Risky Business


"It's 3:30pm when I get the call. The weather's turned bad and all hell's broken loose. They need more help. Five minutes later, five guys are in a firetruck, lights flashing and sirens blaring, on our way to the Gosper's Mountain megafire, Australia's biggest ever, deep in the Hawkesbury Valley area.

With 30 minutes to get there there's time to think. About the fire, what's it doing, how we could start planning if only we had more information. As we get closer we see the smoke pluming in the distance; it's massive, I've never seen anything like it, it's a monster! Anxiety builds, adrenaline kicks in and you start to question whether this is such a good idea. What if something goes wrong? What about my family? My wife, my two young boys?

We're close now, day has turned to night, thick smoke is everywhere, fire all around. Find something that's on fire and put it out! Protect what you can, save what you can! It's chaos. Mother Nature's in control and we have to fight her. You spring into action, your training kicks in, you forget to worry as you realise people are in trouble, they need your help. The adrenaline is peaking now and you feel strong, firefighter strong! For the next hour or so you're doing everything you can, everything you've learned, pushing yourself to the limit until eventually the winds subside and you finally gain control. As the intensity drops you look around to see how the rest of the crew is coping. They're awesome! The trust you have in each other is amazing and you exchange congratulations on a job well done.

At 1am, we stand down and I get back home, exhausted, but with a big smile on my face as my wife rolls towards me. I'm glad you're home safe and sound."

Wednesday, 4 December 2019 was one of three night shifts and nine torrid day shifts that dragged Chris Dickinson away from his family this summer, away from the IT solutions company he manages, away from the comfort zone of everyday routines. And with the science suggesting such extreme weather events are likely to become more prevalent, there is a clear and urgent need for serious planning at all levels to mitigate the risks of such devastating events.

The flames have fanned a mountain of talk about what should be done and who should do it, but Chris is full of praise for NSW RFS Chief, Shane Fitzsimmons and State Premier, Gladys Berejiklian for the way they have handled one of the most catastrophic natural events we've ever seen. He believes the states should continue to take prime responsibility for emergency responses in their own jurisdictions, but also sees the need for a national overview to provide Federal support and resources in areas such as planning, coordination, aerial fire-fighting and Defence Force assistance.

As to whether volunteers should be paid for their efforts, Chris places great store on the precious culture of people protecting their own communities that exists in Australia, and is loath to see that spirit of volunteerism compromised. He'd like to see assistance for sole traders who lose their only income stream when they're off at the firefront, but encourages larger organisations and fellow Institute members to support their own volunteer workers.

"It's very important for organisations to have an emergency services policy, understanding that they need to be able to release staff to do what's needed for their communities, without penalty."

Of course businesses need to look after themselves too. Are your premises fire-ready? Where are the escape routes? Are your records and assets safe? What's your business continuity plan if something happens? What could be the economic impacts and how might they affect you?

"Our Sydney office sits within the National Park of Lane Cove," says Chris. "We've made considerable steps as an organisation to think about what our recovery plans are and how we would handle things and I think that's really critical for any business."

Chris manages Pronto Cloud, a division of Pronto Software Limited, a name members will be familiar with as the national sponsor of our annual Summits. Of the 1600 customers using Pronto Software, about 400 use Pronto Cloud's full cloud infrastructure services to manage and backup their systems and provide them with a no-fuss, no-care solution. 

"We know the product and how it behaves and we can make it sing and dance the way it needs to," says Chris.

Pronto Software has been around for over 40 years in one guise or another and launched Pronto Cloud in 2002. Chris took over as Manager in 2013 and has achieved double-digit YOY growth since. His original eight staff now number 41 over Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane offices. 100 customers have turned into 400. The 150 servers they used to manage on a daily basis have mushroomed to 2,800. Nice numbers, but of course they bring their own challenges with them.

The business, fundamentally, is about keeping the lights on, with customers relying on Pronto Cloud to keep their systems available all day every day. Once again we're talking about the imperative of mitigating risk, and Chris' Risk Management team is constantly on the hunt for potential issues, fixing problems before they happen, before they can jeopardise the company's all important customer assurance: 99.99% uptime and protection against data loss and outage.

Chris joined Pronto 18 years ago, working his way through software sales, solution design and a three-year stint as Operations Manager in North America. And before that, he spent ten years in management accounting, which has given him a solid business foundation and a facility with the numbers that puts him at ease in a boardroom surrounded by CFOs, CIOs and CEOs. 

Even so, it can be lonely at the top, and 12 months ago, Chris joined The CEO Institute and discovered another invaluable resource.

"The CEO Institute for me is very much therapy; being able to talk to other people about challenges and also contribute to solving their problems," says Chris.

"It's a fantastic group to be involved with because it gives you that ability to have sounding boards, to really talk to like-minded people about common issues."

There is another level of support that is critical for Chris: his family. His wife encourages his RFS work, despite the disrupted sleep and anxiety that it inevitably brings. But she knows how important it is to him and understands the value he places on his local community and his ability to contribute to it, especially in the frightening times this summer has visited.

Just recently, one of his boys looked into Chris' face and said "Daddy, I want to be a fire-fighter like you". Nothing could have made it more worthwhile.


The CEO Institute, established over 25 years ago, helps business leaders like you connect with your peers to share skills, insight, and experience. The CEO Institute's leadership programs are available globally. Click here to read more member success stories.