THE MAGAZINE

Don't Let the Plan Be the Disaster

By William M. Lokey
 
Communication
 
During a disaster, the center for communications is the emergency operations center (EOC). This location is known by many different terms, but the concept is the same. The EOC is a facility for information gathering, disaster analysis, damage assessment, resource coordination, and policy development. It should serve as a central repository of information. In business terms, the EOC is the community or organizational boardroom designed to support and coordinate field operations.
 
Communications must, of course, be addressed well ahead of the activation of the EOC. Communications must be established from the beginning of the planning process. Unfortunately, companies often fail to reach out to other organizations in their community who will be involved in emergency response. Even within companies, department heads are often unaware of what other departments will do in a disaster.
 
A major component of planning and carrying out disaster drills should be for disaster managers to get to know their counterparts in other organizations, and they should become acquainted with everyone within their own companies who may have a role to play when a disaster occurs. Additionally, they should learn how each department will function during a disaster.  
 
Initiating the planning process can be as simple as a meeting. This meeting of leaders from companies, emergency management groups, and government agencies can be facilitated by the local authorities or can be led by a company.
 
After everyone is introduced and each person has explained how his or her organization fits into the community, the group should discuss basic management principles, such as who is in charge, where the command center will be located, what information leaders need, and where they can find this information.
 
Companies should follow this same outline in conducting internal disaster planning. Department heads should meet to discuss what they do, what aspects of the business they would be in charge of during an emergency, what information they need, and how they will get it. This interdepartmental communication helps ensure that, for example, the business manufacturing unit will have a plan that is in concert with senior management’s plan and that corresponds with the needs of security, safety, and public affairs.
 
I learned about this critical aspect of disaster planning in 1989 when I visited the San Francisco area after the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Oakland (California) Fire Department had learned some hard lessons in that disaster. They were open and honest about the problems they had encountered, and this learning experience changed my disaster-planning philosophy.
 
The leadership of the Oakland Fire Department could see on CNN that Oakland firefighters were providing a heroic response. They did not, however, have basic information on the status of the stations, what apparatus was available, or how many firefighters had come to work. Thus, it was difficult to make management decisions about what additional resources were needed. After the event, the department revised their emergency procedures to ensure that status information was provided directly to management as soon as possible after an incident.
 
Chain of Command
 
Ambiguity of authority during an emergency is a frequent problem in the private sector. The problem arises because many companies lack a standard chain of command. Resolving this issue is not as simple as putting names on a chart, however. Once authority has been established, all employees must be trained to respond appropriately to that authority during a crisis.
 
Establishing a basic chain of command is critical because most disaster problems are management related, not skill related. The mistake is that corporate disaster training is usually focused on improving the skills of employees who respond to a disaster. But because the problem is rooted in chain-of-command issues and not in people failing to do their jobs or forgetting how to operate a fire extinguisher, the training never gets at the crux of the matter. This paradox can cause seemingly well-practiced and comprehensive plans to fail when a disaster occurs.
 
To reduce confusion over chain-of-command issues at the scene during an incident, the plan should not only clearly spell out who has authority in these situations, but it should also clarify the extent to which employees can act autonomously. Additionally, chain of command and the use of initiative should be a part of training exercises.
 
Improvisation. The training should stress that the person in charge is not operating as an omnipotent chess master who moves all the pieces. Instead, he or she should be viewed as the coach who has trained the team and then lets them play the game, responding to the changing environment as best they can with occasional guidance from the coach. Command can come from the coach, but control comes from feedback from the players.
 
Because problems can arise in endless and unpredictable ways during a disaster, disaster response plans must encourage improvisational problem solving. Exercises should emphasize how to quickly get the necessary information after a disaster occurs and then how to use that information to solve problems creatively. This component of a disaster exercise should involve role playing and scenario training.
 
Instead of telling employees what to do in an emergency, companies should tell employees what needs to be done. The employees must then determine how that goal will be accomplished.
 
For example, the program Starbucks offered to its employees displaced by Hurricane Katrina was a local effort, according to Rick Gipson, director of the global partner and asset protection division at Starbucks. “The partners in Houston decided to act because people needed help,” says Gipson. “And the structure at Starbucks gave them the power to do this on their own.”
 

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