“In any moment of decision, the best thing one can do is to do the right thing, the next best thing is to do the wrong thing, and the worst thing one can do is to do nothing.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
Practicalities related to emergency management have primitive roots; and since its inception, humans have been finding ways and means to fight emergencies, crises, and disasters. Even though we have the history and record of best practices, the emergencies are always so diverse that they occur differently all the time. The world is plagued by a progressively increasing number and variety of emergencies.
Historically, humans have endured catastrophic events like droughts, floods, terrorism, hazmat spill, fires, pandemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, mudslides, lightning strikes and tornadoes among others. The emergencies in recent history include natural (an act of God) and man-made disasters, like attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in 2001, the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, Pakistan’s earthquake in 2005, Karachi’s factory inferno in 2015 and COVID-19 to name a few.
This article aims to dissect the major elements of emergency management, and broadly explain different segments, particularly for the emergency managers of the corporate sector, so that it enables them to deal with day-to-day challenges, amicably.
Emergency Management around the world
Since the last few decades, rapid industrialization and drastic climatic changes have increased the probability of extreme emergencies many folds. It has become quite imperative for countries, states, and organizations, to have their integral and customised arrangements to deal with any such eventuality.
Foreseeing the menace, countries around the globe have formed dedicated public institutions to initiate preparedness, training; and later on recovery processes, if an emergency occurs. The U.S. has Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to train, help, and advice on calamities. Pakistan has National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), with its sub-offices situated all across the country. Public Safety (PS) Canada, besides other issues, also deals and advises on emergencies. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) is the office responsible for emergency planning in the UK. Emergency Management Australia (EMA) is an Australian organization responsible for emergency management coordination. Huge yearly budgets are dedicated for these organizations by their respective governments; and webpages of all these institutions are presenting a load of awareness information about emergencies and their appropriate handling.
4 Stages of Emergency Management
In a nutshell, emergency management can be divided into four progressive stages. Mitigation and preparedness are conducted before the event; Response and recovery are conducted after the event. Now, let us go through them one-by-one.
Mitigation is basically (1) a thinking process to evaluate the possible and likely emergencies for the organization, and then (2) taking further steps to minimize their effects, as per the priority of risk and vulnerability. Here, an organization’s main goal is to analyze and reduce the probability/impacts, i.e., in the shape of property damage, injuries, and/or loss of life, during any possible emergency. A close to ideal mitigation is achievable for human or accidental emergencies; however, it is not fully possible with natural calamities like hurricanes, earthquakes, and snowstorms.
One of the examples of mitigation is to equip an organization with state-of-the-art firefighting equipment, if a fire is a prioritized hazard in their risk map.
Preparedness is a litmus test of an organization about its readiness to tackle an emergency, if it occurs. In short, it includes taking actions ahead of time to be ready for an emergency, which is mentioned in the risk map. In this stage, an organization will host briefings, trainings, drills, tabletop exercises, and full-scale exercises on prioritized emergencies.
Thorough preparation is the key to an effective response to any emergency; it further ensures that stakeholders know what the right step is in an emergency. Awareness training and periodic exercises, which are inculcated prior to an emergency, are essential to have improved and appropriate responses.
A well-rehearsed communication between the stakeholders is essential to ensure that the respective roles are clearly understood. It is also necessary to practice different scenarios related to possible emergencies by the core staff of the organization to improve the vital decision-making process.
Response is the stage of decision making, as it starts immediately at the onset of an emergency. The handling and outcome of an emergency differs from organization to organization, but largely depends on the level of preparedness. The organization’s main focus should be to address immediate threats to people, property, and business.
As the response progresses, the focus will typically shift from immediate emergency to conducting repairs, restoring utilities, re-establishing operations, and cleaning up. At this point, the organization should also need to start thinking about entering into the recovery phase i.e., business continuity.
Recovery can interchangeably be called Business Continuity (BC), as this phase helps an organization to restore itself following the impact from an emergency. It is also an effort to return operations to new normal, and later-on back to actual normal.
Later during this phase, the organizations achieve at least some degree of physical and economic stability. The recovery can last anywhere between six months to a year, or even longer, depending on the severity of the emergency.
One of the examples of recovery is to create new strategic goals, and to address the most serious impact of the emergency. At this stage, an organization should work to obtain new resources, rebuild or create partnerships. The organization should also take steps to reduce financial burdens and rebuild damaged structures.
What is an emergency and its family-tree?
Before we go further, it is important to untangle the concepts related to terms – emergency, crisis, and disaster. Apparently, these terms seem to be closely interconnected, interdependent, and are overlapping; but in fact, they do not share many common features, rather they have many dissimilarities.
The sudden nature of the event and the damage caused are the common features of all three terms.
To put it simply when emergencies are not handled well, or are more severe than expected, the situation may go into crisis mode, and then to disaster. In the subsequent paragraphs, these terms are explained further.
Emergency is any natural or man-made situation that may result in harm to the people, property, or environment. Moreover, an emergency is a state in which extraordinary measures are taken.
An emergency is managed locally without added response measures or changes of procedures. Examples are, a minor electrical fire contained locally or handling a minor traffic accident, with just local first-aid requirement.
Crisis is an unexpected situation, which may stem out of an emergency, and presents a high risk to life and business, and may draw public and media attention. It is also a situation in which an organization is unable to cope with its own normal resources. Generally, stress is also created because of unforeseeable consequences of quick decision-making.
An example of a simple emergency turning into a crisis is: a small fire not initially dosed off locally, because of lack of training or basic equipment, and later on, it engulfs the whole building, requiring fire brigade.
Disaster is a situation where large number of life and property is at risk of destruction, loss and damage. Disaster may occur as a result of a combination of hazards, vulnerabilities, and lack of resources, or could be the negative outcome of a mishandled emergency or crisis. During a disaster the local government or even a country can’t cope with the situation. UN and other INGOs are operational across the globe to assist during such times. Major disasters are often called catastrophes. Earthquakes, tsunamis, pandemics, terrorism, nuclear spills, droughts, and floods are types of disasters.
Emergency Management for Corporate organizations
Now, after having gone through all the above information, it becomes important to know how to initiate and complete the emergency management process in an organization. As the scope of this segment only covers an organizational level in a corporate sector, it doesn’t go beyond emergency management, i.e., towards crisis and/or disaster management.
The term which is mostly used in public departments for emergency management is Continuity of Operations (COOP); Business Continuity (BC) is the private-sector version; with some additional actions, such as Business Impact Analysis (BIA).
Policy – Defining the policy of an organization is of foremost importance while starting the process of emergency management. Besides many other important decisions, here, the organization has to decide how seriously they want to pursue emergency management in their organization. Budget allocation directly reflects its seriousness. Most of the time, the nature of the business also dictates the emergency management policy; for example, the hospitality industry has to put a lot more effort compared to a construction business. Moreover, the essence of the emergency management policy will also indicate how vigorously one wants to defend its organizational reputation.
Risk and Vulnerability Analysis (RVA) – After receiving guidelines in the shape of a policy, the next step would be to carry out a specific RVA of a particular organization. Initially, all the possible threats/hazards to that organization will be conceptualized; then while keeping in view the probability, likelihood, vulnerabilities, and possible impact; risk (internal and external) will be mapped, measured, and prioritized.
One thing is absolutely certain that the difference between success and failure for a business directly depends on the accurate analyses of the above procedure. Multinational companies operating may face the additional challenge of being exposed to highly uncertain and complex business environments that may have huge multinational consequences. Systematic collaboration between their local and global risk managers is vital to overcome the disadvantage.
Plan – An emergency management plan is a road map of all the activities which are to be carried out during an emergency, but actually, it is an outcome and a test of a risk manager’s ingenuity. The effectiveness of the plan mostly depends upon the size, resources and support of the organization’s management. It should be periodically reviewed and revised, as an unrevised plan may cause more trouble than no plan at all (false sense of security); furthermore, it helps in meeting insurance, legal and regulatory requirements.
A preferred emergency plan is the one that covers a variety of emergencies, and is called an “all-hazard plan”; whereas the most common activities which are carried out during emergencies are either evacuation or lockdown/shelter in place.
The following are some emergencies that may become part of the main plan, according to the RVA’s priority for an organization – bomb threat/incident, fire, earthquake, medical, workplace violence, sexual harassment, hazmat, utility outage and IT system failure.
A plan should have all the details including but not limited to scope (overview of emergencies), summary, hierarchy during an emergency, actual/alternate Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), details of collaboration with the emergency-related organization (fire/medical), mutual aid assistance with neighbouring entities, details of Emergency Management Team (EMT) and their responsibilities, the nomination of technical emergency staff, details of prioritized emergencies and their workflow. If formulated, trigger points system is extremely useful to quickly sense an emergency, and initiate the subsequent activities, very early.
Training, Drills, and Rehearsals
Although planning is a critical step to deal with emergencies, but it must be followed by training, drills and regular tests; but unfortunately, it has emerged as the most neglected part. It is obvious that well-trained personnel would become resilient and perform better in any kind of emergency; and by contrast, unskilled and untrained personal can be a hazard to themselves and to others.
One important step for establishing training activity is to identify clearly the scope of a specific training activity, for example, first-aid and firefighting are the most essential and common skills for dealing with emergencies. The decision-making process for the management should also be rehearsed while posing different scenarios. Moreover, there are international organizations that provide training on emergencies and response, which should be considered.
Emergency training is conducted for many reasons, for instance, checking the workability of a plan, and determining the level of staff awareness, while identifying any shortcomings in a plan. Emergency Management Team (EMT) should be designated, and be responsible for handling emergencies, which may be coordinated by the head of the security department. The coordinator should also be responsible for the training of EMT and other employees on different possible emergency scenarios.
Training should be reinforced and tested with periodic drills and exercises. This training may include tabletop exercises (TTX), evacuation/shelter-in-place, and all employees’ walk-through of a particular emergency response. Arrangements should be made for special staff members while keeping their disability in mind.
Undoubtedly, today’s modern society is confronted with the veiled presence of a wide range of natural and man-made emergencies. In addition, handling the expanding threats of terrorist activities and related vulnerabilities will continue to be a vital function for emergency managers, both in the public and private sectors. As the risks evolve, with which the businesses are confronted, emergency managers will also be required to alter their plans and procedures, in a befitting manner.