Opinion: How bombings focused our processes

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

The London bombings are a reminder that being a worthy organisation is no protection against indiscriminate attempts at murder and disruption in the UK, any more than it is in disaster zones abroad. The only variable is how close you are to the attack, as was made clear when the IRA tried to mortar our neighbours in Vauxhall.

Our relaxed working practices made us vulnerable, so we devised a process to recover from a disaster such as an attack, a power cut or an ICT failure.

We had a simulation last year and planned a full rehearsal in November.

The bombings of 7 July and three local sequels mean we have rehearsed them more thoroughly than we intended. The events came close, though nobody connected directly with Macmillan was hurt, so we were at least spared the dreadful sense of shock - this time. They highlighted things we didn't foresee.

Our procedure starts with a telephone cascade to warn staff and visitors.

We found that first the mobile networks overload, then the terrestrial services fall over, so we had only patchy telecoms for several hours.

We were too dependent on email even in the office, so we needed to reinforce this and find alternatives - we were out of practice at communicating quickly by word of mouth. The most important thing seemed to be to provide the best current information quickly and regularly.

My colleagues stepped up to the mark each time, the next most senior person at the time checking quickly with me before assembling a major incident team. I admired the way we looked after each other: is everybody safe? Are we all accounted for? Are our visitors and volunteers all right?

How will everyone get home? Who can offer a bed for the night? Partners and friends who work in big commercial institutions told us of dislocation and selfishness. Even when the emergencies got closer in surrounding stations, there was little anxiety.

It takes a few days for a big organisation to run down, and our regional offices could take over many of our central functions. But for small charities with the slender infrastructure typical of the sector, things could get difficult very quickly. None of us can be insulated from these events and having a known and flexible procedure is the least we owe to the people we work for. We believe our work matters; we need to plan to keep going in the rough times as well as the smooth.

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