Dedication, initiative and bloody-mindedness saw off floods crisis

On Friday 20 July 2007 at 2.11pm, Gloucestershire County Council staff received a global e-mail: “Begin to make arrangements to get home safely. Non-essential staff to leave immediately.”

The ensuing floods crisis created the biggest single emergency at Gloucestershire County Council in more than 50 years.

Now we have moved into recovery stage, we are reflecting and learning from the experience and assessing how we performed during the crisis. How resilient, flexible and creative were we? Our IT infrastructure had been compromised, our headquarters at Shire Hall, Gloucester, were evacuated on 22 July, communications with teams and individuals were problematic, and we had lost key individuals who had been personally affected by the crisis. That included me: my own copy of the emergency plan was submerged in water in my kitchen.

While emergency plans and business continuity arrangements were key to our quick response, we were carried through by the leadership, dedication, initiative and sheer bloody-mindedness of our managers. This is what we succeeded in doing:

  • Many services continued to operate where they were not affected by the floods.
  • Vital services for the most vulnerable people in the community were maintained, with staff acting on their own initiative.
  • Within three days all services to the public were operating at between 70% and 100%.
  • Business-critical teams affected by the flooding and loss of Shire Hall relocated to other council accommodation or moved into partners’ premises, for example, the County Council Emergency Centre located at the Tri-Service Centre alongside the fire and rescue service in south Gloucester core staff from the contact centres moved to Chippenham and Worcester and the team implementing our integrated business system to Birmingham. The HR recovery team operated for three days from the front room of a management team member.
  • IT systems (care records, finance, payroll etc.) were recovered and located in a temporary IT suite in the car park at the Tri-Service Centre. The July payroll was run and paid into banks for all staff, pensioners and outside clients.
  • Staff not delivering front-line services or dealing with the emergency volunteered and worked in the community or made themselves available to do tasks way outside their job description, which could help relieve the pressure on key operational staff who were at times working 24/7.

For the HR team, co-ordinated by my colleague HR manager Noel Baker – working from a private house, using mobiles that often lost signals, and using a dial-up internet link for e-mails – the immediate tasks were to make contact with our teams and prepare contingency plans to run the service with minimum staff on a worst-case assumption about the availability of Shire Hall.

The team kept in contact with me via texts and mobile calls while I was marooned in my hometown of Tewkesbury. Over three days HR colleagues put together a team to run the August payroll, issued employment guidance for managers, reviewed and continued to support casework and recruitment, reinstated our occupational health and counselling services, and provided back-up to the council emergency centre, providing a resourcing service to match key staff to key emergency activities.

I feel extremely proud of the HR team, who demonstrated initiative, leadership and flexibility during one of the worst natural disasters faced by the county in decades.

But most importantly we have come out of this knowing that the behaviours we are promoting in our people strategy are more than a few words on a page.

Sue Scrivens
Head of HR, Gloucestershire County Council

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