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Managing in adversity: Preparing for a crisis

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Firefighters at the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York - AFP PHOTO / FEMA / ANDREA BOOHER
Terrorist atrocities like the London bombings and natural disasters on the scale of the Tsunami are sadly part and parcel of the modern world we live in; read on to find out how to plan for the worst.




1) Planning
Disasters do happen, be they terrorist attacks, transport accidents, natural calamities, or fire, explosions and the like. Preparation starts with remote planning and much of it is common sense.

Morgan Stanley had offices in the World Trade Centre when it was hit. All but a handful of its more than 2,000 employees were safely evacuated because they had a plan – and more importantly it had been tested. Another business in the same building lost almost all of its 600 employees.

Things have changed there already of course, but the need to evacuate an office in an emergency situation remains one of the most predictable aspects of any kind of disaster.

The recent London bombings have highlighted both old and new post-disaster requirements. The most urgent is the need to know where people are, and most business premises now have a developed system for knowing who is in the building and who is not. The missing ingredient however is often to know what has happened to people once they have left the building immediately after an incident.

A newer hazard is overload of the mobile phone network following a widespread incident, especially when the use of some landlines are reserved for the emergency services.

Companies are now working out more low-tech systems of giving groups of employees responsibility for making and keeping contact with each other. Most companies also have a developed communication systems for contacting scattered employees and their families should they need it, with necessary access numbers kept offsite and arrangements whereby certain employees are made aware of the need to make their way back to the worksite or temporarily to stay away.

2) The human response
The most important person in a crisis situation is the one who is in charge or who has to take charge. An incident manager needs an exceptionally cool head, certainly not someone who can easily become emotionally involved at a personal level. The local manager, even a good manager, isn’t always the best incident manager.

He or she needs to be able to take the whole situation in at a glance, make sure that the danger, whatever it is, has passed, then do what is necessary for everyone, without being distracted by any one individual’s distress, however vociferous. The first key decision to make will often be a snap judgement whether further help is needed, and to send for it.

Quick summary for managers:
1. Think practical: who needs a taxi to get home, who needs company to get home, who needs to borrow a phone to make a call, who needs to be kept onsite for a little longer, who just needs a hot drink, who needs instructions about making contact once they get home?

2. Have a quick “what if” list handy, as well as a bulky business recovery manual.

3. Find out about individual needs. Be open. Ask questions. Be sparing with meaningless reassurance. Co-opt others into helping.

4. Don’t flap, take your time. Then be as decisive as you know how to be.

3) Post trauma psychological and counselling services
ICAS is often asked to send counsellors quickly, but that may not be the answer. What we have found to be particularly helpful is to put someone on site within two or three hours, probably a psychologist, though they will probably end up doing as much to support the local manager as talking to individuals.

The first task we give an onsite specialist is to help stabilise the whole situation. A psychologist may be the best person to do that because they are used to dealing with high levels of emotion, and because this isn’t the first critical incident they have been involved in.

Apart from such extraordinary circumstances the most immediate needs for the vast majority of those affected are for safety and protection. They need care for their physical needs, to know they are in a safe place once more, and to be back in contact with those closest to them. Anything we can do to further or accelerate meeting these needs comes before other aspects of psychological health.

After any kind of exceptional experience most people want to talk, to tell other people about it explaining the uniqueness for them, and once they feel safe again and in familiar surroundings they are ready for it.

There may be an odd one out who doesn’t want to talk. It may only be that they need more time, or are not a talkative individual. There is a tremendous opportunity for team building after such a critical incident, and the odd one out may be a problem. The one who doesn’t want to talk may be the one with greatest need. That is a time when an outsider, a counsellor, may be especially helpful.

Stephen Galliano is the Managing Director of the ICAS Group.


One Response

  1. Natural Disasters could also mean a flu pandemic
    I was recently listening to a regional director of public health pointing out that SMEs seldom plan for disaster, especially health disasters. He is expecting a global flu pandemic within the next 2/3 years, and predicted that many companies would go out of business because they wouldn’t be able to cope with the loss of three quarters of their workforce.
    There’s one to start planning for…

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