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November 01, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is


So now he writes about hurricanes! Why didn’t the HR Doctor write about the role of local governments in the management of disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, before now, rather than after four of the monsters have eaten Florida and other parts of the southeast?

Part of the answer to that is that it is hard to write an article while standing in line at Home Depot trying to buy plywood. It’s also a subject we, as individuals, generally would rather not focus on. Finally, actually going through several disaster management scenarios results in an important wake-up call to demonstrate once again the critical importance in our lives of work done by local government.

In his three-decade career in public service at the county and city level, the HR Doctor has been involved in emergency command post work probably a dozen times. It is never fun. It is generally extremely boring most of the time. However, almost always, emergency management work in times of real disasters brings out the best, the most caring, the most heroic and the most sacrificing sides of public administrators.

Our colleagues must often enough choose between staying home with their families or spending the emergency period with their colleagues from work. Having an emergency shelter for dependents right at the Command Center or near by is one way to help mitigate those concerns and many agencies provide for that. Many others do not. The subject of organizing a shelter for dependents was discussed in another HR Doctor article, "Dependents Depending."

However, once at the Emergency Operations Center, personal emotions need to be put aside in favor of the public good. All of the organizing, rehearsing and training is put to the test, or rather, the reality, that there is now a community in jeopardy and the decisions are no longer those of a paper "tabletop" exercise.

The work is being done, not conveniently mid-morning or mid-afternoon and based on preplanned scenarios. Now the work is at 2 a.m., or on a Saturday or Sunday before dawn and the effects are real.

Here are some tips on disaster management which will work in both large and small jurisdictions.

1. This is a time to put aside bureaucratic silos (see the HR Doctor’s article "Silos are for Grains" at This is not a time when people in one department are narrowly focusing on the best interest of their particular group. There is only one team and that is the community team! Silos, for most public servants, take a back seat only to return often enough when the emergency is over. The focus on one team Ñ the community help team Ñ needs to be a persistent theme in training, preparation and evaluation.

2. The answer given to the tourist by the New York cab driver when asked "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" is just as valid in disaster management. The answer is to "practice, practice and practice!"

The best way to practice is not the method which Florida jurisdictions recently experienced. One real disaster after another makes training programs come alive. They get taken very seriously the next time. Learn from the experience of other agencies which have battled with the beast. Share ideas and information with other colleagues.

The secret to Disney cartoons and movies is the concept of "suspension of disbelief." In training scenarios, suspend the logical part of your brain, which says "this is only a drill and I am now missing lunch," and imagine that you really have a chance to make a difference in the mitigation of a real disaster.

3. Use the disaster planning scenarios to help colleagues get to know one another better. Being cooped up in rather cramped quarters overnight or perhaps for several days is a great opportunity to meet colleagues from other jurisdictions and to get to know your own coworkers in ways which are never possible in the more mundane work day settings.

4. Care for the employees on the emergency team. Ensure that their food experience is positive and memorable, notwithstanding the fact that they may be "trapped" in an emergency center for quite a while. Working under great stress for prolonged periods means that unexpected events create strong memories which are remembered for many years.

An unexpected dessert, a table or two set with a linen tablecloth, flowers and candles in the middle of a disaster helps break the tension and gives staff members something enjoyable to talk about rather than just stare endlessly and hypnotically at the Weather Channel.

5. As part of the employee safety at the Emergency Center, ensure that paramedics, security and perhaps an employee assistance program colleague are either present or readily available.

6. Before the disaster, there are a host of items to think about, including how several days’ worth of fuel for county or city vehicles will be available. Advance arrangements may be necessary with one or more local gas stations to, in effect, shut down immediately when an emergency is declared, and divert all the fuel to the public agency vehicles.

In this example, the agency "buys out" in advance the stock of the service station. Even if the organization has its own fuel tanks, there are advantages to having an extra degree of protection. The same is true of securing a supply of generators or batteries from a home improvement store. Arrangements in advance with the store manager to reserve a supply of additional chainsaws or other tools for the public works or parks crews, for example, may become essential.

7. Alternative communications methods represent a very obvious and important need. How will staff members communicate with each other if the telephones go out? What if cell phones don’t work? Communities may come up with different answers including relying on radio communication or "voice over Internet telephony." A free software program called is one of a growing number which allow the Internet to be used for telephone communication. It may be valuable back-up for other systems.

8. As difficult as a disaster scenario might be, there is an ironic "problem within a problem" when hoards of media representatives end up wanting to interview every mammal in sight to discuss their particular experience with the disaster. It is important to realize that this phenomenon is unavoidable, and arguably necessary, in our society. I’m sure than any TV personality would agree!

Provide ways as part of the planning to keep members of the media slightly less likely to annoy everybody. Regular news conferences, specific periods of time when designated officials will be available for briefings, and a designated public information officer represent approaches to try to channel the media into focusing on important information for public safety rather than on latest "film at eleven" about how the world is coming to an end.

Restrictions on roaming around the Emergency Operations Center should be gently and clearly established with the media in advance as a basic ground rule. Clearly, the emergency spokesperson for the community should be the chief elected official. They should be comfortable in their role. They, too, may find it very valuable to practice the art of conducting a briefing.

9. Notwithstanding the immediate disaster scenario, one of the most important skills that any executive can ever learn is how to be a briefing officer. That is, how do you translate a very complicated subject quickly, calmly, and accurately to a diverse audience?

10. Having community volunteers in place with enough training to be an extension of the public safety efforts of government employees can be very valuable.

Protocols exist in Fire-Rescue and Police departments to develop a cadre of citizens volunteering to be trained as CERT members. These "Community Emergency Response Team" members learn how to survey their immediate neighborhood as soon as it is safe to do so and to identify hazards such as blocked streets, downed power lines, emergency rescue needs, etc.

They are not trained to be the rescuers, but they can be vital communications links and support colleagues to smooth immediate recovery efforts.

11. Every community should have some kind of emergency hotline number. However, it is very complicated to staff an emergency phone bank in the midst of the chaos of the disaster. At some point in disasters when the winds are extremely strong, 911 responses do not occur. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the calls for help.

Having a citizen "help line" provides another way to talk one-on-one with citizens and calm some of their concerns while answering many of their questions. However, in a large urban area, the response can be overwhelming. The technology may very well fail at a critical moment, leaving the government agency to explain later why it failed to provide the advertised hotline support.

12. During most emergencies, one or more employees emerge as executive heroes. They rise to a difficult occasion and, by their calm, knowledgeable demeanor, they become leaders among their peers.

It may be a fire-rescue chief such as the HR Doctor’s wonderful colleagues, Chiefs Jim Hunt, Mel Standley and Joe Cabrera of Miramar, Fla. Almost always, someone demonstrates extraordinary positive behavior under pressure. By their conduct, every one else get through the problem. Such a person should be marked for special thanks and rewards as well as given career opportunities to grow and develop that leadership skill in other ways not directly related to an emergency.

13. One common characteristic of every crisis, large or small, personal or nationwide, is that the crisis is followed by a "search for a scapegoat." Whatever went wrong must be blamed on someone.

This universally shared personality disorder, which goes hunting for someone to blame, should be carefully watched in a community disaster scenario. It is very important to rein in scapegoating after an incident review of what occurred of the disaster and how well things went. It is equally important to recognize and thank people who worked very hard and very well.

It is also important to learn from each disaster, to constructively criticize what occurred and to take immediate steps, without waiting until the next disaster, to improve the readiness and the procedures for better mitigation in the future.

14. In a major disaster, we "get by with a little help from our friends," as John Lennon would say. There are probably mutual aid agreements between neighboring public safety organizations already in place. However, any department of a public agency should cultivate and plan for help from outside of the area from their respective colleague.

Mass transit organizations may want to send buses to help out. Public works and water and public utilities professionals from one jurisdiction will be only too happy to support their colleagues with staff and equipment. Nurses from other parts of the country may want to come and relieve the overwhelmed local medical staff members for a few shifts. Even human resources professionals are standing by ready to help Ð if only someone would call!

15. This help includes support from our federal and state friends. The caveat here in dealing with some of this help, especially from the "higher" levels of government, is that the help may come with strings. It may come with efforts to take over in a battle of the badges. There may be some citing of this or that legal precedence for incident management becoming a federal versus a local government matter.

In general, the best incident managers are those in local government. One important way to mitigate the risk of dueling badges is to establish strong and positive liaisons with federal and state agencies in advance. Take an FBI agent and a FEMA manager to lunch.

We can’t control the fury of Mother Nature’s wrath Ð even if we think we can. There are times when we can’t control out-of-control fellow humans’ poor behavior. What we can do as human beings Ñ what we must do as public servants Ñ is to borrow the Scout’s Motto of "Be prepared." We commit malpractice as an administrator if we aren’t on station and ready to control the terrible uncertainty in a community during times of major disruption.

The hurricane experience is not pleasant for any individual. Living in a high humidity, high temperature environment, perhaps without power (that means without air conditioning and refrigeration), without trash pickup and perhaps with grave concerns about property damage, only reinforces what an important link local government is to society as a whole. Hats off to those who were on the front line in facing Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne! That is, if your hat didn’t already blow away during the storms!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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