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Building a capable emergency management team

Get free weekly news by e-mailJim Burtles explains how to go about building an excellent EMT.

Perhaps the single most important factor in determining the long-term success of an enterprise during a crisis is the performance of the emergency management team. It is their performance on the day rather than any procedures, plans or resources that ultimately counts. They are the ones who either recover the situation or break the company by the way in which they conduct themselves during those first few precarious minutes and hours.

What is an emergency management team (EMT)?
The Business Continuity Institute defines the EMT as ‘the group of management staff who command the resources needed to recover the enterprise's operations at the recovery site.’ I prefer to extend that concept to mean the group of executives who manage and control an emergency situation on behalf of the enterprise. In other words, these people are in charge of the destiny of the total enterprise, with all the attendant responsibility. Indeed it can be said that their influence extends beyond their own enterprise and may affect the long term success of a whole industry. It is crucial that they perform well, both as individuals and as a well-matched team.

What factors are likely to impinge upon their performance in the wake of a disaster? We are all familiar with the effects of distress, which can seriously hamper one’s ability to cope with a traumatic or stressful situation. On the other hand most of us are not quite so familiar with the effects of ‘eustress’ which is a positive reaction to the effects of stress that often occurs.

Eustress allows some individuals to excel under difficult conditions. The main point to be made here is that the range of individual coping strategies is much wider than is commonly realised.

It is very difficult to predict exactly how any one individual is going to react in any particular situation. Indeed their behaviour will be dependent upon a wide variety of factors including their state of health, their state of mind, their training, their experience their beliefs, their responsibilities etc., etc. How many of these diverse influences can we anticipate in advance of the specific event? This is especially difficult to judge, as many of these motivators are extremely variable on a daily or even hourly basis.

All kinds of reaction must therefore be expected, recognised and allowed for. More importantly, how can we prepare our team to cope with both the event and themselves?

I suggest we should adopt a combination of careful selection, thorough training and appropriate tools for the job.

Misfit management
In the wake of any exciting or dramatic incident there may be a number of people around who are ‘surplus to requirements’. There will be an odd assortment of misfits, orphans, lost souls, trespassers, opportunists and incompetents wandering around in various states of confusion and helplessness. Many of them will want to help, some more for their own benefit than to serve any truly useful purpose. They are driven by the need to participate because they feel overwhelmed by the situation and a contribution of some sort will make them feel less threatened. Unfortunately, they are probably out of their depth and unable to cope; more of a liability than an asset. These spare people must be made ‘useful’ and/or removed from the scene, without upset or offence. Such people are quite vulnerable at this time and need to be handled sensitively. It is far better to find them something innocuous to do than to refuse their help. Perhaps they can be made to feel useful in a relatively simple task at a safe distance. Maybe they can make a few phone calls to reassure other members of staff that everything is under control, or we might send them home ‘to get some rest in case we need them to relieve others at a later stage’. They could prove quite useful acting as temporary chauffeurs or security guards. In the chaos that follows a major incident there may well be a need for them to act as floor marshals, recording the movement of equipment and directing people. There are lots of simple tasks we can invent for our mutual benefit rather than discard our ‘misfits’.

The selection process should start with a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities that are to be allocated. Then it is a matter of choosing the most appropriate of those who are likely to be available. This choice will be influenced by a number of factors such as their regular position and their drive to succeed, often disguised as ambition. We also need to consider the potential mixture of personalities, personal attributes, relevant experience, communication skills and a willingness to serve in this capacity. One volunteer is worth a dozen pressed men.

Having selected the team we must then prepare them for the task.

Education, training and exercising
Our emergency managers will need to have the right set of abilities, skills and knowledge. The ability we seek is the latent capability to perform well under difficult conditions. The skill required will be practical expertise to deal with abnormal or out of line situations. Knowledge is the possession of, or access to, relevant information.

Ability can be assessed by observation or examination. Whilst ability may be enhanced by intensive training and practice it is unlikely that we can afford the time and effort to make a significant difference. It is far easier to choose those who already possess the capability to cope with an emergency situation.

Skills however can be cultivated through a reasonable amount of practice or exercise. In order to sustain a high degree of skill there is a need for regular ongoing practice or training. Fire and rescue workers who are continually exposed to critical circumstances can be expected to retain the highest level of coping skills simply because of their regular involvement. The military maintain their soldiering skills by constant drilling and training. In the commercial world we cannot expect to attain and retain such finely tuned skills. We need to have sufficient practice to be able to recognise the limits of our skills and have the wisdom to call for help from the professionals before we make things worse.

Knowledge can be acquired by study or experience; however there is little need for our team to know all there is to know. We can provide them with most of the information they require in the form of checklists, contact lists and other reference materials. Even if they were to memorise all of the available data it is unlikely that they would be able to recall it in the excitement of the moment. Traumatic situations cause dispersed attention and short term memory loss. Indeed, these are the key symptoms of trauma.

The task set
There are 4 groups of tasks, which the EMT is primarily responsible for
1. Evaluation
Resources Available
Skills Available
2. Strategic Decisions
3. Tactical Decisions
4. Damage Limitation

Our training or development programme therefore should seek to assess and monitor their abilities, enhance their skills and provide them with the knowledge they might require. Realistic, risk free, practical exercises are the obvious approach. However, to gain the full benefit they must be carefully observed and the programme adapted to fit their needs as they evolve. At the same time we need to ensure that we do have the right mix of skills, abilities and personalities. Nobody should be exempt from such a review process.
Much of the expertise in evaluation and decision making will be simply be an extension of their normal role as senior executives. The damage limitation or control aspect of the job will also come relatively natural to them as result of their overall familiarity with the business.

Management and control
The Gold, Silver and Bronze control model is commonly used by the police and other authorities and can easily be adapted for our purposes. Gold provides the high level strategic command unit, Silver is the management level operational command whilst Bronze is the functional level tactical command that may comprise more than one unit.

It provides empowerment and control in a manner that everyone can understand and respect. In the typical crisis situation Bronze Control would take charge of the actual incident area. Bronze Control would be a single point of contact, in charge of liaison, access and communications within that inner zone. Access to this region would normally be restricted to the recovery and salvage teams, together with the emergency services.

The immediate surroundings, perhaps the whole building or the whole site would come under the supervision of Silver Control. This would be another single point of contact, perhaps with a higher level of authority, in charge of liaison, access and communications within the middle zone of the incident. Typically they would be responsible for organising and controlling the essential border activities such as parking arrangements, dealing with members of staff and the public in and around the site. They would co-ordinate deliveries and supplies into and out of the site area.

Meanwhile, Gold Control would be more concerned with dealing with external interests, such as customers, the media and the authorities. This would be the highest level of corporate authority representing the company’s interests and taking full responsibility for the ongoing management of the incident. Regular communication between these three parties ensures everyone sings from the same hymn sheet and the recovery efforts are neither restricted by lack of support nor compromised by interruptions and distractions.

In an emergency situation there's no time or space for a large hierarchical command chain. Authority must be delegated to those who are in the best position to be effective. They should, therefore, possess the skills to handle the recovery. In order to be certain that this happens we need to train all those who might be called upon to serve on the EMT.

Dealing with trauma
In the wake of an emergency it is normal for people to be traumatised. Some may leave as result, IF they are not given support and or counselling. Whilst I do believe that we should recognise the need for such services to be available I do not consider this work to be the responsibility of the emergency management team. However a good debriefing in which everybody has the chance to air their views and vent their feelings is a very constructive way of providing first line support for all those who were involved or affected.

Generally the working members of the emergency management team will be far less prone to being traumatised because they will be actively rather than passively involved. The opportunity to be causative rather than the victim of circumstance is a powerful remedy for those who are in the front line of such an event. They will undoubtedly feel bad if it all goes horribly wrong but we don’t expect that to happen. After all we are going to choose them carefully, train them properly and support them effectively.

Our emergency managers will need to communicate with a wide range of interested parties, each with their own viewpoint and needs. Mostly they will need clear, relevant, comforting messages, which are both understandable and useful to them. In order to achieve this we must avoid jargon, waffle and ‘official speak’. There should be an open dialogue with absolute honesty; you cannot hide the truth it will emerge with or without your help. If it is released you have little to fear; if it escapes it will seek revenge.

An authoritative speaker, who is prepared to deal with any skeletons which might be in the cupboard, should make all communications with sympathy and compassion. Messages need to be composed carefully, based on a core of factual statements. It will do no harm to remind everyone of the ‘good news’.

Dealing with the outside world via the media or directly through our own communication lines requires a delicate touch and sound technique which can only be acquired through proper preparation and training.

Decision making
Decision making under pressure and strange circumstances is not always easy but can be learned and practised.

All the major decisions, such as whether to invoke the plan, should be based on the facts and criteria. The criteria can be agreed in advance, whilst the facts can be established at the time of the incident. All the decisions, which are made, should be recorded and adhered to without fear of countermand or retribution. This can only be achieved by making sure that the team is fully empowered to make strategic and tactical decisions, whatever the implications, and that they are working within the approved guidelines.

If these guidelines are meaningful and familiar the EMT are bound to feel comfortable in making sound judgements without debate or delay.

Tools for the job
The principal tool for the EMT is their capability - supported by a set of simple guidelines, some basic information such as contact lists and team structures. Underpinning their direction and decision making there needs to be a complete set of functional recovery plans enabling them to call for a co-ordinated, structured approach to the recovery of all the essential business functions.

Murphy’s influence
Once you have selected, trained and prepared a formidable emergency management team you will be fully prepared for an event, which probably won’t happen. The belief that you can cope is a powerful postulate that provides an impregnable defence. A suspicion of vulnerability on the other hand can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jim Burtles, FBCI, CLJ

Date: 21st January 2005 •Region: UK/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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