Executives at a Janellis CBD Emergency Management Summit

Cosgrove leads CBD executives to stirring realisation

Over the last 15 years, Janellis Australia has worked with the Federal Government and a number of organisations operating in high-risk industries such as critical infrastructure, to quantify and build resilience capability.

The still-emerging area of organisational resilience has created unique opportunities to collaborate with some of the brightest and most experienced people in both the public and private sectors. This has included Sir Peter Cosgrove who had recently retired as General of the Australian Armed Forces.

Peter’s insights and experience in the complex area of emergency management, specifically for business leaders, was pivotal in our journey towards developing an international benchmark for organisational resilience.

Inaugural National Emergency Summit tests emergency management plans

In November 2006, Peter was on centre stage at Convergence, the inaugural National Emergency Summit in Sydney designed and facilitated by Janellis.

He was flanked by key members of the Insurance Australia Group (IAG) crisis management team and a panel of experts from police, fire, ambulance, transport and media.

The audience was comprised of several hundred executives and subject matter experts: media crews lined the back of the room. The intensity of the discussions taking place was palpable.

The NSW Government had recently launched the Sydney CBD Emergency Subplan and Janellis had also launched our Guidelines for Business to help organisations interpret the plan and build capability.

Many organisations had told us they wanted to understand “how the Subplan would actually work in practice?” so we set about achieving the ambitious goal of developing a hypothetical scenario to test the current plans and the thinking that surrounded them.

Hypothetical scenario reveals a need for a significant, coordinated response

While developing the hypothetical scenario, we identified key response agencies that would be involved, critical infrastructure service providers, plus a range of organisations that wanted to be involved and who would be directly impacted. With more than 400,000 people identified within the Subplan zones, the participant numbers kept growing.

In considering who would be the best person to lead this landmark event for Australia, there was no better person than then retired General Peter Cosgrove. At the time, Peter spoke of his immediate attraction to working with the business community. This was because of his professional experience in emergency situations, as well as his “profound belief that there is a pressing need for the business community to prepare to cope with disaster”. He commented on our “new reality” and the need to factor the capability to respond to major disruptions into the “highly necessary” column of our busy lives.

The hypothetical scenario involved a gas explosion in a building site within the Sydney CBD and the Subplan included elements of emergency management that were new to Australian organisations, such as SydneyAlert and directions to the public, including “shelter-in-place” and nominated “safety” sites that were different to normal fire evacuation sites.

The discussions were building to a peak point when it became clear that the unique characteristics of the Sydney CBD would require a significant and coordinated response for an emergency event of this nature.

Hypothetical scenario delivers stirring realisation for executives

During lengthy discussions, participants queried relying on building management security staff to interpret the directions to the public, as detailed in the new Subplan.

They raised concerns about how quickly the SydneyAlert messages would be sent out and how organisations affected would actually respond to the shelter-in-place command and what did it actually mean? Business leaders wanted to know how reliable the information provided was and how they should respond to incomplete or conflicting information.

Peter mentioned the yin and yang of media as being both the best source of information and the worst. He also spoke of the skill required to “cut through the noise” and demonstrate critical thinking at key decision points.

As this was the first time the private and public sectors had come together in this format, the magnitude of the discussions reached a defining moment of dawning when business leaders realised that in a crisis event of this scale within the CBD, they could not expect to get a response from a 000 call. They had to become self-reliant.

The highlight of the day was the moment the IAG crisis management team reached their (hypothetical) decision to continue to advise staff to “shelter-in-place” and disregard the information from the media. The conflicting information presented to them captured the complexity of the decisions they could potentially face and; the need for the most senior and most capable crisis management team, to make decisions that would ensure the safety of many people.

In Peter’s own words:

Australia has some of the best men and women leaders of any country in the world who can deal with business shocks standing on their feet and they have already demonstrated this. However, the new set of challenges needs more work. Some organisations are very advanced and responsible – and there are a lot who are not. In running through the hypothetical today, we can start to imagine the dimensions to the problem.

In crisis events, business leaders must take the lead

Both the National Emergency Summit and more recent significant CBD events have highlighted the difficulties in moving large groups of people to safety, the need for timely communication and critical decision-making.

Organisations operating within the CBD cannot rely on emergency services agencies and building managers alone to ensure the safety of their staff and the continuity of their business.

The reality is, in an emergency, business leaders may be faced with incomplete or conflicting information. The complexity of an effective response requires the most experienced and capable leaders to make decisions to ensure the safety of many people and the continuity of their business.

Executives require a measurable capability in emergency management

Earlier this year, a revision of the 2006 plan was completed and the new Sydney and North Sydney Central Business Districts Evacuation Management Subplan published on the Emergency NSW website. In recent months, Janellis has facilitated another executive-level exercise to build capability to respond to a range of disruptive events, including an event occurring in the CBD.

While there have been many advances in technology in the past decade and the risk profile continues to change, surprisingly, many of the emergency management issues for organisations operating in the Sydney and North Sydney CBD today are the same issues that were raised at the National Emergency Summit in 2006.

Key strategies that are being used and tools that have been developed to address the issues highlighted at Convergence have proven to be effective. Many organisations now have a measurable capability in emergency management at the executive level.  

As the expanded Subplan zones now include approximately 700,000 people, there is an even greater need to ensure that organisations operating within these zones are self-reliant, that they understand the key components and concepts of the Subplan at an executive level, and that they have exercised and tested their response capability.

To learn more, download the full Convergence Report here.


Janellis is an enterprise consulting firm working with leading organisations across many industry sectors and government agencies. Janellis helps organisations execute their strategy and are specialists in transformation and change management; organisational resilience; risk, compliance and assurance; crisis and emergency management; and portfolio and project management.