Six lessons for critical incident working

The horrific fire at Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh Building closed the campus, cancelled teaching, and damaged infrastructure. Tom Inns sets out six lessons learned that can be applied to Covid-19

Universities across the world are dusting off their business continuity plans as Covid-19 takes grip. It’s a rapidly unfolding situation where new information emerges daily and we are forced to plan and act at speed. Six priorities are suggested based on personal experience of critical incident working at Glasgow School of Art (GSA).

On 18 June 2018, a second fire ripped through GSA’s Mackintosh Building and put the institution into critical incident working for four months. The local community suffered, the campus was closed, teaching had to be cancelled, the building itself was in danger of collapse, other buildings were badly damaged, and media scrutiny was intense. The fire prompted much debate – there is a lot to learn about the restoration of historic buildings, but that’s for another time. Here are six lessons drawn from the ensuing four months of critical incident working at the institution.

1. Understand the challenge

The sight of seeing 20 fire crews tackle the Mackintosh blaze, as local residents left their homes and a nightclub was destroyed was overwhelming. Where to start? To bring structure, the next day, challenges were rapidly triaged into the work streams shown below:

  • Ensuring academic and business continuity and staff and student wellbeing.
  • Salvaging GSA’s estate and infrastructure and dealing with contracts and insurance.
  • Communications and messaging, internally and externally.

Teams were established and progress was reported 3-hourly, then daily, then weekly. Future scenarios were identified. What happens if we cannot access our campus by September, by October or by November? With Covid-19 nobody knows the end-point, will it be the summer, the autumn or 2021? Modelling potential scenarios helps restore control to the team. Planning for “what-if” will ensure plans can adapt.

2. Collaborative working

Business as usual in HE involves committees, siloed thinking and delivery of complex services. In critical incident working, Institutions need rapid rewiring. Problems need solving, the Institution’s collective brain needs to find solutions, this requires collaboration. Established hierarchies may no longer be relevant. The student voice is also key. Students have an important role in helping develop and implement solutions.

3. Risk Registers

Don’t glaze over when I mention risk registers. University risk registers normally track the rumbling challenges facing the sector. In critical incident working a collaboratively defined risk register is a key tool in understanding rapidly changing risks and mitigation strategies. A brainstorming session will identify the risks, these need ranking, an equal degree of creativity is needed to identify mitigations. Some mitigations will be in the control of your institution; many require collective mitigation within the sector. The risk register will define how your institution needs to collaborate with others. The register becomes the central working document, updated weekly until risks stabilize. With Covid-19 Institutions face similar risks; academic continuity, staff and student wellbeing, communications, retention and recruitment, financial stability, maintaining infrastructure, cultural impact, research and the REF. All will need mitigation and careful tracking.

4. Caring for the university community

Normal university life is tiring, critical incident working is exhausting, new challenges impact everybody’s routines, there is uncertainty. Covid-19 already impacts both our work and home life. We are all touched by the fear of losing loved ones. We all derive a great sense of identity from working in institutions, even if at times relationships are adversarial. The Institution has a key role to play in holding the community together, particularly when fractured through home working. Ensuring support and counselling is in place for everybody is essential, from my own experience staff in the heroic frontline often needing the most convincing that they actually need this emotional support. This will be a marathon not a sprint.

5. Communication is key

Communication is key. The needs of audiences must be identified. The local community and media need regular updates. Frequently asked questions (FAQs) need to be identified to save everybody time. Updates must be regular even when there is no new information. Both good and bad news need to be communicated. Communications should be two-way, with feedback being encouraged.

6. Thinking ahead

Finally, the changes forced by critical incident working probably give us more clues about things that need to change in our institution than any kind of formal quinquennial review. It is clear that in the Covid-19 crisis the relationship between online and face-to-face delivery in all institutions will never be the same again. Single points of failure will be identified. The whole sector will doubtless have to rethink business models that have become dependent on international recruitment. Impolite as it might seem all these points of learning need carefully capturing. The “next steps” workstream probably need establishing much sooner than we might anticipate.

At GSA these lessons were learnt on the hoof. In the summer of 2018 I did wonder how the institution would ever get back into its buildings and restart its academic activity. It did. Despite highly restricted campus access for semester three, GSA’s 500 postgraduate students all completed their studies. Remarkably, no mitigating circumstances were connected to the June 2018 fire. In October 2018, the Council’s Building Control officers allowed the Institution back into its campus. The recovery was made possible by the agility of the staff team and their carefully thought through collaboration with the student body. I suspect it will be the above-and-beyond contribution of staff and students who will see your institution through the current challenges of Covid-19.


Leave a Reply