Monday, March 5, 2012

Crisis Management

On 15 December 2011, there was a major disruption of the North-South MRT Line. Much has been said about the causes, and the matter is now the subject of an inquiry. We will in due time learn more about what happened and why, and so I will not dwell on these matters.

But the incident opened our eyes to another serious issue. There did not appear to have been an emergency response plan, and if there was one, it was inadequate, or executed poorly. I am sure many were particularly concerned by the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of the incident. Many people were stuck in pitch darkness in the tunnel with little ventilation. The electrical back-up which was supposed to work did not. The train drivers, who were best placed to take immediate action, were for some reason, not able to make announcements. The evacuation took a long time and there was great confusion. The public were still entering the station thinking that services were still running. People leaving the station were not sure what to do and where to go. The crowds spilled onto the streets, looking for alternative transport.

This was a simple train disruption. What would have happened if there had been a fire or it had been a terrorist attack? There is no doubt that it would have been horrific. We can have inquiries, meetings and discussions to determine who was responsible, but that is only part of the challenge we face.
We have long prided ourselves on our record on law and order. We are regarded as one of the safest countries in the world to live, play and work. But that is generally in the context of crime prevention and enforcement. The law and order challenges we face today are different. One of the greatest risks we face is terrorism. It has not disappeared with the elimination of Osama Bin Laden or other prominent terrorist leaders. It may not be as dramatic as airplanes flying into buildings or terrorists wielding Kalashnikovs running through our streets. But incidents of sabotage, such as bombs on buses, fires in confined places, derailment of trains will do as much damage. Not just the loss of life and property, but loss of confidence in our agencies and in Singapore.

Are we prepared for these threats? We have conducted a number of exercises to train our Home Team and military forces, but the SMRT incident has demonstrated starkly that there are other areas to address. Chief among these is whether public transport operators, owners of buildings and other organisations in charge of places where large numbers pass through or congregate, have adequate and workable plans to deal with emergencies, have trained their staff to execute these plans and, just as importantly, whether such plans are known to, and co-ordinated with, public agencies like the police and SCDF, which will at some stage be responding to the crisis as well? Is there even a plan or protocol as to when and what stage the private body should involve the government agencies?

Experts often say that the first response to the crisis will determine the extent of the damage or loss to human life. In this regard, it is critical that the organisation on the ground, whether the public transport operator or the building owner, responds effectively. Are we confident that they will be able to do so, or is it the case that we will only find out when a crisis occurs?

I therefore ask the Government whether it has plans to audit the emergency plans of private and government organizations to see if they are robust, not just on paper but in practice, and ensure that there will be effective co-ordination with public agencies. Does the Ministry of Home Affairs have a minimum standard for crisis management for significant institutions and if it does not, is MHA satisfied with allowing them to determine their own plans?

Even if there are plans in place, a theoretical plan can fail quite dramatically when put to the test. However, paper exercises and rehearsed plans are insufficient. For example, all buildings are required to conduct fire drills regularly, but people do not take them seriously. The drills are announced in advance, and many go for tea breaks or schedule meetings elsewhere before the alarm is sounded. It gives new meaning to the phrase: "you know the drill". I accept it is highly disruptive to conduct surprise drills or to inject greater reality into our security exercises. No one will be grateful for the inconvenience, and it may even be dangerous where the plans turn out to be inadequate.

But these things are too important to ignore or leave to public and private organisations to work out on their own. I believe that the Government should have a system to audit the plans of significant organizations to determine, not only that they have adequate and comprehensive safety and evacuation plans, but that there is proper co-ordination plan with public agencies, in particular, the police and the SCDF. It should include a proper communications plan - which is something we do particularly poorly. It will be impossible to audit everyone, but at the very least, high traffic areas, such as train stations, bus inter-changes, shopping malls, sports and performance venues. The comments by the auditors can then be integrated into the crisis plan such that any lapses can be rectified and improvements tested during the next audit. This would develop into a set of standard operating procedures where each party knows what they and others are expected to do.
The MRT disruption taught us a lesson in crisis management with relatively little cost. I hope that something concrete can be done to ensure that we are able to deal with a larger, more serious crisis efficiently and effectively. It is impossible to ensure that a crisis will not happen. But how we respond to it will be critical in ensuring that Singaporeans remain confident in our safety and security.

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