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Are we wasting our time building flood defences? By Steve Dance, Managing Partner, RiskCentric

10-12-15, 16:19

Steve Dance, Managing Partner, RiskCentric and Committee Member on BIFM's SteveDanceRisk & Business Continuity Management Special Interest Group.

"Since Storm Desmond struck the North West UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland the phrase "since records began" has a hollow sound to it. It seems whatever defences we create, nature will breach any assumed thresholds and create havoc and devastation. So are we wasting our time building flood defences? Should we even bother preparing, if our preparations are likely to be futile?

Firstly, let's put the recent floods into context, the new flood defences, though overwhelmed in parts, prevented more severe flooding that would have otherwise occurred. If the investment had not been made the damage would have been far more severe and widespread.† Because of the damage limitation, our emergency services were less stretched than they could have been and were able to concentrate their efforts where they were needed.† This may be cold comfort if your residence or business was one of those impacted, but it remains a fact that Storm Desmond would have caused far wider and severe damage if additional flood defences had not been constructed.

So what's to be done?† We face a typical risk management dilemma: even though we can prepare for the worst (and we can only define 'the worst' on what is currently known to be the worst) there is always a risk that the sheer scale and force of an incident can overwhelm our preventative measures.† That's where contingency planning comes into play.† Contingency planning is that part of our business continuity arrangements that provide a safety net for when our resilience measures become overwhelmed.

During March 2015, BIFM published Flood Risk Management guidance to provide members and the FM profession with advice on how to protect from flooding incidents.† These guidelines are still highly relevant, but recent developments in UK Government departments compliment them by providing useful guidance to improve overall preparedness to respond to floods.† Individual businesses cannot prevent floods occurring, but they can minimise the overall impact by improving their general readiness. In fact, according to the Environment Agency a well prepared business can save between 20-90% of the potential damage that can be caused by a flood.

It's difficult, of course, to find a positive about wide-scale flooding, but unlike many types of incidents and most weather related events, their likelihood is predictable. Thankfully weather forecasting has reached the stage where the likelihood and location of floods can be accurately identified.† That warning period buys time to protect, salvage and preserve our businesses and homes as best we can.† There are important sources of information that can help us with this and FMs might consider some of the following initiatives to ensure that they are as fully prepared as they can be:

  • First, make sure you understand the flood risk in your area. The Environment Agency provides an interactive map of the UK to help you understand this
  • Make use of the Environment Agency's Floodline Warnings Direct service . This is a free, 24 hour service that sends automated flood warnings by telephone, SMS text, email, fax or pager. These can act as an early warning system and buy precious time to invoke your flood response plans
  • When the situation is serious, regular updates will be given via local TV and radio. Radio is especially resilient when other parts of the communications infrastructure are under pressure.

Be prepared
If you are an identified flood risk area you should develop a Flood Response Plan, aligning the response activities to the Environment Agency's flood alert levels. The table here gives some examples of key actions that should be considered as flood risk escalates.

Communicating in a crisis
Always bear in mind that communication of any type is likely to be difficult in a major incident, decide what means you will use to communicate internally (within the response team and to a wider employee audience) and externally (with customers, for instance) and include the necessary details in your plan. Also bear in mind the significant confusion that can be caused when everyone is trying to find out what's going on. With everyone trying to contact each other (especially if they are using telephones for one-to-one communication) the likelihood is that most people won't be able to establish contact with each other.† Consider using an emergency conference call facility - these allow several people to conference and collaborate.† Also, they are 'device independent' - they can be accessed via traditional telephone lines, mobile phones and even internet telephony services such as Skype."

Stay prepared

Creating a flood plan is not a destination - it has to be kept up-to-date.† Key areas to focus on to ensure that your flood response plan remains 'fit for purpose' are:

  • Ensure everyone in the flood response plan understands their roles and how to complete their assigned actions (do they know how to construct and install your chosen flood defences, for instance?)
  • Ensure that you have up-to-date contact details for everyone you may need to contact
  • Ensure that those identified in your plan are still in a position to fulfil their assigned role (do they still work here? have personal circumstances changed?)"

Steve Dance can be contacted at or via

Useful Links

BIFM Flood Risk Management Guidance

Sandbags & how to use them properly for flood prevention

Environment Agency Floodline warning direct

Environment Agency flood risk maps

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