Coping with civic disaster

first_imgCoping with civic disasterOn 1 Mar 2003 in Personnel Today HR directors who have a clear strategy for coping with civic disasters canhelp limit the damage – and hone leadership skills in their organisation at thesame time, by Helen Vandevelde, Talent management consultantIf you want to discover how effective a leader you really are, just findyourself an emergency to manage. It does not matter whether it is a fire, aflood or a terrorist attack, you will not find a spotlight that exposes yourstrengths and weaknesses more glaringly. Yet emergencies throw up leadershiptests 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 CountyCouncil, says the ability to deal with an emergency has nothing to do with yourplace in the hierarchy. He once upset a chief officer (outside Cumbria) whoasked him what role he would suggest to her in an emergency. “I told herit depended on her strengths and weaknesses.” Planning and training for emergencies has been a long tradition in thepublic sector by virtue of its statutory status. But the private sector, too,is taking the issue more seriously, especially since 11 September 2001. Manycompanies ask for advice from local authority emergency planning units. In terms of planning, there is a temptation to develop a set of procedures forevery eventuality. That just clogs the organisation up with the bureaucraticsuperglue. “We don’t plan for plagues of frogs and locusts,” saysNorrie. Effective management of emergencies relies on people who can improvise, butfrom within a role allocated to them specifically for the purpose. For example,because several agencies are dealing with an emergency, communication betweenthem is critically important. So you need people who can take and pass onmessages reliably. Another group needs to deal with external enquiries. Human resources managers are at the heart of maintaining staff morale andwelfare. Some staff are unable to cope with the role assigned to them. Theyneed to be spotted quickly and put onto maintaining essential services.Personnel managers take the initiative in reorganising work patterns. Peoplehave to convert to shift patterns to maintain 24/7 cover. Backfilling has to beorganised. Other staff push themselves too hard. They need to be told to rest betweenemergency shifts. Their stress levels needs to be monitored and some staff willfeel a sense of bereavement as a consequence of, for example, their classroombeing gutted by fire, or by the distress shown by bereaved relatives. Some mayneed specialised counselling support for the trauma they have suffered. The main difference between the public and the private sector, is that thework of the public sector goes on for much longer and has a wider geographicalimpact. The private sector focuses on immediate business issues such asmaintaining continuity of service or manufacture. The public sector has torepair the damage done to communities. A number of companies offer to take on outsourced emergency planningservices, but this option has its drawbacks. Alan Brand, director of hotel andestate services at Henley Management College, says: “You need to haveintimate knowledge of your own operation. This isn’t something that someoneelse can do for you. “And it goes well beyond evacuating a building. Communicating with keystakeholders and managing the media are vital too, as are salvage. documentrecovery. systems recovery. and business continuity. The training foremergencies is thorough too. We got Buckinghamshire County Council in to helpus. We accessed all the tools, models and floorplans and we ran a simulatedtable-top exercise using a credible scenario. All participants got real valuefrom the exercise.” Training is essential when it comes to honing crisis management skills.Competent and confident people are usually good at exercising leadership in acrisis, but they have to work collaboratively – this is not the place for BruceWillis heroics. We all know about volunteer firefighters who create their own bush fires toget the credit for putting them out. Disciplinary procedures do not go into thedeep freeze during emergencies. Personnel managers have to deal withattention-seeking individuals who may exacerbate the crisis in just to givethemselves a platform to act as heroes. Most training is based on simulations. The challenge, as Cumbria’s Norriepoints 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 anemergency: people ready to sift and collate information and, if necessary, passit into the public domain; dealing with the media; operating helplines – andknowing how to deal with members of the public who are quite naturally veryupset 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 insiston taking their rabbits or Rottweilers along with them. Others come home blinddrunk from the pub impervious to the fact that their house has been burneddown. We get drug users suffering withdrawal. You need to know how to manage aninteresting social mix.” n Helen Vandevelde delivers conference and in-house programmes on talentmanagement Related posts:No related photos. Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Articlelast_img

Leave a Reply