No one likes to think of an emergency occurring while he or she is on the job, at school, on an airplane or a freeway, or in a shopping center. Unfortunately, emergencies occur at the least opportune times! While crisis management in most cases deals with business related scenarios, it also has an important place in public response to natural disasters and unexpected events, such as train accidents, toxic waste spills, and unfortunately, shooters.
Dealing with emergency response situations means taking the time to plan, practice, and implement various responses in such situations. It is not enough to come up with one idea to deal with an emergency. Emergency response scenarios require a variety of possibilities and solutions that may occur during any crisis, whether at a business, school, or hospital.
The mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, provides another example of an individual opening fire on unsuspecting coworkers and strangers. Were warning signs of an unstable personality missed? Were warnings by former classmates, coworkers, or supervisors ignored?
At what point do we scoff or shrug our shoulders or take serious action that may be considered an overreaction? It is not an easy decision to make. It never has been and will not be in the future.
Emergency responses may be developed through brainstorming sessions in a variety of scenarios. For example, teachers, teacher aides, school administrators, and staff can meet once a month and come up with options for possible circumstances that may be dangerous or unwelcome in a school environment.
The plan of action for dealing with an irate parent during a parent-teacher conference will be different from the potential actions taken during a fire drill, an earthquake, or a tornado warning.
What can school officials do to help reduce the chances of a student or adult walking onto campus with a weapon? The experience of students, adults, parents, and staff from Columbine to Virginia Tech still haunt and resonate through society. Have lessons been learned from these incidents? Have school officials taken the proper steps to ensure that such situations do not happen in their schools?
Unfortunately, complacency and the attitude of "it can't happen here" flow against the possibility of creating viable and effective emergency responses.
A hospital is struck by a sudden power outage. How will such a crisis be dealt with? Are generators in place? Have designated personnel within the hospital and each department been instructed on how to calm the fears of patients and other staff members in such a situation? Have steps been taken to ensure that patients on vital life support systems are protected?
Not too many years ago, the failure of nursing home administrators to evacuate their elderly patients just prior to Hurricane Katrina resulted in the loss of 35 lives. According to reports, the administration had an evacuation plan but decided to disregard the warnings and urgings of local officials to evacuate the area, instead opted to remain in place for the duration, figuring they had weathered prior hurricanes successfully.
In other cases, how many times have coworkers or friends in a factory, office, or organization heard repeated grumblings and threats by employees, former employees, or disgruntled coworkers and decided to ignore them? It is easy to do. After all, everyone is in a bad mood once in a while.
Where is the line between shrugging off potential warning signs and taking steps to delve deeper? Do we become a society that overreacts to every comment or gesture? It is a difficult question to answer and depends on any given situation, circumstance, and individual.
How would you handle the potential damage at a hospital upon discovery that a surgical team removed the wrong leg of a patient? Do you ignore the media? Do you make arrangements to immediately settle with the patient? Do you hold a press conference, admit culpability and responsibility, and go from there?
Developing an emergency response plan does not mean that individuals have to wait for a severe crisis to react. What would you do if your company found out that company accounts had been breached? Do you notify account holders? The police? Do you launch an internal investigation? Do you keep it quiet until you gather more information, or do you disseminate information immediately and warn account holders of what has happened?
Dealing with Disasters
Dealing with disasters requires focus on the outcome. The first priority in disaster situations is to preserve and ensure the safety of human life. Evacuation plans, shelters, and ample warning systems must be in place in disaster prone areas such as those affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes.
Fire evacuation plans should be available, practiced, and understood in all public facilities, including public libraries, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and the local coffee shop.
Developing "what if" scenarios is one of the best ways for individuals or crisis management teams to anticipate possible reactions and consequences from a variety of situations. Individuals should be able to talk through and practice such responses to determine obstacles that hinder success of the response.
It is not enough to practice one evacuation plan. Have two or three. Contingency plans should offer alternatives and explore a variety of consequences. Understanding the basic responses of individuals in an emergency will be extremely helpful in the development of such plans.
Common Crisis Management Plan Weaknesses
Remember that a crisis management team is designed to deal with unexpected events or sequences of events, occurrences, or emergencies that may have specific or wide ranging consequences. In some cases, there is nothing a crisis management team can do to prevent a crisis, such as a natural disaster. However, because no two crisis management plans are alike, team members should be aware of the most common weaknesses found in many plans.
While some weaknesses may be reduced or eliminated with experience, practice, and exposure, some may be identified only after a crisis has been dealt with and individuals can look back and determine which aspects of the crisis plan worked and which did not.
Nevertheless, knowing the basic reasons a crisis management plan may fail or hinder successful resolution of the situation will help crisis management team members avoid those situations whenever possible.
While it will be impossible to identify every potential weakness of a crisis plan, some weaknesses may be more obvious. Some of the most common include:
- Failure to adequately collect information or data and to plan around it. This aspect of crisis management planning includes determining potential hazards or crisis situations, analyzing them, and designing or creating a variety of responses. Information required may include company policy procedures, information regarding the organization, and regulatory rules and laws enacted by state or federal mandates.
- Failure to establish a command hierarchy or structure. For example, addressing an emergency or crisis in an elementary school requires approaches different from those taken in a nuclear power plant. Trying to fit a generic emergency response tactic to inappropriate scenarios is useless. Every entity should devise its own crisis response according to the facility, industry, population, and organizational structure. Likewise, a hospital evacuation plan will contain components that are different from those organized by a preschool, small business, shopping mall, or high rise building. Crisis management team members must focus on their specific company or organization as they devise their crisis response.
- Inability to clearly designate team or organizational responsibilities. Inability to provide clear procedures and information regarding an individual team member's specific duties, tasks, or functions in an emergency situation will create indecision, confusion, and an inability to perform at optimal levels. Identifying responsibilities and expectations is an important and vital aspect of team management and should be reviewed regularly to ensure that every team member knows exactly what are his or her job functions and responsibilities.
- Inability to effectively communicate with outside community members. Those members include emergency services, such as hospitals, police, and fire departments. An emergency plan should designate to where individuals should be evacuated. It should identify support organizations and make contact information available so they are alerted immediately and without question. Designating a specific individual and a backup individual to be responsible for contacting primary off site agencies in emergency situations helps streamline response time and effectiveness.
- Failure to consistently update and practice contingency plans. It's one thing to have a plan on paper, but if individuals, including the response team, have never practiced several potential scenarios, the plan may be worthless. It is one thing to devise crisis responses to meet regulatory requirements, but failing to practice them or put them into action is careless. Continued evaluation, updates of materials, exchange of materials, and contact numbers should be readily available and provided to all crisis management team members, along with supervisors, managers, and upper management personnel. All should practice elements in the plan on a regular basis to ensure compliance.
- Failure to make crisis information easily understandable, accessible, and implementable. Every individual on a crisis management team should be clear about his or her job duties and responsibilities. Materials should be easy to read and to use. In some cases, a quick reference guide during emergency situations should be readily available to all team members, department managers, and supervisors. Even more important is adequate training in the implementation of emergency or contingency plans.
Regular reports and meetings on crisis management preparedness can prevent confusion. Senior staff members, supervisors, and boards of directors should meet relatively often with crisis management teams to discuss preparedness for a wide range of scenarios.
Crisis management is more than cheap talk and empty promises. It means making decisions, having ongoing discussions, and including all levels of personnel whenever possible. Practice makes perfect. It is essential to have a contingency plan and ideas about responding to a variety of emergencies. Failing to practice such plans is foolhardy.
While the crisis management plan weaknesses listed above are certainly not all of the weaknesses found in many plans, they are the most common. Crisis management team members need to meet regularly to determine potential contingency plans, as well as potential outcomes or consequences if things do not go right.
It is not all doom and gloom. Proper preparation may help save not only human life but millions of dollars in revenue and the reputations of corporations who live by the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared."