Rescuing the Chilean miners – exceptionally exemplary crisis management

Everyone involved in crisis management can only have watched in awe as the Chilean miners’ ordeal unfolded. With only a few blips which, as the last few miners are being brought to the surface, now seem inconsequential, it has gone down as a supreme example of What To Do.

At almost every stage the response has been measured and considered. Every aspect of the miners’ welfare was thought-through in detail, while they were underground, as decisions were made about their rescue, during their nerve-wracking journey through the shaft, when they emerged above the surface, on their way to hospital, and (as has been announced several times) as they rehabilitate – to daylight and daily life.

So, too, has been the management of the emergence of each miner. Seeing close relatives walking slowly to the shaft, accompanied by a female minder in a journey timed to end a few minutes before the phoenix capsule emerges, joining a group which includes the Chilean president and his wife, has been like watching the world’s best choreography. Everyone playing a part and everyone in their place, the spotlight playing on each rescued miner first, their closest family next and with everyone else a minor part of the chorus.

Meanwhile, concerted hard work is being done by a large team – nameless and faceless, above ground and below – of people monitoring the equipment, managing each descent and ascent of the capsule, making sure that each trip is as risk-free as possible.

And so it has been from the start of the crisis – and more particularly, from the 17th day afterwards when the world discovered that the miners were still alive. Responsibility was taken at senior level (you can’t get higher than the president). Statements were circumspect, expressing cautious hope without raising expectations. Communication was maintained, revealing appropriate details without resorting to platitudes or flannel. Specialist and expert help was sought and taken (rare in itself). No expense was spared to ensure, as far as was possible, a successful outcome.

If a crisis management expert were to recommend that a crisis management plan should contain the level of detail we have seen played out in Chile, he or she would be dismissed as obsessive. Yet it is only when the fine details are considered, and planned for, that a plan becomes valuable. While no crisis ever goes to plan (though this crisis has come very close), it is only when you have a detailed plan that you have the leeway to amend it to fit the circumstances.

It seems churlish to mention the blips. The most striking was the slowness of the mining company, and the government, to apologise for the accident. Next was an announcement that the miners would be brought up within 48 hours when it was clear to observers that this was speculation. No one knew when the equipment would be deemed fit for purpose; it was too soon to set a time; the deadline was extended. Then there were moments of jubilation from crisis workers as milestones were reached. Yes, emotion was bound to spill over in such tense situations (we are, after all, human) but, with no miners rescued, it was too soon for such a public display of celebration.

If the outcome had been different – and as I type this the last miner, Luis Urzua, has emerged but the eight strong support team is still underground – these moments would be deeply regretted. Staying measured and calm is a fundamental aspect of crisis management.

But this is nit-picking. From accepting NASA’s advice on how to support people trapped in confined spaces to the president’s candid admission that the government had been at fault for not having more stringent controls governing mining, this crisis has set a new standard for crisis management.

Now all the Chilean president needs to do is fulfil his promises. Let’s hope that doesn’t lead to a whole new crisis. this!

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