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Crises force people to think and behave in ways that may have been unfamiliar to them prior to a disaster. Whether it’s at work or in the community, a crisis demands that people take an emergency-response plan and adapt it as new evidence and factors present themselves.

Sometimes, it means acknowledging that plans simply don’t fit the situation you find yourself in. That’s what happened to emergency management officials on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Joe Spraggins, director of Harrison County’s emergency response program, said it was “as if an atomic bomb had hit.” The day after the storm, his team realized that 98% of their disaster response plans weren’t applicable to the devastation they faced.

A whole new plan had to be improvised, even as the natural disaster was still evolving.

The team in Mississippi had learned a key point in crisis leadership: Even the most meticulous plan could be inadequate in the face of an actual crisis. Having a plan, and reviewing it frequently, can ensure a rapid response initially. However, no amount of imagination or logic can account for every variable.

To develop skills for improvising within a crisis, keep in mind 5 lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina:

No. 1: Systems will fail. Infrastructure, technology, communication, and alert tools that seem reliable on a routine check may fail under the stress of an actual crisis. A problem that would normally seem insignificant and manageable can turn into a serious, crippling problem in an emergency.

No. 2: The picture is distorted in a crisis. Realize that everyone observing a crisis or living through it will have a different point of view. A paramedic will understand only that a hospital is overloaded; a hospital administrator will only know that the generator isn’t working. Keep in mind that no one will have a complete, accurate picture of what’s going on.

No. 3: Time is compressed. The initial onset of a crisis will present immense pressure to act – and act quickly. Sometimes moving forward or tackling a problem comes even before there’s a solid grasp of what’s happening. Understand that as the crisis moves from its beginning, urgent phase, the time pressure will ease, as will the need for split-second decisions. At that point, however, the plan must evolve into a more complex system that looks at recovery and getting things back to normal.

No. 4: Authority is limited, but it doesn’t have to be limiting. Whoever is in charge is whoever is there. Understand that organizational protocol needs to account for flexible leadership ranks during an emergency. An entire operation cannot be hamstrung because bureaucracy didn’t account for a key player being unavailable when an emergency struck.

No. 5: Be ready for new leadership to emerge. As an emergency tests the team, new expertise will be tapped. People will step up, just as others might falter.

While improvisation cannot be planned, thinking and team-building exercises can be built into a training program.

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