Safe Hands

By Sullivan-Taylor, Bridgette; Wilson, David | The World Today, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Safe Hands


Sullivan-Taylor, Bridgette, Wilson, David, The World Today


TOURISM AND THE THREAT OF TERRORISM

Perhaps you are reading this on a plane or while having a drink, are you in safe hands? This is not to question operational safety; flying, for example, is statistically one of the safest means of transport. Strict maintenance and regulations are paramount. But what about the uncertainty facing airlines, and other organisations, from the threat of terrorism? Managers have to take difficult decisions over how they assess risks. Fortunately, for the most part, they weigh the options in the absence of any particular attack, but in a context of very high uncertainty. A terrorist strike may be a risk, but how likely is it to happen? How much effort should managers make to ensure their organisation has a strong capacity to identify and act on such threats?

Little research has been conducted into how managers deal with uncertainties created by the threat, and sometimes the reality, of terror attacks. Although such threats get high profile media exposure almost daily, boardrooms and decision makers do not appear to prioritise strategies to deal with them. For example, no-frills airlines rely almost exclusively on airports for security checks and regulations. Entertainment centres focus on economic activities, almost adopting a fatalistic attitude to possible attack once obvious risks such as underground car parks have been dealt with Even information on terrorism from governments and other sources seems both partial and occasionally confusing, making the lives of decision makers even more difficult.

A great deal of debate surrounds risks or hazards, man-made or natural, and national security. But the threat of terrorism to private sector organisations is overlooked. The preparedness of an organisation to assess and face such risks is crucial. Private sector firms provide large parts of key national infrastructures in telecommunications, finance, pharmaceuticals, transport and leisure industries. They keep normal life going. A recent estimate by Sir David Omand concludes that eighty per cent of such crucial areas are privately owned.

Senior managers and organisations vary widely in their preparedness for managing terrorism threats. These variations might be the result of simple uncertainty as to the identity of a possible adversary, their goals and what decisions and actions might be necessary to ensure that their aims are not realised

Preparedness might also be influenced by organisational culture, and an inability to assess imminent dangers and pervasive vulnerabilities, and to prioritise risks. An attack might reasonably be seen as a hazard - denned as the potential for harm - but without the competence to assess carefully the likelihood of such an incident, it cannot be said to be a risk. With that in mind, how much effort should managers make to ensure their organisational culture has the capacity to identify hazards, prioritise threats and act accordingly?

Ill Prepared

Our study of six private sector organisations in Britain indicates that some are ill-prepared to face the hazards and risks of terrorism and managers may have developed a relatively complacent attitude - 'it won't happen to us'.

The pilot study examines the levels of risk managers choose to expose their organisations to. It looks at how they perceive the likelihood of a terror attack, or the vulnerability of their organisation to potential attack.

The organisations are all in the British or European international leisure and travel sector. All with high potential exposure to threats of terrorism, they are a catering supplier to the airline sector, a British airport, a low-cost airline, a large travel organisation and two high profile London arts and entertainment centres. The study used in-depth interviews with senior managers in 2004 and last year to record any changes to management risk perceptions and practices following three key events: September 11 2001, the transport bombings in London on July 7 2005 and the bomb threats to transatlantic flights last August. …

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