(This article is an excerpt from a program of crisis management developed by Gilbert, Harwell and Jones following a series of significant disasters on the Florida west coast some years ago. Time has proven these rules to be applicable in all types of disasters and community crisis, in both the public sector and the private sector for all levels of decision makers.)
The contributors to these rules included Capt. John Gilbert (USCG Base Commander), Rev. Lacy Harwell (Chaplain and CISD team leader) and Deputy Fire Chief Dan Jones (PPFD Ems Chief) at the time. We jointly identified common issues from multiple critiques of these large multi-agency incidents and community disasters. Commonality is that these are crisis that must be managed, some lasting days or weeks. So how do you know as a leader when you have a true crisis? When everyone is looking at you, the leader for direction, and nobody is making any suggestions.
The current world-wide crisis of COVID-19 virus has created challenges for leaders all up and down the leadership spectrum. Hopefully you will find these rules to be helpful as you contend with this crisis in your own community and agency.
Rule: Don’t Make it Worse
- Easier said than done.
- Nice to think the arrival of first responders or subject matter experts means everything will get better right away but it’s not always true.
- Action feels good in crisis but unthinking action is dangerous.
- Problem solving requires thought and appropriate resources.
- Slow things down enough that leaders and managers can think.
- Assessment + Plans + resources + critical thinking = mitigation and control.
Rule: Capture Control Information Flow Early as You Can
- You will be hit with overwhelming information overload, much of it not critical to the moment and much of it repetitious.
- Decipher critical and relevant info, prioritize.
- Keep people as informed as possible, there is a reason why NIMS includes Communications and Planning.
- Remember that irrational action is many times caused by lack of information.
- Information can change, be open to considering updates.
Rule: Realize You Cannot do Everything!
- This may be the hardest part for some leaders!
- Prioritization and delegation are the key, it is why triage was invented for medical emergencies.
- Let some things go that are low priority.
- Don’t waste time on things you cannot change or influence or that you don’t have the resources for.
Rule: Refuse to be Drawn into Trivia
- This can be a defense mechanism when overwhelmed, some cannot see the “big ‘picture” and will commit focus on little details or a particular issue and drag leaders into it.
- They are finding their comfort zone.
- Sticking to rules 3 and 4 will take care of 5.
Rule: Insist that Personnel Involved Get Rest
- Fatigue contributes to bad decisions, lack of focus, accidents, missed critical information, injuries and repetitive discussions and actions.
- This is especially true of command, management and key technical personnel.
- Long term crisis will wear down everyone and lead to friction.
Rule: Bring Key Organizations and People Together Often
- These situations can be long and evolve and change over time, you don’t want to allow key parts of leadership get behind the curve of what is happening.
- Progress is made or maybe not and must be acknowledged.
- Plans can and must be changed.
- Changes must be communicated.
- Keep everyone in leadership roles or operational roles on same page.
- Logistics must keep up, priorities must be coordinated.
Rule: Return to Normal Operations ASAP
- Ever notice how hard it is for responders to disengage after a major incident? Fire units hesitant to leave scene and SWAT members walking around in kit with long weapons long after threat is mitigated.
- Streets remain blocked long after the need is over.
- EOCs remain open when there is nothing really left for them to do.
- The news media and community will read emergency agencies status and government posture and senses there is still threat when there may not be.
- Maintaining a crisis level attitude in an organization is stressful and can be damaging and costly.
- Learn to recognize when it is time to stand down or move to lesser phase of mitigation of crisis and communicate that to everyone.
Rule: Keep the Boss Well Informed
- He or she can be your source of additional resources and support.
- They may be able to run “interference” for you with other groups, politicos or media. You need someone to watch your “six.”
- They can “steer” you away from potentially hazardous options that you cannot or may not see.
- They also “answer” to somebody or a constituency and don’t leave them hanging.
- There will be political, organizational and legal implications in the aftermath and you will need their support.
Rule: Insure Someone is in Charge of the Routine
- Whatever your normal service demand is, especially if you are an emergency response agency or government services, it does not go away.
- Nor does it for other groups like utilities, banks, food suppliers, hospitals, etc.
- You cannot ignore this demand or in most cases turn it off.
- Somebody’s Aunt Edna is still going to have her heart attack or somebody will set fire to their gas grill and people need food and housing.
- Cannot allow routine demand to distract from the crisis mitigation and you must reserve some resources for it and/or call for additional resources to take it over for you
Rule: Make Decisions That Allow the Most Options
- Flexibility when working through a crisis is crucial.
- Do not take “dead end” paths or directions.
- Recognize changing conditions or influences of the crisis.
- Plans and objectives must be fluid, management must be dynamic, the organization must be nimble, logistics must keep up.
- Never give up your paddles when you are up the creek!
Rule: The Lawyers Will Get into It
- If it is a true crisis there will be legal implications and follow-up.
- You the leader, everything about the crisis and decisions made will be second guessed.
- DO NOT let liability fears influence good decision making or direction but be prepared to defend what you and your organization did.
- Document key decisions and rationales for actions taken.
- Keep timelines of events and actions.
- Use your plans and procedures, do not freelance.
- Keep good relations with your own attorneys prior to crisis and consult with them during but do not allow attorneys to make operational decisions for you.
Rule: Know the Resources You Will Depend Upon
- Don’t wait until you are neck deep in a crisis to know what resources you will depend upon, survey resources available to you ahead of time.
- Keep the 72-hour rule at a minimum for self-reliance in a disaster, regional planning, cooperation and resources.
- State and federal assistance takes time, as does hiring outside professional or logistical assistance in any type of crisis. Consider that in planning and consider contingency contracts for services or resources needed.
Rule: As Crisis Winds Down, Expect Delayed Stress Reactions in Your Organization and the Community
- This can and will occur in political leaders, commanders, responders, support staff, and others.
- Including but not limited to sudden emotional reactions, depression, performance issues, health issues, sleep disorders, personality changes, damaged confidence levels, etc.
- Very important to use critical incident stress debriefs and mental health professionals early in crisis and continuing.
- Turnover and employee problems are a real possibility in aftermath.
- Community relations and linkages may have to be rebuilt or repaired.
Final Rule: Always Hold Multi-Agency Critique and Review Sessions After the Crisis is Over
- So important to learn from both successes and mistakes.
- Sharing information with partner agencies builds cooperation.
- It helps to understand exactly what happened and why.
- Assemble timelines and build a complete file.
- Be as transparent as legally possible.
- Attorneys may try to prevent you from doing it due to pending legal actions.
- Make sure plans, resources and training are updated as a result.
There are no “sure-fire” procedures or practices for every potential crisis but these rules have proven to be useful and practical for a variety of agencies and events. #crisiscommunication #COVID-19 #crisismanagement #fireleadership #firechief #leadership #executiveleadership
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