BlackswanHunting the Black Swans in Your Continuity Program

This is Vol. II, No. 5 in the DRG ongoing series regarding hunting and mastery of the black swans in your continuity program.

"Black Swans" in your Continuity Program are those events that remain outside the range of normal expectations, and may well produce a significant negative impact when they occur. For reasons of budget, culture, or simple lack of awareness, we just do not see or deal with these potentially devastating exposures in our enterprise continuity capability. This series discusses some of the most common of these "black swans" in business continuity programs, those that are really staring us in the face and screaming for attention.

Already published:

Volume I

Quarry 1: Employee Availability for Response Activities.
Quarry 2: The Level of Individual Employee Commitment to BCM
Quarry 3: Exercising Your Plans
Quarry 4: Exercising Your Plans: Objectives and Annual Programs
Quarry 5: Exercising Your Plans: Business Unit Continuity Plans
Quarry 6: Exercising Your Plans: Technology Recovery Plans
Quarry 7: Exercising Your Plans: Logistics, Communications, and Support Plans
Quarry 8: Lessons Learned
Quarry 9: New Year's Resolutions
Quarry 10: 10 Steps to Building a Black Swan-free Business Continuity Management Program
Quarry 11: New Year's Resolutions
Quarry 12: Developing "Black Swan Sighting" Skills: Warm-up Exercises

Volume II

Quarry 1: The Centrality of Power: Seeing the Connections
Quarry 2: Power Outages: Isolation Effects
Quarry 3: Power Outages: How Employers Can Get Involved
Quarry 4: Cascading Effects on the Support Fabric

Volume II: Quarry 5: Deeper Dives to Narrower Terrains: Dive 1

This month we continue our discussion with the cascading effects of a much narrower terrain: Adulterated fuel supplies. We will look first at a number of areas that may affect many of us individually and personally, as well as at wider effects on key societal aspects. Again, the intent is to get your imaginations oiled and spinning. As a reminder: in order to understand what may happen, we need to:

  • Include rather than exclude.
  • Accept that the improbable will occur, and that the effects may be wide-reaching and not now fully understood.
  • Understand as much as possible about the conditions under which these improbable effects will become visible.
  • Define those conditions where cascading effects will occur – trace these linkages through the social fabric to know where the breaks will occur – especially when the impact seems minor at first, so that we can identify it as early as possible
  • Be alert to gathering evidence that the situation is growing quickly into a compelling issue in multiple areas.

We will also explore here how we can identify and therefore counter these cascading effects, as well as what we can do now to become more resistant to their impacts. Right now we are interested only in identifying them and tracing their immediate and cascading impacts. Please note that the areas chosen are not intended in any way to be complete or to be representative. They are chosen for the ease with which the readers' imaginations may engage with them.

It is still the 25th day of a power outage in the US Northeast. West as far as Buffalo; south as far as Washington, D.C., including the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. It is a Wednesday in August. The temperature is expected to reach the low 90's today, with humidity at a relatively moderate 78% - 86%. Today we will be looking at cascading impacts in the areas described below. Please note that the threats discussed here (Adulterated Fuel Supply) and Contaminated Drinking Water Supply) are not intended in any way to be complete or to be representative of how such a situation might play out in a live scenario.

Adulterated Fuel Supply
Beginning about seven days ago, there have been an unusually high number of vehicle breakdowns: emergency vehicles, police vehicles, authorized private vehicles, buses, and trucks throughout the affected area. Within the last week the number of failures has been escalating per day, and these seem to be occurring in many locations, and seem at first not to be at all related. A number of accidents have occurred and there have been serious injuries and 6 deaths.

About three days ago, we started to see pre-takeoff engine failures of planes taxiing down runways prior to takeoff. Many trains have also been stranded due to engine failures.

Yesterday we began to see failures and engine seizures in diesel generators being used to supply power to medical facilities and many commercial facilities. Elevators running on this generator power have failed, stranding occupants between floors. These facilities (medical, commercial, government) have had to shut down due to the lack of power.

Today a crash of an airplane off the coast of Long Island was reported. The cause of the crash is reported to be failure of all four engines. Survivors are being rescued. It is not yet known how many passengers are missing.
Due to the widespread nature of these events, and their occurrence in many different states and jurisdictions, the National Guard Units deployed within each state have been mobilized under the control of an Army General named by the President to coordinate the response.
While the National Guard coordinates its response, the following are occurring:

  1. Food shortages due to inability to make deliveries within the affected zone.
  2. Acute drinking water shortages.
  3. Acute medical care shortage: most hospitals have been forced to close when their generators failed. Some deaths have been attributed to the sudden loss of power.
  4. Public toilets are inoperable, and trucks cannot pick up/replace chemical toilets. A sanitation emergency is developing quickly.
  5. Emergency medical facilities have been set up in athletic fields with tents and local medical personnel. Large numbers of patients are experiencing dehydration, fainting, and increasing numbers of patients with gastro-intestinal infections are appearing. Bodies have been found in buildings and on streets. Who will be responsible for pickup of these bodies and their identification?


  1. FEMA and as the National Guard are sending as many water trucks as possible from outside the affected area. But as they cannot refuel when they run out of gasoline within the affected area (or the engines fail when they do refuel), these facilities are largely ineffective in meeting the need for water, in the dense urban population areas. Within several days, these trucks are accompanied by fuel trucks from OUTSIDE of the affected area.
  2. Highway exit routes from the affected area are becoming difficult to navigate due to the high number of abandoned vehicles.
  3. After six different incidents of pre-takeoff engine failures, all planes have been grounded at airports within the affected area until all fuel sources have been checked and cleared to be unadulterated. Air traffic control towers are inoperative as emergency diesel generators are not functioning; no incoming or outgoing flights will be allowed at airports within the affected area until the situation has been resolved.


  1. How will the authorities (and who will this be?) identify the source of the adulterated fuel?
  2. Which government entity will take control of this situation? Will martial law need to be declared? What will be the responsibilities of this governing entity?
  3. Will residents be offered evacuation via buses outside of the area? If so, how will authorities be certain that the buses are fueled with unadulterated fuel? What do they need to test fuel?
  4. How will private corporations work with government? How will private resources be made available for public use – voluntarily or involuntarily?
  5. Who will be charged with resolution of the adulterated fuel issue – identification of sources and assurance that this will not recur?

We can conjecture that fuel depots on the borders of the affected area have been compromised by situation profiteers who adulterated the fuel supplies in order to increase revenues, not understanding (or simply not caring about) the potential impact of what they were doing. Due to the acute dependence of transportation and diesel generators on adequate fuel supplies, this single event could produce a nearly unimaginably large negative impact on the area and its population. How would adulterated fuel be determined to be the issue? Who would take charge of determining the cause of this adulteration? How would adulterated supplies be removed so that unadulterated fuel could be pumped in?

This is a small example of the cascading effects that can be found in such situations. Certainly there would be more; engage your imagination to predict what could happen and what would be needed to resolve it.

When you review the above issues even superficially, five areas emerge as critical:

  1. Early Identification of the continuing nature of the event is critical. The earlier the authorities understand that this is a system-wide event, the earlier they will be able to organize corrective actions and support for those more fragile members, such as the ill, the elderly, those with continuous medication needs, and those with medical emergencies.
  2. Priority-setting. The earlier decisions can be made at the appropriate level on how to deliver essential products and services to places/people where they are needed most AND to provide the unadulterated fuel that will allow these deliveries to continue, the better the affected populations will be able to weather the event.
  3. Discussions need to be held NOW among government, military, and private sector participants to discuss options in the event of such long-term interruptions. These should result in guidelines to be used in individual incidents by all parties. Included should be a system of event severity / duration measurements that will allow decisions to be made earlier to implement recovery and protective measures. The private sector should be fully leveraged in these measures.
  4. Effective communications and quick reactions are necessary to minimize negative outcomes to individual emergency situations. Flexibility and individual initiative must be encouraged while simultaneously maintaining the benefits of formal authority structures. No, this is NOT impossible.
  5. New solutions to emergent challenges must be encouraged and adopted where appropriate by workers within those environments. Responders "in the trenches" must be allowed to implement ideas that work for the individual cases with minimum bureaucratic oversight. Private sector models may be useful here.

An event of the magnitude that we are discussing here may still seem extremely improbable to you. However, the disaster event is simply the criminal adulteration of the fuel supply to increase profits. That should not be so difficult to imagine. The impacts, including the very severe impacts, are simply the cascading effects of this single act of adulteration.

You should now be better able to understand the value of this type of reasoning to the building and implementation of an effective response. If you cannot imagine the event, you cannot train for it, design a response, rehearse / refine that response. And by the way, there is a lot that can be learned about much less serious (and more probable) events by taking this detailed approach. For example, this situation suggests that all fuel supplies should be scanned for adulteration prior to entering such a zone. This should perhaps be done in a pre-emptive manner, not waiting for the problem to present its impacts prior to dealing with it.

About the Author

Kathleen Lucey, FBCI, is President of Montague Risk Management, a business continuity consulting firm founded in 1996. She is a member of the BCI Global Membership Council, past member of the Board of the BCI, and the founding President of the BCI USA Chapter. IBM chose her as the first winner of its Business Continuity Practitioner of the Year Award in 1998. She speaks and publishes widely in both North America and Europe. Kathleen may be reached via email at kathleenalucey@gmail.com.