In Emergency Preparedness, Timing is Everything

Closing and locking the barn door does not make very much sense if the horses have already bolted.  That bit of farm-life wisdom illustrates our point for today – the importance of timing when developing emergency safety and security plans.

The operative word when it comes to emergency preparations is…“emergency.”  Whether one calls it a crisis, a contingency, or just Plan B – the point is this:  time becomes a precious commodity in the midst of an emergency.  Emergencies have a unique way of challenging conventional wisdom, conventional procedures, and conventional mind-sets.  Nothing goes as planned.  The time for contemplation, committees, and navel-gazing is before the horses have bolted from the barn or the hurricane slams onshore.

It seems obvious that the simple concept of advance preparation would be a key element of corporate security and safety management.  In reality…not so much.  A lot of lip service gets paid to this principle, but more often than not it gets pushed down the chain of command to middle-management, who often do not have time, or buy-in and cooperation from their bosses, for what the nuts-and-bolts of emergency planning and preparation requires.  What is that, exactly?  In a nutshell, it means examining the operational dynamic of your organization through the prism of crisis.  Put building blocks such as power (as in energy), communications, management approval, shelter, and information technology on the table and then – one by one – remove them.  Then ask “what if?”  This exercise must be done when you have the luxury of time to analyze the impact.  In the midst of a crisis, there is nothing worse than someone who decides that is the time to reflect, contemplate, and analyze.  All that needs to have been worked out in advance.   Depending on the size of your organization, emergency planning could entail everything from a small regional facility with readily identifiable threats from weather or otherwise, to a vast, global enterprise that can be rocked by political, economic, weather, cyber, or any number of other threats from without that have adverse impacts of governments themselves.  Developing a plan to prepare for such a wide range of issues is no small task.

Girding your organization for crisis means identifying these threats, the chinks in your organization’s armor, developing processes and procedures for addressing weaknesses, and – most importantly – testing the plan and keeping it current!   Failure to perform evacuation drills, tests of the generator under-load, or other measures, simply means you have to put faith in an untested plan.  Speaking from experience, when the actual emergency hits, untested plans can quickly become professional embarrassment and humiliation.   More ominously, one’s most precious resource – people – can be put at great risk.

Think of it this way:  a good emergency plan is an honest nod towards the plain fact that no matter the IQ level of the geniuses that populate your company’s ranks, when the actual crisis occurs, brain power is acutely challenged, and rational, calm thinking goes out the window.  Anyone who has been through a few crises, knows this for a fact.  What will compound this problem is if a limited number of managers at the lower level are actually prepared, but do not have the horsepower in terms of decision-making or executive action to override brain-freeze on the part of senior managers who are not prepared.  This kind of gridlock can and does happen, and is one of the most important reasons for senior management buy in on emergency planning, and testing and drills at all levels before, not after the fact.

Organizations that take a proactive approach and make plans when times are calm will be the best prepared when a disaster strikes (and its important to note that we said when and not if.) Effective crisis planners toss out the idea that disasters are anything but inevitable.  In calm times, these plans should be reviewed at least annually to make sure that the policies and procedures are still relevant and the information contained in the plan is still accurate.  If a crisis is on the horizon, stepping up the pace of plan reviews, tabletops, drills, and testing needs to happen on a foreshortened basis.  Everyone needs to be on board.  Don’t wait until the storm is ashore to talk about preparations.  Then it is just too late.