Continuing from last time, you’ll recall that we were in a desert dealing with a health and safety policy that mandated a full test of an emergency response plan within four weeks of setting up operations. We were in week four and about to create a cautionary tale of ill-considered independent action that rivals Hilaire Belloc’s lion-eaten Jim.
‘And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse’
That Sunday, a full test of the emergency response plan was initiated. The idea was to find procedural oversights or gaps that could be fixed. The key administration staff in the desert knew what was happening, not much more than a handful of the 160 in the desert. Others did not. Not one person outside the desert management team knew. There is always a tension between plans prepared in head-office versus those informed by experience on the ground. The group that planned this one discussed the element of surprise that is generally missing from centrally planned tests. The subsequent investigations learned that while it was uncommon practice, autonomous tests had happened before.
The proposed scenario was that a colleague had called for help with a suspected broken femur, caused by a fall from a very tall vehicle. The injured party was a two hour drive from camp or just twenty minutes by helicopter. Damaged femurs don’t do well slaloming on sandy or bumpy paths.
So the chopper was scrambled and the doctor panicked, dithered, didn’t know what to take with him to the scene. He’d been on the radio to diagnose and assist after hearing about the injury. We later learned he did so in a leading manner. ‘Is the IP bleeding?’ The inventive and enthusiastic reply from the hypothetical scene was yes, there’s a lot of blood around a thigh bone protruding from the injured party. The doctor didn’t know this was a drill but he did think that seven or eight people out of ten with a leaking femural artery can die from blood loss. Delay could be fatal. The blood and gore was an embellishment beyond the suspected fracture that was written into the simulation script. I thought this was the pivotal moment when I read various report that followed the events in this story. If this was a drill intended to teach people, then this drill was spectacularly successful.
The doctor was hugely relieved when the chopper got him to the scene of the incident where he quickly realised it was a drill. There was no need to risk an accident by continuing the drill. Most systems would have been tested at this point. He relaxed and this was the end of the drill.
The emergency response had continued back in camp while the doctor was flying to the scene. Various people were acting out pre-assigned roles as if it was a real emergency.
In my trailer that doubled as office and bedroom, two of us knew it was a drill though we were not privy to the planning nor the script. We were tasked to call a hospital in Paris via Inmarsat to warn them that there was the possibility that we might need to send them the IP (injured parties aren’t yet patients) the next day. We didn’t get through. It was the weekend the French had added a zero into the dialling codes and the news hadn’t reached the deep Sahara. This is exactly the kind of ‘gap’ that emergency exercises are designed to catch and mitigate.
Someone else made a call to International SOS in Switzerland to advise them that a medical evacuation might be required the next day. We had a contract with them for this service and so needed to put them on standby to provide a plane and full medical team. Had they come, our arrangements were centred on Paris so that’s where the IP would have been flown to. ISOS confirmed they had a plane and staff that could be with us within 12 hours or less. The helicopter was how we planned to reach a place that had a runway long enough to take the ISOS plane, a specially converted corporate jet. There was such a place about two flight hours from our project area.
The national head office was called. The only person that could be reached was a radio operator who panicked because he couldn’t contact the national management team. This was long before mobile phones. It was a Sunday and naïvely, everyone else was out on safari without leaving someone behind with delegated authorities.
Some 1500 km away, out in the desert, the national capital was beyond reach by helicopter. We were quite close to the international border between two countries. Indeed, the capital city of the other country was only two hours by helicopter from the site of the incident.
However, corporate links crossed the international border such that the other capital city was included in the back-up plan for the emergency response. And since there was no one in the local, national head office, it was decided test the back-up plan rather than shut-down the drill. The script was being changed a second time.
A call went through to the house of a doctor in that other country. He was the first point of contact in the plan and designated as the incident coordinator for that part of the plan. He was out playing golf, as was typical for him on a Sunday lunchtime.
His wife took the call but her English wasn’t perfect, nor was the French or Arabic of the the guy who called her. She heard in the FranArGlish over a poor telephone connection that had been an incident and a helicopter with a doctor on board had gone down at the scene. Who could have predicted that she knew the doctor in question? He was the twin brother of her husband, the doctor out golfing.
Suddenly, it had become a family affair. She drove at high speed to the golf course where she told her husband of the helicopter crash that may have killed his brother. The crash was close but on the other side of the international border. The doctor was playing golf with three of his friends, all three of whom were in the French Foreign Legion. They knew that a chopper crash would involve a lot of injuries if not fatalities and besides, they needed to rescue their friend’s brother.
Thirty minutes later, there were a couple of military helicopters requesting priority clearance to take off from the main airport. There was some confusion in the control tower because the President of the country was on a plane that was also requesting priority clearance. And just then, before an international incident could happen, the message came through that the drill was over. ‘Drill?’ ‘DRILL!’
I’ve done other such exercises since. I never forgot to mention that common sense can’t be explicitly described in a plan.