Dave Birkett: cool in a crisis

Dave speaking at a presentation

If an emergency is about to unfold, alum and crisis management expert Dave Birkett is someone you want in your corner.

How an organisation responds to a crisis can make or break the public’s perception of them, let alone their bottom line. Failure to properly respond to a major incident can leave a sour taste in the mouths of consumers for decades.

That’s why organisations undertake crisis management exercises to stress test their preparedness for responding to critical events – to make sure they know what to do if the worst does happen. Enter the realm of crisis management experts like University of Adelaide alum, Dave Birkett.

Dave has undertaken crisis management activities with a diverse range of organisations including law enforcement, local government, utilities providers, mining, and the oil and gas industry. His work has taken him around the world, with most of his recent years being in Central and Eastern Europe, where he currently resides.

One of the more memorable exercises that Dave recalls is being called to a job near Tembagapura, in the highlands of West Papua, Indonesia, approximately 20 years ago. Tembagapura is a company town which was built to support the operations of the nearby Grasberg mine, which is one of the richest, most remote gold and copper reserves on earth.

An incident had occurred about a year prior to Dave’s visit. Three teachers from the Tembagapura school, two of whom were foreign US citizens, were killed in an ambush on their vehicle while they were travelling on the only road to the town. Dave’s company had been enlisted to prepare a live counterterrorism exercise.

Upon arriving at Tembagapura, Dave recalls suffering significant altitude sickness, given the town is at the same elevation as the Mount Everest Base Camp.

“When we first arrived, [I] struggled to breathe normally and felt overwhelmingly tired. To compensate for the altitude, I went for a run at 0500 hrs every morning that we were there, which did the trick!”

Of the three-person team, Dave drew the “short straw” and was responsible for organising the physical part of the exercise, which was to be performed on a bridge which had a several hundred metre drop each side.

While the local defence force posting was initially sceptical of the presence of Dave’s team, after some shrewd negotiation, Dave was able to get them onside and they became willing participants in the exercise.

The next morning at 1000 hrs, the road approaches to the bridge were closed, and the live exercise commenced. Dave provided the radio signal back to Tembagapura of the simulated incident, triggering into action the emergency response group who travelled to the bridge and abseiled off the side to recover a simulated victim.

The exercise was a resounding success. Given the remote location, the exercise drew much attention from local residents, who weren’t quite used to the level of activity that had been generated by the exercise.

While many people know about risk management, it’s not to be confused with crisis management. Crisis management involves dealing with incidents before, during and after they have occurred. That’s in contrast to risk management, which aims to prevent incidents from occurring by identifying the sources of potential hazards, and implementing strategies to prevent or minimise their occurrence.

Dave has now been a crisis management practitioner and respected consultant for over two decades. His work has taken him around the world facilitating live training exercises and audits of both public sector and private entities. However, you mightn’t necessarily associate Dave’s degree with his current line of work.

Dave completed his Bachelor of Arts at the University, graduating in the late 80s. While he performed well academically, Dave’s plans post his degree didn’t quite go as he had expected.

“At the completion [of my degree], I mistakenly thought that politicians, government agencies and the private sector would be lining up to interview me, as my results were good with mostly credits in my degree.

“How wrong was I! The opposite was true as I soon discovered that there were many graduates with [the same] results and higher degrees than myself.”

However, what did set Dave apart from his fellow graduates is his tenacious spirit and ‘never give in’ attitude. Recalling what he learned in his previous military experience that “failure is not an option,” Dave set to work identifying suitable opportunities and applied en masse to as many positions as he could.

“I applied for 100 positions simultaneously that I selected as compatible with my background and my degree. The result was 15 companies communicated with me; 10 interviewed me; and three offered me a job."

“I [later] learned this process is called SINALOA – which coincidentally is a town in Mexico – but it means Safety in Numbers and Law of Averages.”

Dave’s attitude is testament to the old adage, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Dave subsequently went on to hold a number of leadership positions in operations-related roles, including:

  • Operations Manager at the Adelaide Aquatic Centre;
  • Operations and Maintenance Manager of two of Adelaide’s metropolitan public transport bus depots, which operated every day of the year with a rotating roster of 500 staff and more than 200 buses; and
  • an Assistant State Director of the National Archives, project managing a consolidation of the National Archives’ South Australian collection and planning for a relocation of the Adelaide office in the early 2000s.

It was around this time that Dave undertook a career pivot into crisis management and assurance activities. That being said, Dave was well prepared to make this transition, with his defence background, as well as his experience in conflict resolution and risk and emergency management from his operations leadership roles.

“A significant component of my [work] is assessing emergency management and business continuity arrangements, and the major risks to each organisation, including [their] vulnerabilities to failures/sabotage. [This is] followed by a live or desktop exercise to test the organisation’s capability to respond [to the incident]. This is then supported by executive training and recommendations to improve the organisation’s security and resilience.”

To compliment his work, Dave has written several journal articles regarding the protection of critical infrastructure. He is also a published author, co-writing Safety Essentials for Business and Leisure Travel: Air, Land, Sea and during Pandemics! with fellow security expert and social justice and human rights campaigner, Dr Kay Danes OAM.

While Dave has returned to Australia for the next few months, it’s certainly no holiday! He’ll be using his expertise to support the emergency and resilience management activities of a utility provider in regional Victoria. Even after his extensive career, there’s no stopping Dave Birkett.

Ready for a career change?

Has Dave Birkett’s career pivot inspired you to explore a new career?  You can enable your next career move with postgraduate studies at the University of Adelaide, a university ranked within the Top 100 universities globally.

Alumni are eligible to receive a 15 per cent discount on tuition fees for eligible postgraduate award programs.  To find out more, visit the Alumni Tuition Fee Discount website.


Tagged in alumni, alumni recognition, alumni profiles