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Up in flames

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2012

In 2008, Melton Borough Council’s headquarters burnt down, meaning crisis plans had to be implemented to ensure services could still be delivered and staff could do their jobs. Virtually everything went to plan, and now the council’s new headquarters building has been officially opened. PSE caught up with the council’s chief executive, Lynn Aisbett, to look back at the fire itself, and how its new offices are letting staff work in a new way.

Business continuity must be business as usual – because sometimes the unexpected does happen. It happened to Melton Borough Council on Friday, May 30, 2008 when its main offices caught fire at 7.30am.

Fortunately the authority, which provides services for around 50,000 people, was ready to deal with it. The council’s chief executive, then and now, Lynn Aisbett, told PSE: “For us, it was part of the business as usual culture; we had these plans worked up and were communicating them throughout the organisation and testing them to ensure that, should the worst happen – and, to my council, it did – we were ready.”

The building was gutted by the blaze: the upper floors especially were severely damaged and the interior was destroyed.

The council’s first priorities on the day of the fire and over the weekend included getting information out to staff and to residents; a meeting with the loss adjuster; salvage; securing the site; booking buses for staff; arranging transport for the servers; and planning a move to a temporary site.

Its business continuity plans meant it had an office – a disaster recovery centre – to which it could shift key staff and IT infrastructure. By the Monday morning, the call centre was back up and running, with 50 people working rather than the target of 10. Seven days after the fire, 150 staff were able to work.

Back to work

Aisbett said it was a small blessing that the fire was on a Friday, rather than a Monday, but she said that even so, the speed with which they managed to get key services up and running was “quite an achievement”.

She explained: “Our call centre was ready and operating from 9am and the systems that were needed were there, and we brought more and more on during the day.

“Some staff were working from different bases and perhaps not doing what they expected to be doing on that Monday morning: the taxi licensing officer may have had work she was intending to do at her desk, but she was out there talking to taxi operators instead, for example: everyone attuned their work to the circumstances we were in.

“Because we had the plans around IT and the disaster recovery centre, we were able to focus on making sure those other staff had the support they needed, and could turn up for work. Each member of staff was communicated with over that weekend on a cascade system, and I think people felt comfortable and knew what they had to do.”

The senior officers already knew, from business continuity planning, what the key business systems were and the priority that should be given to each in the first 24-hour period, the first 48 hours, the first week, and so on.

Aisbett said: “When the fire happened, we didn’t need to say ‘What are our critical systems?’ We had the list and our IT colleagues went off to the disaster recovery centre and implemented those plans. We knew who could stay at home and work from there and/or do something different, and who needed to be at the disaster recovery centre. We’d worked through all of those aspects.

“We had all our business critical systems running on the next working day.”

Communication and flexibility

Aisbett said: “The communications team communicated with staff, partners, stakeholders, and, importantly, councillors – it is their business: they are the democratic masters of the council. We had an agreed brief to all our councillors on Saturday night, after the Friday fire.

“We set up a website by the Monday and were able to communicate with the regional office, as it was then. They rang us at 9am, and we were actually in a business continuity meeting. They said they’d ring back at 11am; they rang back at 10 and said ‘We’ve got all the information we need from your website; you are telling us what you are doing; we are quite happy.’

“The public could access that website and we had a confidential section of it to liaise with our staff.”

The council also had to arrange to get staff addresses and other contact details as all the paper HR records were lost in the fire.

Since it all happened, other authorities have been keen to see how Melton managed.

Aisbett said: “There was a team of us going round and giving talks and passing on tips. For instance, everyone has very effective evacuation procedures for 9am and after: how many have effective evacuation procedures for 7am, when staff are coming in, in these times of flexible working, where you may only have 10 or 15 staff in a large building and one caretaker in situ?”

The silver lining

The council’s senior staff are clear that even a disaster can have positive outcomes. In Melton’s case, there was an opportunity to start fresh with a new headquarters building tailored to suit the way the council wants to work in the future, with an emphasis on collaborative working with partners and flexible staff arrangements.

Aisbett said: “We worked with our insurers to make that money work for us, both in terms of what we needed to deliver our services during the period in which we rebuilt our new offices, as well as moving our organisation forward because we had now become a more flexible organisation.”

The new two-storey offices, opened officially in May, are on a brownfield site near the town’s station. It provides better access for staff and citizens, and offered a regeneration opportunity for that part of the town. Multiple public sector bodies share space in the building, offering both cost savings and improved service quality.

Aisbett told us: “We based the concept on the children’s centre we were just about to open before the fire, the first children’s centre in Melton, where we had health staff, our own staff, and Leicestershire County Council staff working from one building serving the community of the children’s centre.

“We took the decision that the new office, wherever and however it was built, would be a collaborative venture.

“And we now have county council staff, probation staff, the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust [the community and mental health trust], police on a drop-in basis, and a voluntary and community sector working in the building.”

Different working environments promote different ways of working, and the council has been monitoring the outcomes. A PhD student at De Montfort University has also been speaking to staff about how the new building has changed people’s working habits.

Aisbett said: “We do have certain measurable indicators, for example on school exclusions and antisocial behaviour, which show we are having an impact on our community through this integrated and collaborative way of working.”

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Melton had a lot of help after the fire and in the recovery period from its business continuity supplier, Phoenix. Mike Osborne, managing director of the company’s business continuity unit, told PSE: “In the aftermath of the fire, it was clear that with so many people depending on council services, it was imperative we were able to get them up and operational as quickly as possible.

“We had previously agreed the level of resource with council officials, including work stations, networked phone lines and internet access, so when we received the call about the incident, we were ready to go.”

We asked Osborne whether all authorities are as prepared to deal with such a crisis as Melton was in 2008. He said: “In all honesty, the answer is no. The uncertainty around the economic climate means all organisations, regardless of the sector they operate in, are being forced to manage budgets more stringently and look at where cutbacks can be made. Increasingly business continuity (BC) is being seen as one of those areas where it’s believed cutbacks can be enforced.

“This is not the case, and what makes it even more concerning is that firms are actually become more aware of the need for an effective BC plan and its importance, however, they simply don’t have the finances available to instigate one. It’s a vicious circle.

“Another trend we are seeing is in cases where a firm has a BC plan, they don’t have the necessary technology to support upgrades therefore leaning on us for more day-to-day support. Unfortunately it’s only in cases such as Melton Borough that the true benefits of an effective BC plan can be seen.”

Clearly all local authorities, even relatively small district-level councils like Melton, have a whole host of IT systems operating – restoring these after a disaster is a necessity. Osborne said: “There are always challenges when it comes to supporting an IT system, regardless of whether they are technical or logistical – the key is to ensure that all the variables have been accounted for, with thorough testing carried out.

“An example of this is that Melton Borough operates outside of the 9-5 Monday-to- Friday working shift pattern to include the weekends. As a result we had to implement a plan to ensure that we had resources to make the building operational in light of this working pattern. This was inducted into the BC plan and we put in processes to accommodate this including paying staff overtime to work outside their working hours.

“By providing customers like Melton with state-of-the-art centres equipped to the highest standards and open for business 24/7, we are able to ensure that in the event of disaster, their data and business livelihood is safe, secured and maintained, therefore restoring business confidence.”

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