Coping with civic disaster

HR directors who have a clear strategy for coping with civic disasters can
help limit the damage – and hone leadership skills in their organisation at the
same time, by Helen Vandevelde, Talent management consultant

If you want to discover how effective a leader you really are, just find
yourself an emergency to manage. It does not matter whether it is a fire, a
flood or a terrorist attack, you will not find a spotlight that exposes your
strengths and weaknesses more glaringly. Yet emergencies throw up leadership
tests at every level of an organisation. It is this, rather than their rarity,
that makes emergencies unique organisational events.

Donald Norrie, county emergency planning officer with Cumbria County
Council, says the ability to deal with an emergency has nothing to do with your
place in the hierarchy. He once upset a chief officer (outside Cumbria) who
asked him what role he would suggest to her in an emergency. "I told her
it depended on her strengths and weaknesses."

Planning and training for emergencies has been a long tradition in the
public sector by virtue of its statutory status. But the private sector, too,
is taking the issue more seriously, especially since 11 September 2001. Many
companies ask for advice from local authority emergency planning units.

In terms of planning, there is a temptation to develop a set of procedures for
every eventuality. That just clogs the organisation up with the bureaucratic
superglue. "We don’t plan for plagues of frogs and locusts," says

Effective management of emergencies relies on people who can improvise, but
from within a role allocated to them specifically for the purpose. For example,
because several agencies are dealing with an emergency, communication between
them is critically important. So you need people who can take and pass on
messages reliably. Another group needs to deal with external enquiries.

Human resources managers are at the heart of maintaining staff morale and
welfare. Some staff are unable to cope with the role assigned to them. They
need to be spotted quickly and put onto maintaining essential services.
Personnel managers take the initiative in reorganising work patterns. People
have to convert to shift patterns to maintain 24/7 cover. Backfilling has to be

Other staff push themselves too hard. They need to be told to rest between
emergency shifts. Their stress levels needs to be monitored and some staff will
feel a sense of bereavement as a consequence of, for example, their classroom
being gutted by fire, or by the distress shown by bereaved relatives. Some may
need specialised counselling support for the trauma they have suffered.

The main difference between the public and the private sector, is that the
work of the public sector goes on for much longer and has a wider geographical
impact. The private sector focuses on immediate business issues such as
maintaining continuity of service or manufacture. The public sector has to
repair the damage done to communities.

A number of companies offer to take on outsourced emergency planning
services, but this option has its drawbacks. Alan Brand, director of hotel and
estate services at Henley Management College, says: "You need to have
intimate knowledge of your own operation. This isn’t something that someone
else can do for you.

"And it goes well beyond evacuating a building. Communicating with key
stakeholders and managing the media are vital too, as are salvage. document
recovery. systems recovery. and business continuity. The training for
emergencies is thorough too. We got Buckinghamshire County Council in to help
us. We accessed all the tools, models and floorplans and we ran a simulated
table-top exercise using a credible scenario. All participants got real value
from the exercise."

Training is essential when it comes to honing crisis management skills.
Competent and confident people are usually good at exercising leadership in a
crisis, but they have to work collaboratively – this is not the place for Bruce
Willis heroics.

We all know about volunteer firefighters who create their own bush fires to
get the credit for putting them out. Disciplinary procedures do not go into the
deep freeze during emergencies. Personnel managers have to deal with
attention-seeking individuals who may exacerbate the crisis in just to give
themselves a platform to act as heroes.

Most training is based on simulations. The challenge, as Cumbria’s Norrie
points out, is preparing people for things they have never seen in their lives.

"We do it on the basis of the kinds of roles that are needed in an
emergency: people ready to sift and collate information and, if necessary, pass
it into the public domain; dealing with the media; operating helplines – and
knowing how to deal with members of the public who are quite naturally very
upset and often angry; and running a reception centre."

Managing a reception centre is not as straightforward as it sounds.
"People have different priorities," Norrie recalls. "Some insist
on taking their rabbits or Rottweilers along with them. Others come home blind
drunk from the pub impervious to the fact that their house has been burned
down. We get drug users suffering withdrawal. You need to know how to manage an
interesting social mix." n

Helen Vandevelde delivers conference and in-house programmes on talent

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