Robert A Jensen, CEO of Kenyon International Emergency Services explains how to get organised and ready to face any situation

Prevention is a great thing. Warnings are also useful. Fortunately, because of prevention and warnings, many people will never face the consequences of a catastrophic crisis, fear for their missing relatives, or personally witness a mass fatality event.  

That is not true for me. You see, my job is responding to crises – mostly those with mass fatalities. I have done this for over 25 years; most of my adult life. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, plane crashes, maritime disasters, fires, and terrorist attacks, to name a few. Events like the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, Bali bombings, the Tunis beach attack and too many others to count or list. What I’ve learned from these experiences is this: “there are no new lessons to be learned, only new people learning old lessons.”  Sadly, that learning comes at a very high cost for the survivors and families of the missing – those presumed dead. For them, prevention has failed or was simply not possible so the best that can be done is “zero.” You can’t make it better. You can’t undo the event. The best is to not make it worse. In other words, “zero.”

If you can’t prevent all things, or make the consequences better, how do you make them not worse? Here are some of the practical considerations I recommend.

Identify if your organisation is at risk.  Beyond the obvious – non-governmental organisations (NGOs), large businesses, corporations in the natural resource sector or hospitality industry, many do not believe they are at risk. Indicators I consider: Do you have people who travel? Travel in groups? Visit less developed areas? Host public gatherings? Sponsor or manage groups that are less life-experienced and likely not as resourceful in a crisis? If so, then you are at risk.

Accept that an event could happen. Often I see complete shock, which is to be expected. Unfortunately, that shock isn’t because of what has happened, but because it has happened to them. Bad things always happen to somebody else.

Accept your responsibility in managing the consequences. Too many companies focus on what has happened and try to protect themselves from blame or liability. The reality is that bad things happen. We can’t prevent them all. Survivors and the families are most interested in what happens now. They missed that class at school about what to do following a bombing or an earthquake. They are looking for someone to provide leadership and guidance; to help them navigate the transition from what was normal to what will be normal. While many different agencies are involved in responding, none manage the overall event. So that will fall to the affected organisation (your company) or the affected families.

For families, it is nearly an impossible task. Where do they begin? How do they understand the different things that are required, while dealing with the fear and apprehension? If there is no support or single system to help guide them, then you add frustration to fear and apprehension. Frustration inevitably leads to and ends in anger. Anger at the companies and their executives, not for the event, but for the response or lack thereof. That anger translates to litigation – litigation is an extension of rage. So instead of “zero,” or not making it worse, it becomes much worse for you and them.

Understand the functional areas that require action. There are no surprises here; these are well-known and predictable functional areas that have to be planned for in any crisis involving missing or deceased persons.

There should be a call centre to register missing persons. Data management processes to account for people, including separating those accounted for – injured and uninjured, from the missing or identified as dead; family support services – to serve as an interface between the families and the various agencies and processes involved. You’ll need a way to collect specific information from families about the missing person(s) to be used for identification, if a recovery is made. You’ll need a communications process, one that not only provides updates but can also explain what those updates mean in practical terms. These include informational briefings, social media, family webpages, and more traditional media. Processes to ensure the search, recovery, identification, and repatriation of the dead and their personal belongings are also important. Governments do not always do this, or if they do, it may not be done in the manner consistent with a home government.

Identify and understand what should happen and how it is co-ordinated. Realise that no functional area stands alone; each area has an impact on the other areas. At times, there is no government agency responsible, tasked or available to address these areas. Some may fall to your company, or again, be left to the individual families. The only two constants throughout the entire processes are the families and your organisation.

Develop a realistic plan, resource it, and train your organisation.  I love responding and finding crisis management plans that are four-inch, thick binders, loaded with narratives and helpful bits like, “ensure you work with government agencies.” After the first few hours, those plans often end up as doorstops. Plans need to be checklists, with roles assigned to cover functional areas and tasks. Once you understand the tasks and requirements, you can then identify the resources. Next you train, but do so in the real-world – crises aren’t convenient. They don’t always happen Monday through Friday, 9 – 5. And none that I have been to were ever so courteous as to be scheduled. So, why do companies consider only planned drills and exercises? Instead, train for reality. Hold a no-notice drill that does not just focus on the first 24 hours of a crisis. Test what happens on day seven or day ten – that is where organisations fail.

I hope that your organisation will never need any of these recommendations. Frankly, I would love to be out of a job in crisis management. But, sadly, every year, I seem a little busier. And when these crises happen – and they will happen – I don’t see people trying to make it worse intentionally, they do so because they are not prepared.

So, get prepared. Devote some of your risk management resources to consequence management. Learn from others before it happens and then you won’t be the one to make it worse.

jensen 2Robert A Jensen is the Chief Executive Officer at Kenyon International Emergency Services. He serves as an international advisor to both government officials and to members of the private sector on disaster management issues.