Who can you truly rely on in a crisis?

Published:  30 March, 2009

Who can you truly rely on in a crisis? Michael D Brown, former Under Secretary of Homeland Security of the US Department of Homeland Security, and Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) highlights an oft-forgotten component of multidisciplinary training exercises.

Anyone involved in crisis management, emergencyresponse or disaster preparedness has preconceivednotions of training and exercising.Immediate thoughts may include:(a) I know training and exercises are important.(b) We do training and exercises.
(c)My organisation cannot afford any more training or
exercises. (d)
What else is there to learn about training and exercises?

We’ve all heard it before. Training and exercises are integral to testing the capabilities and capacity or a first response organisation, including its processes, and its equipment. But stop and ask this question: “In the midst of a crisis whom do I rely upon the most?” All too often the focal point of training and exercises has been on procedures, communications, equipment.

But what of those co-workers, teammates, partners, volunteers, family members and others who are an integral part of the capacity to respond in a crisis? Have all these people been part of the exercise?
Do all members of the team know whom they can rely upon in a crisis?
In the midst of the crisis, when all of the procedures and equipment are strained to the breaking point, what keeps the response together?

The leaders and team members
Sometimes those leaders and your team are not necessarily your co-workers or partners, but rather those influential people around you that can provide direction and guidance when all else is straining to the point of potential failure. In multidisciplinary response, those leaders can be executives in the private sector, community leaders in areas not affected by the crisis, or even professional or personal contacts who can provide the kind of insight, wisdom and perspective in the midst of a crisis.
Before continuing to read through this discussion of a forgotten component of training and exercises, consider this question:

Name those individuals that you can unequivocally count on to give you honest, insightful and helpful advice in the midst of a crisis.
Some people will name two or three people. Others may think of a dozen or more. And, many of us will continue to ponder just who will truly give us honest, insightful and helpful advice without regard to personal feelings, agendas, working relationships or other impediments to honest advice.
During a major disaster, the network of procedures, processes, equipment and people we rely upon are also affected, often in different and unseen ways. Yet, for some reason we fail to train and exercise those relationships. Failure to do so can result in a breakdown of the very network that so many of us in the emergency services rely upon when we response.
The failure to recognise the importance of this network of leadership can result in a breakdown of a well oiled, functioning response to a disaster or crisis. The breakdown of the personal network in a crisis renders ineffective or, at worse, ineffective and useless, all of those procedures and processes we rely upon in an emergency.
This breakdown in a network of leadership occurred during Hurricane Katrina. Not only did many of the procedures and processes fail, but the supporting networks of the leaders broke down during this major event as well.
On a personal level, the network failure compounded the problems when the processes and procedures were overwhelmed by the crisis itself. Couple these two factors with the collapse of the personal and professional network, which is relied upon by top leadership in the midst of a crisis and the result is a dysfunctional response to the crisis.
Many first responders, business leaders and others may derisively dismiss the concept of a leadership network as essential in the midst of a crisis. Others may mistakenly assume that they can always rely upon their professional and personal relationships to come to their aid in the midst of a crisis. And, many times one hears leaders in business and government assure their shareholders or constituents that the “workforce supporting our operations is the best and will always be available to respond to a crisis.”
Be assured, crises can overcome and overwhelm the most solid and experienced personal and professional networks.
Yet there is a widespread failure to recognise both the importance of these networks and the necessary training and exercising of these networks.
In warfare there is an accepted standard that you want “someone you trust in the foxhole with you.” But until you’ve been in the foxhole with that person - or the network - you truly do not know how they will respond, or what their limitations are, or the limits of their resilience in the midst of crisis.
Stress, physical and mental, can severely cripple a network. Lack of confidence, lack of training, or lack of leadership can cause a network to collapse under the strain of crisis.
In the midst of Hurricane Katrina many within the network of leadership at the state, local and federal level became incapacitated because of the stresses and, in some cases, the collapse of the supporting network. If a press secretary is overwhelmed by the crisis, communications suffer. If a chief of staff is overcome by stress, decision-making can be fragmented. Or, if a leader or decision-maker becomes overwhelmed by the stress, whether from the crisis itself or from the disintegration of the supporting network of staff and support personnel, leadership can suffer.
How do we prepare for the collapse of the decision-making process that might occur in the midst of a crisis?
First, as leaders in crisis management, disaster preparedness and emergency management, we must acknowledge and recognise the importance of these formal and informal networks that support emergency procedures and processes. All too often it is too uncomfortable for first responders, or business leaders, to recognise that personal and professional networks are essential to the success of any response to a crisis.
Second, leaders must recognise and acknowledge that training and exercises designed to improve skills to adapt, improvise and utilise personal and professional networks must be an integral component of their training and exercise curriculum. Leaders cannot ignore the human component inherent in responding to any crisis in business or government.
Third, those networks that comprise the human capital of our procedures and processes must see that their leadership recognises the importance and critical nature of the personal component of networks. Those personal and professional networks must themselves recognise their importance in helping their leaders respond during times of crisis.
Strengthening your network
Learn about emergency resource providers (formal and informal, governmental and private): • Emergency resource provision: who is really in the network? • Emergency resource provision: who needs to be in the network?

Learn which emergency network links and protocols are inadequate: • Emergency preparedness consultation: create an emergency network and make it an integral part of the response procedures.

• Emergency preparedness consultation: create emergency protocols to strengthen and utilise the network in crisis.

Learn the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on your network’s behaviour and reliability: • Resource allocation network effectiveness training: predict and manage PTSD-induced network behaviour; • Facilitation and coaching: Raise the relational capacity of resource allocation networks.

About your agency and organisation: Identify key gaps in the ability of your agency or business to function in a crisis environment: • Build consensus for and upgrade your key management and your informal network and structure to increase your business’ and organisation’s agility during crisis; • Build consensus for and implement crisis management protocols to increase your organisation’s business’ agility during crisis. Learn the effects of PTSD on your business’ behaviour and reliability: • Organisation crisis effectiveness training: predict and manage PTSD-induced business behaviour

• Facilitation and coaching: raise the relational capacity of your people during crisis. About your leadership teams: Learn the effects of PTSD on your key teams’ behaviour and reliability: • Crisis leadership team effectiveness training: predict and manage PTSD-induced team behaviour

• Facilitation and coaching: raise the relational capacity of key teams. About your leaders: Learn the effects of PTSD on your key leaders’ behaviour and reliability: • Crisis leadership effectiveness training: predict and manage PTSD-induced leadership behaviour

• Facilitation and coaching: Raise the relational capacity of key leaders. This training, provided by experienced and professional practitioners, can strengthen that professional and personal network so that in times of crisis, leadership, the community, the constituents, the owners, the shareholders - whatever the audience - can have confidence that training and exercises not only produced effective procedures, but produced and strengthened effective leadership. An important component of leadership is recognising the importance of these personal and professional relationships and their key to a successful response to a crisis.

A program of simulation, of “shock and awe” about the stresses placed on a leader’s network and the stress placed on those who are part of the network, is essential to recognising the strengths and weaknesses of the network. Such a simulation also provides the network with a roadmap to strengthening and tightening the network.

  • Operation Florian

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