Extreme weather, cyber attack or power outage? Piet Voesten and Wim Klavers keep a cool head. As crisis managers at VodafoneZiggo, they support the crisis management team and guide the organisation through every threat or disaster.

Who what where
"The world is complex, changes rapidly, and requires increasingly proactive crisis management," Piet explains. "Because crises occur more frequently and with greater impact: think of a pandemic like COVID, or the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But they can also come from unexpected quarters, such as the power outage in Bommelerwaard, issues with ice, or storms like 'Gerrit' and 'Henk'. All these matters, combined with the people working through processes and IT day in and day out to deliver vital products and services, have a direct or indirect impact on the work of the crisis manager."

As much as possible, we try to get ahead of a crisis by being alert to signs that could lead to one. One of the situations we faced was the extreme flooding in July 2021 in southern Limburg. "The first thing we did was to map the situation and look for immediate danger, the so-called worst-case scenarios," says Wim. "We also check that the right teams have been alerted. In this case, working groups across departmental boundaries were quickly formed to assist on telecoms matters as best they could locally in Limburg. It was very nice to see that happen. In the end, no crisis decisions were needed and we kept our feet dry, but we kept a finger on the pulse.

Crisis in three, two, one
VodafoneZiggo is part of the vital infrastructure in the Netherlands. If there is a crisis, the stakes are high. But when is something a crisis for VodafoneZiggo? Piet: "We are looking at three things. Are people in danger, or will they be? Is the scale of the situation extraordinary? Last but not least, are there any major technical issues that endanger our core customer activities? If the answer to one or more of these questions is 'yes', then we’re talking about a crisis. And in such cases, the phones of the crisis management team members (CMT) will ring."

Analysis after the storm
That team consists of managers from various departments, from HR to communications, and from legal affairs to technology. It’s an additional role for those people. Piet and Wim offer advice. "Compare our role to a black box in an aircraft AND the analyst reading the black box," Wim says. "That black box records all flight data and communication, so that in the event of a disaster, you can find out exactly what happened. We do the same for VodafoneZiggo, but during a crisis. We map the situation, analyse it and advise what steps the team can take. Afterwards, we reconstruct and evaluate all the events: how did we act and what can we learn from this for next time?"

Getting to work
The crisis team monitors the big picture, thinks ahead and makes strategic decisions. That means work for one or more of the four operational teams. "We have four teams, each with its own area of focus: employee and visitor safety, communications, a technical team for issues relating to networks and services, and a team that deals with cyber attacks and software. Depending on the situation, certain teams get to work. For example, the technical team looks for solutions to get the network connection up and running, while the communications team answers questions from customers, colleagues and the media."

Worst-case thinking
Besides acute emergencies, there can be situations that do not immediately mean a crisis for VodafoneZiggo, but could become one: a slow-moving crisis. Piet: "Crisis management is asking what-if questions based on worst-case scenarios. Take the war between Russia and Ukraine. For us, it's a situation where we need to think ahead and sketch out scenarios immediately: what if internet cables running along the seabed are destroyed? What do we do in the event of a nuclear threat? We don't think about or take decisions on such a contingency alone. We have a lot of contact with other companies, vital organisations and local and national government organisations, from the security regions to ministries."

Getting ahead of a crisis
The golden rule is: get ahead of the crisis. "There are protocols and plans prepared for many scenarios," Wim explains. "What would have been a crisis 10 years ago is not one now. The other day, severe weather was forecast and it was going to rain heavily for days. Ten years ago, this would have been a crisis because a technical room of an office building could flood. And that means damaged equipment and customers unable to make calls or use the internet. These days we are even better prepared, and are installing water partitions. A message from me asking if the bad-weather plans have been dusted off yet is enough. That ensures that everyone knows what needs to be done."

The Future
The aim remains for all those involved in the crisis chain to be informed more proactively, Piet says. How nice it would be if we were to receive the following messages: "The flood protocol has been activated: Once the water is X metres high, we install the water partitions. In the event of further upscaling or downscaling, another message will follow".

Regular exercises
To cope with all kinds of crises, regular exercises are essential. Wim: "We participate in national government crisis exercises, such as ISIDOOR. For three days in 2023, we pretended that the Netherlands had been hit by cyber attacks. During these exercises, we cooperate with security regions, ministries and over 100 businesses. We then look, for example, at whether our networks are properly secured, how we keep everyone accessible and whether we are putting the right actions in place. This is how, together with all these crisis partners, we keep the vital sectors and the Netherlands safe."