Disaster planning: Are you ready for the fire and the flood?

When one of health charity MedicAlert's offices was flooded, recovery took much longer than expected.

Flood: water damaged walls
Flood: water damaged walls

When Jeanette Allen, chief executive of MedicAlert, took an early morning phone call last March and was told the charity's semi-basement office was flooded, she thought it was no big deal - probably a few drips from the ceiling, the kind of thing they had dealt with before.

But when she reached the building in Islington, north London soon afterwards, she began to realise that the flood was a very big deal indeed, and the start of an ordeal that was to take up most of her time for the next seven months.

"Some workmen had gone through a main pipe over the weekend and water had come in through the floor and from about five feet up the wall," says Allen. "It was only about three inches deep, but the effect was quite horrific. I didn't realise quite how damaging that depth of water can be.

"I thought we'd just dry it out and we'd be back in before long - maybe a couple of weeks. It was only when the builders came in that we realised that nearly every wall in the building would have to be replastered. In fact, drying the place out took three times longer than they said because the damp kept reappearing."

Fortunately, MedicAlert had a contingency plan to fall back on, and it worked reasonably well. The charity's emergency centre wasn't affected because it is housed several miles away in the London Ambulance Service HQ, and it managed to get its next most important service, its call centre, up and running again in less than two days.

But even now, nearly a year later, the saga isn't over: complex insurance negotiations have still not been finalised between three sets of insurance loss adjusters representing the leaseholders, the freeholders and Thames Water, the company that damaged the main. Key projects have been delayed, and MedicAlert staff have suffered. "The hours we worked were extraordinary," says Allen. "It took its toll, physically and mentally."

The principal loss was the server handling incoming traffic for the call centre, along with more than 30 computer hard drives and half a dozen scanners that were on the office floor when the water came in and were damaged beyond repair. Fortunately, the main server was situated higher up on a rack and escaped the flood by about an inch.

After everyone had recovered from the initial shock, the first step was to salvage the phones, the surviving desktop IT equipment and some of the furniture, and transport it to the charity's management office on the other side of the car park to the flood-damaged building. The office normally holds 10 people, but it became the temporary home for the 30 call centre, medical and administrative staff. "It was, shall we say, cosy," says Allen.

Meanwhile, she and the management team moved into a room they had previously hired for meetings above Canal 125, the bar across the road from their offices. The bar staff knew many of the MedicAlert staff and offered tea and sympathy. On the first day and in the following weeks, trustees also arrived bearing treats for the staff such as cakes and biscuits, and offering to help.

Once the immediate salvage work was complete, the most important task was to reactivate the call centre, which handles an average of 400 calls a day and is a vital part of the charity's service to members and inquirers with rare and unusual medical disorders. It was up and running again within 36 hours, leaving Allen to think more about the long-term future.

"We hoped it would not be too long before we could move back into our offices," she says. "But once the extent of the damage was clear, it became apparent that the clean-up would take months, not weeks. A meeting was held with the loss adjusters and a decision was taken to move the organisation to a temporary office."

Some of the more long-lasting and intractable difficulties were just beginning. It took six weeks for the office to dry out, and another six weeks to agree the building tender for refurbishing work. "There was a coordinating surveyor, but the whole process was painfully slow because we had to get the agreement of all three parties about what was going to happen next," says Allen.

Once the plumbers, builders and cleaners had been contracted, the physical refurbishment went relatively smoothly. But life in temporary offices wasn't easy - services were often basic and inadequate, and the charity moved its temporary home four times. Mail was badly disrupted as a result.

Costs began building up and were far higher than anticipated. However, cash-flow problems were made easier by the charity's high level of reserves and a good relationship with its bank manager. Repairs to the building cost £80,000, but total costs, including staff overtime, are likely to come to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Will it all be covered by insurance? "You can never guarantee things will be covered by insurance until the claim is settled," says Allen.

"One of the lessons we learned was to keep notes of everything that happened, including such elements as higher electricity costs during the drying-out period.

"You need to keep logs and get everything approved, such as the bank charges on your overdraft. Complex claims take a very long time, and for us it was made more complex by a change of staff at the loss adjusters. We're not in dispute, but there hasn't been a final settlement yet."

Since the flood, MedicAlert has moved its call centre out of the lower ground floor area and revised its emergency plan in the light of its experience.

"It's mostly technical stuff we would do differently, such as diverting work emails to senior managers' personal addresses," says Allen. "And we didn't have Blackberrys - now we'd always have some available in order to keep the emails going."

Allen has visited several other charities to share lessons from her experience.

She says: "I tell them how important it is to have a plan, but you can't foresee everything and you have to be flexible. People never think it will happen to them.

"A lot of people in the sector also think they'll be all right if they have their IT services backed-up off-site. That's important, but what about housing your staff, taking calls, your post, your supplies and your cash-flow difficulties? Alongside all these things, IT can seem almost irrelevant."

Looking back, Allen is able to see some positive aspects in the experience.

"The refurbished offices have had a positive impact on staff morale, and a real sense of community was generated by all who helped us," she says.

"In general, people working in the charity sector are focused on the service user, and our experience bears this out. Staff rallied round with a positive attitude. And I always tell everyone that our experience could have been worse - it could have been a fire."

Jeanette Allen's disaster checklist

1. Set up a team of managers to devise a plan for emergencies, including flood, fire and other incidents. Consider especially how secure any records would be, whether paper or data-based. What back-up systems are in place and how robust are they?

2. Compile a disaster recovery handbook containing essential contact details - insurance, bank, trustees, staff, suppliers, contractors. Remember to keep a copy off-site and to update it regularly. The handbook and a mobile phone are your best friends.

3. Don't panic. Keep your sense of humour and perspective. Assess the situation, make a list of priorities and be realistic - it's always worse than you think. Crisis is a time for action and leadership, not drawn-out consultation. So lead positively.

4. Be flexible about the plan. If you have to find alternative accommodation, make sure it's somewhere you can settle for a while, because reinstating your office will take longer than you think. Take care of staff morale - people may feel uneasy about their job security. And throw a fabulous welcome party when you move back in.

5. Be a visible leader and expect the same from senior managers. Don't take everything on yourself - and remember, your trustees can provide invaluable support.

MedicAlert: The facts and the figures

MedicAlert provides a potentially life-saving identification system for people with hidden medical conditions, such as diabetes, haemophilia, epilepsy, or allergies to substances such as penicillin, latex or nuts.

The charity provides people with bracelets or necklets, known as 'emblems', which summarise key medical information and give an emergency phone number.

Ambulance, police or fire crews can ring this number and obtain further details, including the person's drug regime and names of their next of kin.

Since MedicAlert began operating in the UK 40 years ago, more than 280,000 people have used its services, and it currently issues between 18,000 and 20,000 emblems a year. Its 24-hour emergency centre in the London Ambulance HQ accepts reverse-charge calls from anywhere in the world in more than 100 languages. It takes 2,500 calls a year, of which between 15 and 20 a month are about people in accidents or medical emergencies.

MedicAlert's membership services section deals with 77,000 calls a year.

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