4. 4. Location is pivotal - In the case of Buncefield, the oil depot had been in existence for over 40 years. The businesses that decided to locate in the area in the intervening years, therefore, have done so in the full knowledge of its proximity. Consider both man-made and natural hazards when deciding the location of your business, as location may well have the biggest impact on the extent of the avoidable risks faced by the business. Get it right and you can mitigate many risks in one fell swoop.

  5. 5. Liaise with local authorities – Learn how local authorities and emergency services will respond to incidents in your area and discover how these procedures may impact your business. What exclusion zones do you need to plan for? Who will you need to deal with to get access to premises in an exclusion zone?

Despite the Buncefield disaster being 12 years ago now, DR plans are most definitely not a thing of the past. On the day of the disaster we were working with a number of clients who, because they didn’t have relocation options and processes in their DR plan, could not react quickly enough. They ended up having to relocate much further away than they were happy with, as those that had a plan and could execute swiftly snapped up any alternative options.

Buncefield may have been unprecedented, but it’s not an anomaly. Times have changed and there are new risks; consider hurricanes, storms, terrorism, flooding and fire in this modern age and how unpredictable they all can be. With the current state of our climate, natural disasters are arguably more of a threat than ever before and given the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, US and even Western areas of the UK and Ireland, can your business afford the disruption, the uncertainty and the recovery time?

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