Into the blazing inferno, with 20/20 hindsight: Bernardine Coverley looks at a program in which the worst is for the best

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WHEN the European Vinyls Corporation (EVC) wants to find out whether its executives can cope with an industrial disaster, it runs a new computer program and turns its drama into a CriSys.

Early last year, the Anglo-Italian company, which has a turnover of pounds 1bn a year and branches in several countries, sought advice from Steve Blinkhorn, an industrial psychologist at Psychometric Research and Development (PRD) of St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Dr Blinkhorn had already developed a basic program dealing with the types of disaster most managers prefer not to contemplate - rail crashes, dangerous chemical leaks and fires, for example. In response to EVC's request, he expanded this and came up with CriSys.

'While the risks are low for an individual company or site, a disaster can cause a major crisis across a whole corporation,' Dr Blinkhorn says. 'Can a corporation survive an event that absorbs an enormous amount of management time, followed by rebuilding, at least, and, possibly, a public inquiry? Look back at Piper Alpha or Zeebrugge. The point of this system is to provide hindsight in advance of anything real.'

EVC was so impressed with CriSys that it is now involved in developing the program commercially. 'We had a corporate crisis plan. But a plan is pretty useless unless it is practised in a fairly realistic way,' John Davies, a senior manager, says. 'Using CriSys, managers quickly suspended their disbelief. The atmosphere was electric.'

CriSys was conceived as an interactive video disc. Now it runs on an office PC with a printer and the addition of a small speaker that will fire questions at the user. It is designed to be reusable, and the original company data can generate multiple scenarios that unfold according to decisions taken.

'We scooped up new technology to support our ideas,' Dr Blinkhorn says. The use of fractal compression, a way of storing more than 100 high-quality photographs on a single floppy disk, kept the system small, simple and sophisticated. Word-processing and spreadsheet software can be used, and the whole 'event' can be instantly suspended or reprogrammed as it is running.

'The reprogramming facility gives total flexibility. It will give different responses, depending on the way staff manage the crisis. The work is done by lots of independent programs,' Dr Blinkhorn says. 'If one of the agents fails, it's not a problem.'

At first glance, CriSys is all crash, bang, casualties and mobilisation of emergency services, but Mr Davies says: 'It's the response to the event that is the issue. Having company information at our fingertips so that we know what we have to do and who to work with.'

In the demonstration version of CriSys, a senior manager whose company has been involved in a chemicals spill might be asked probing questions at a 'press conference'. The monitor shows journalists and photographers and Softspeak produces the voices. At another press conference, a director is expected to make a credible response to Friends of the Earth allegations.

The system selects questions from a bank of more than 200 possible responses, and allows pauses for instant replies. The answers need to be good, because colleagues - much less forgiving than many journalists, according to Mr Davies and Dr Blinkhorn - are listening. But any weaknesses an executive might display are likely to be minor compared with the gaps in company communication and corporate strategy that may emerge.

The computer screen acts as a point of reference. The speaker relays 'phone calls' and 'news bulletins'; the printer churns out 'faxes' and 'telexes'. But the action is between the managers, their administrative assistants and the outside world. Who can explain the exact toxicity of fumes? What should they say to the families of the victims? Will the public still buy the product?

Every time the program is run it turns the data into a different plot development. Mr Davies points out that at a cost of about pounds 30,000, the system must be reusable in more than one way.

From the beginning, it was clear that CriSys could be widely applied. Dr Blinkhorn can now afford to be amused by the fact that the package was rejected by the Department of Employment as of 'insufficient interest'. There have been 160 inquiries, including a deal with Union Carbide, Europe.

'The range of issues different companies saw as being relevant surprised me,' Dr Blinkhorn says. 'They included computer system failure, financial mismanagement and kidnap.' More predictable, perhaps, was interest from the petrochemical and food-processing industries.

From initial discussions, a simulation takes from three to six months to develop. For a company that describes its work as 'inventing solutions', getting business executives hot under the collar in advance of reality should be no problem.

(Photograph omitted)