Responding to disasters is one of the most important activities that employees can be asked to grapple with. From natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes to technological situations such as power outages, chemical spills and transportation accidents, as well as security emergencies like acts of terrorism and mass shootings, a property should be prepared for any of these. The metric for success in a disaster response is not the detail of the plans or the usefulness of the equipment. It’s the level of employee empowerment that makes all the difference. Employees must go beyond being just bystanders who are told what to do. They must be transformed into emergency responders capable of activating themselves and leading in the instant a disaster strikes.
Currently, most property disaster plans expressly hand off leadership responsibility of a disaster response to management. This would seem the most logical way of handling it; however, in practice, this leaves a property underprepared. Disasters can be sudden events that either leave managers injured, or unavailable through traditional communication devices. When disaster plans require a manager to approve a certain immediate disaster activity like initiating a basic evacuation or crisis communication method or explicitly state that managers must perform it, they immediately convert employees into useless bystanders.
Disaster plans should be immediately rewritten so that staff are able to conduct any immediate response activity surrounding evacuation/shelter-in-place/lockdown without the need of a manager. All manager titles and proper names should be removed from disaster protocols so that any employee can perform any action without any kind of permission required.
Disaster Equipment, Supplies and Technology (EST) has long been considered a critical element in any property preparedness program. However, in most instances, EST have actually made properties less prepared. This is either because staff are not authorized to use them without permission of management, and/or they are inaccessible to staff. This goes way beyond the first aid kits or AED defibrillators. It also includes disaster equipment like search and rescue tools, emergency food and water, and critical use supplies like flashlights, rope and PPE masks. Many properties also have specialized emergency communication mobile apps and expensive technology on which they rely. Ironically, this is what makes them not prepared because it shifts the dependency on equipment to do activities that, if they were not available, could not be performed by staff or management.
To be effective, disaster EST must be specifically tailored to your employees. It should sync up perfectly with your disaster plan. For instance, if your plan doesn’t include search and rescue, then don’t put those supplies in your bags. Technology should also be used sparingly in a disaster. But when it is utilized by a property, employees should have complete access to it, know the passwords, and how to effectively perform the process of sending messages or otherwise activating it.
Training and drills are the most important elements of a disaster program. They are more important than disaster plans and EST combined. This is because the way a workforce is trained and drilled will not only reinforce the behaviors necessary in a disaster, but also exposes the strengths and weaknesses of your program overall. The problem is that most training is actually too detailed. Going through earthquake or wildfire procedures point by point is boring and unnecessary. No one is going to remember it, and it detracts from information that is really necessary for employees to act during a disaster. Drills are equally as useless because most times, employees are converted into bystanders while managers do everything and simply bark instructions at staff. This is not conducive to real situations when staff can be incredibly valuable members of a disaster team.
Redesign your training and drills so that line employees are the stars. Training should focus on leadership ability and the basic steps in a disaster response and where to find the information they will need for more in-depth procedures. In fact, this should be reinforced with drills in which managers are made to stand on the side, and staff instructed to perform an entire disaster drill without management participation. This will give an accurate way to assess their readiness. It will also reinforce individual initiative and responsibility so anyone can put together an impromptu emergency team. That is how you turn bystander employees into emergency team members who can work for you in any disaster.
Whether you run a large or small property, with 5 or 500 employees, it is critical that each team member be prepared not to respond to a disaster, but to actually organize a disaster team. It is more than just red binders, written plans, fancy equipment and an expensive communication mobile app. It’s about empowering staff to act with authority and lead during a disaster. If you don’t, you will turn them into bystanders who not only are excluded as part of the solution – they become part of the problem.
Patrick Hardy is founder and CEO of Hytropy Disaster Management™, the largest full-service small business disaster management company in the US. A Certified Emergency Manager® and a Master Business Continuity Professional®, in 2012 he was selected as the National Private Sector Representative to FEMA. His book, Design Any Disaster, will be published in March 2023 by Benbella Books. To talk about your next event, visit americasdisasterplanner.com.
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