HOW ROBUST ARE OUR INDUSTRIAL AND DOMESTIC SUPPLIES?

Introduced by John Coates on 9 April 1998 with Gordon Hector, Emergency Manager, B&NES

John Coates outlined the issues and raised a number of questions for general discussion. In the past, supplies were generally local, and so were the effects of disaster or failure. Now, large size is necessary to produce our utility supplies of electricity, gas and water, and with that goes the risk of large-scale effects when failures occur, as, for example, in Auckland, NZ, where the electricity supply to the centre of the town was interrupted for about four weeks recently.
The just-in-time processes now being used by modern industry can reduce the financial burdens, but expose the company to the risks of failure in its supply chains. Other current techniques, like downsizing, also contribute to the fragility of the systems as companies become ‘leaner’, losing not only the costs of the salaries of the redundant personnel but also their knowledge, thus making any faults more difficult to rectify.
We know little of what government and large organisations are doing to address these issues. There are more questions than answers at the moment.
Then Gordon Hector described the plans for managing disasters in B&NES, where the emphasis is now on preparing managers for emergencies, rather than having a permanent emergency task force on stand-by. When something does happen, department heads can use their contacts to obtain quickly what is required. All managers are now trained so that they could in an emergency take control of the situation, thus reducing the dependence on specific personnel in key positions. This is a welcome development.
The current main concern is the impending millennium celebrations and the possible occurrence of the ‘millennium bug’ which has the potential to affect the supplies of gas, and hence electricity and almost everything our present living standards depend upon. Since New Zealand is 11 hours ahead of us, it was facetiously suggested that we would have that time to find out what is going wrong and be able to prepare for it. In reality, of course, the systems would not suddenly stop at the stroke of midnight, but degrade either slowly or catastrophically over the succeeding hours, days and weeks.
This was a good example of the fact that people do not become actively involved in preparing for a disaster until the level of fear is sufficiently high and the threat to their well-being immediate. This makes it difficult to create the political will to perform desirable preventive maintenance on the systems in order to forestall breakdowns. The group could not suggest how this might be overcome.
Andy Pepperdine.