During a disaster, it is usually the proper management of resources, not the lack of them, that is the problem. This is especially true for human resources. One problem is that leaders in a major event are usually surprised at the number and diversity of citizens who show up at the scene wanting to help. At smaller incidents, law enforcement usually secures the scene and keeps volunteers away. However, at larger events, the spontaneous response is more difficult to contain.
I had the opportunity to speak afterwards with many of the first responders to the Cypress Freeway collapse in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. One consistent comment was that they wished they had training in dealing with all of the people who showed up and wanted to help. This same issue was repeated at the 9-11 attacks and in rescue efforts after the recent hurricanes.
Leaders should anticipate this and, if appropriate, plan for it. One approach is to organize the volunteers into smaller groups. To that end, designated employees could be trained to form volunteers into teams of five to seven people. These teams should then be assigned to a trained responder such as a member of a company’s crisis management team, if appropriate, or to a firefighter or police officer when they arrive on the scene. Such strategies should be part of the disaster management plan and included in training exercises.
Related to this issue is the fact that friends, family, coworkers, and people who just happen to be around when a disaster occurs are the ones who provide help to most people when a major disaster occurs. The highly trained responders rescue only a small percentage of victims.
In light of this reality, some training for a lot of people is better than a lot of training for some people. Providing basic information and safety equipment to a large number of employees, instead of to just a few employees on a disaster response team, is the best approach.
Safety meetings, which many companies must hold under federal and state safety and health regulations, can serve as a forum for educating employees about corporate emergency plans and management issues. One approach might be to have an employee, such as the safety officer or security director, develop a quiz about the company disaster plan for employees to take at periodic safety meetings.
The quiz should contain simple questions to elicit information from the plan, such as, “Who is in charge during an emergency?” and “Where will the command post be located?”
Employees should be asked during the meeting to write down the answers, and everyone should then discuss the exam as a group. They can be allowed to use the plan as a reference for an open book test. This simple drill can serve as a first step, as a refresher about the plan, and as an opportunity to solicit suggestions to make the plan better.
Another consideration is to ensure that everyone involved understands what the priorities will be in a disaster. As part of a safety meeting or at a gathering specifically designed to address disaster-planning issues, managers and employees should be asked to develop a list of tasks. For example, a list could include treating the injured, putting out a fire, reestablishing utilities, reopening the business, communicating with employees, contacting customers, and collecting documentation for insurance claims.
Managers and employees should be asked to rank those issues. For example, is treating the injured more important than making an insurance claim? The important point is to establish a process for getting information and using it to set correct priorities.
This type of drill is designed for managers but can and should involve employees. It is designed to exercise the decision-making process in a community or company. It forces management to examine certain issues such as who sets priorities, how to ensure that the right types of information are available, and which employees should be involved.
In many instances, confusion is a result of poor information sharing. What one department views as a priority might already be dealt with by another group, for example. It does not matter how the issues are cleared up, so long as it is clear who will set the priorities and employees are informed of the decisions.