The H.R. Doctor Is
now he writes about hurricanes! Why didnt 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. Its 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
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
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,
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.
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
1. This is a time to put
aside bureaucratic silos (see the HR Doctors article "Silos
are for Grains" at http://www.hrdr.net/).
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!"
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 dont work?
Communities may come up with different answers including
relying on radio communication or "voice over Internet
telephony." A free software program called skype.com is
one of a growing number which allow the Internet to be used
for telephone communication. It may be valuable back-up for
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. Im sure than any TV personality would
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
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
10. Having community
volunteers in place with enough training to be an extension of
the public safety efforts of government employees can be very
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
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 doesnt stop the calls for
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
may be a fire-rescue chief such as the HR Doctors 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
cant control the fury of Mother Natures wrath Ð even if we
think we can. There are times when we cant 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 Scouts Motto of "Be prepared." We commit
malpractice as an administrator if we arent on station and
ready to control the terrible uncertainty in a community
during times of major disruption.
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 didnt already
blow away during the storms!
The HR Doctor