When managing a crisis consider your risk management processes

April 24, 2015

One mistake many companies make with regards to crisis management is the failure of adequately implementing existing risk management protocols and processes.  Many crisis are in fact preventable or foreseeable and could be avoided had adequate risk management procedures been implemented and followed.  An example of a major crisis that could have been avoided is the Sewol Ferry disaster that happened in Korea one year ago.

On April 16, 2014 the Sewol Ferry left Incheon heading to Cheju Island.  Most of the 476 passengers were high school students going on a school trip.  At 8:52 am , a high school student on board the Sewol issued a distress call.  At 8:58 am the Sewol Ferry finally issued a distress call ( though not though the normal distress channel) on its own.  From 9:00 am to 9:30 am the Crew issued announcements to the passengers to stay put.  The  Captain was informed by the Coast Guard that he needed to make a quick decision whether to evacuate the vessel or not which he failed to do.  At 9:32 am the first Coast Guard vessel arrives at the scene.  By 10:39, the Sewol Ferry sinks leaving more than 300 people trapped inside the vessel.

As  details  surrounding the sinking of the vessel and the incompetent rescue mission became known, it became clear that there was a complete disregard for risk management processes.  Among the risk management mistakes were:

  1. The ship had been modified to hold more passengers.  The modifications led to a change in the ship’s center of gravity and created a structural imbalance.
  2. The Ferry had been overloaded with cargo. The ship was authorized to carry 987 metric tons of cargo.  On the day of the accident, it was carrying over 3,608 metric tons of cargo.
  3.  Apparently, the cargo was not properly secured. Once the ship   began listing, the containers and vehicles began to fall off the  ship.
  4. The third mate indicated the ship had a steering mechanism problem that was reported several weeks prior to the disaster. It had not been repaired at the time of the accident.
  5. The Third Mate was steering the vessel at the time of the accident though it was her first time to steer the Ferry.  She was steering the vessel through a narrow and dangerous channel when she hit rocks. The Captain was not on the bridge.
  6. The Captain was not on the bridge though the Third Mate was steering the vessel for the first time. The Captain was required by regulations to be on the bridge.
  7. When the ship hit rocks and began to tilt, the Captain ordered the passengers to stay put, which most did. One of the reasons was that only two out of twenty four life rafts were functional.
  8. The crew contacted the Coast Guard at least 3 minutes after the boat was in distress.  The crew and Coast Guard dithered for at least 30 minutes deciding what to do.
  9. Most passengers stayed put per the Captain’s orders . Only after the boat began tilting did the Captain decide to inform the passengers to abandon ship. It was too late.
  10. The crew admitted to not having been adequately trained to handle ship evacuations.

Besides the crew violating a number of laws as well as maritime policies of helping passengers to safety, the crew admitted a lack of training.  Somehow, however, the crew and vessel had passed inspection despite a complete breakdown in regulations, policies, and procedures, that had they been followed would have avoided the catastrophe.

It is obvious, that the Sewol Ferry is a typical example of a risk management failure as well as a failure in crisis management.   It also signifies another potential problem that some companies face-  a false sense of security though processes and standard protocols are not being followed or are followed on a haphazard or ad hoc basis.

The Sewol incident highlights a major fact- many major crisis can be prevented or resolved if the proper risk management processes and procedures are properly implemented and adhered to. For businesses following risk management procedures or regulations on a haphazard basis a major crisis is only a matter of time.  To proactively manage a crisis, risk management processes must take center stage.

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