Emergency Response as Applied Leadership

Stephen Burgess

By Stephen Burgess
EOC Supervisor, Fireside Partners Inc

Posted on June 6, 2023
Female manager leading a business lecture.

The task of responding to an emergency is a daunting one. The organization has already experienced harm or a severe threat to its personnel, equipment and reputation because of the emergency, and a poorly run response can bring further damage to one or all those areas. Confronted with this pressure, the sense of urgency inherent with emergencies and an onslaught of new and rapidly changing information, nerves tend to run high, and acuity drops significantly.

In this state of decreased cognition, and as the complexities and challenges of the response grow, a sort of “death spiral” of stress and reduced performance can set in. It may result in analysis paralysis and key individuals or teams becoming overwhelmed and unable to complete necessary response tasks.

Beyond the “Perfect” Response Plan

For an answer to these challenges, many organizations look to their emergency response plan (ERP). Much thought and attention are given to whether the plan addresses all likely scenarios the organization may encounter, whether it is sufficiently detailed and actionable, whether all key stakeholders have defined roles and responsibilities and other matters of structure and content. Many organizations also bring in outside parties to review and audit their ERPs, in theory further ensuring their efficacy as a response tool.

However, even with a “perfect” response plan, many organizations still struggle. No matter how comprehensive the ERP, real-life situations rarely align well with the preconceived scenarios that most plans are written around. Further, even the most-prepared companies rarely review or test their response plans more than once a year. Consequently, when faced with using the plan in a real-life scenario, most stakeholders have a low level of familiarity and muscle memory and spend much of their time getting reacquainted with the plan, searching for the appropriate checklists and forms and so on.

As a result, many organizations take one of two tracks. Some abandon the ERP entirely and end up formulating their response strategy on the run, often with disastrous results. Others become completely engrossed in navigating and using their ERP and lose sight of the bigger picture, missing key developments and roadblocks in the process.

Other organizations look to training for the solution to these challenges. They run regular emergency response drills and go to great lengths to increase their realism and difficulty. This may involve:

  • Having third-party providers come in to present the scenario and facilitate the exercise
  • Running drills after business hours and with no prior notice
  • Hiring trained role-players to serve as victims’ family members or as news reporters
  • Bringing in simulated aircraft wreckage and volunteers with moulage kits

Even these organizations tend to struggle in emergencies. They find the procedures they practiced while responding to simulated aircraft accidents aren’t of much use when responding to a real-life hangar fire. They find that responding under planned conditions in a conference room on a Tuesday afternoon is dramatically different than responding late at night on a Sunday while on travel, huddled over a laptop in a dark hotel room.

They find that one or more key decision-makers are involved in the emergency and cannot assist with the response. They find that their good intentions to take care of the people involved, protect their brand name and participate in the investigation are just that—intentions—and turning them into reality is a much more difficult endeavor.

The Key to an Effective Emergency Response: Leadership

The true solution to all these challenges is found in one word: leadership. Emergency response, at its core, is applied leadership.

If you analyze a company’s response to an emergency, you’ll ultimately find that all the following traits and behaviors are pivotal in determining the outcome:

  • Building and leveraging personal and organizational preparedness
  • Rapidly gathering data, evaluating its accuracy and determining potential impacts
  • Exercising tactical and strategic decision-making under pressure
  • Setting the tone
  • Managing expectations
  • Maintaining a focused and productive atmosphere
  • Upholding professional and organizational values under duress
  • Taking care of your team, your customers and their families
  • Communicating clearly and effectively

It’s no coincidence that these same traits and behaviors are covered at length in any decent leadership textbook. Most organizations struggle in emergencies, although not with their specific tools and procedures. They struggle with how those things are applied, and that is a matter of leadership.

Having a comprehensive and actionable Emergency Response Plan is certainly important, and training for it is even more so. But the plan and training become useless under ineffective leadership.

Empowering Leaders to Address Emergencies

The best emergency preparedness exercise a company can undertake is to emplace and empower effective leaders within its ranks at every level. From there, these leaders must be developed and sustained on an organizational and personal level.

The daily practice of leadership—building domain knowledge, earning the trust and respect of colleagues, developing relationships and exercising effective decision-making—turns into the daily habit of leadership, and habits are pivotal in high-stress situations when decision fatigue and brain fog set in.

How a company responds to an emergency may ultimately determine its fate. The best way to safeguard that fate is to develop strong leadership within the organization.

Fireside Partners Inc Fireside Partners Inc
Fireside Partners, Inc., is a fully integrated emergency services provider designed to provide all services and resources required to respond effectively and compassionately in a crisis situation. Dedicated to building world-class emergency response programs (ERP), Fireside instills confidence, resiliency and readiness for high-net worth and high-visibility individuals and businesses. Fireside provides a broad array of services focused on prevention and on-site support to help customers protect their most important assets: their people and their good name.

© 2024 Fireside Partners Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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