Educating the Senior Leadership Herd

Well, one of my personal worse case scenarios has finally come true. Last year I became a Critical Scene Incident Management instructor. I had been happily romping around the country around training chiefs and command staffs the ins and outs of NIMS and ICS. The best part was running the tabletops and other exercises where we got to use the training. I can say that every time I did one, I learned a little more about how to deal with a variety of issues in some very innovative ways. As with many of these endeavors. someone always gets the bright idea that we can take this a step further and make it better. And so, it came to pass that in these weeks before Easter I became the official designee to enlighten senior staff and executive officials in the NGO (Non-Government Organization) area as to what the theories of critical scene management are and how they should apply to our community. So far, I have had stomach viruses that I liked better than doing this activity.

It all seems so simple. First, we explain that any emergency operation plan consists of four steps: mitigation, planning, preparation, and exercises. This concept goes down fairly easy. The words are all two-syllable, so everybody likes hearing them. We then move into what they need to know to deal with critical incidents, such as common issues and characteristics of critical incidents, controllable factors, all hazards approach, and all the buzzwords that we all take for granted. It is around this time that I start to see the first signs of distress from the herd. The dawn starts to show above the horizon and they realize that maybe this is not going to be as easy as it looks. The concept that decision-making must be driven down to the lower levels and that consultation and consensus building are not good methods of dealing with crisis is making stomachs churn.

After we manage to get through that phase, with much discussion we move into the area of emergency operations planning and emergency plans. The herd starts to settle down; we are moving back into their comfort zone. Every thing has a plan and all the pieces will be in place to deal with the issues that may arise. Relief is plausible in the herd. However all the dreams of professional documents in binders are shattered as the need for threat and vulnerability assessments to make the planning for these documents is effective raise their ugly heads. The idea that you need to discover what possible ugliness might arise so that you can deal with it effectively is a paradigm that is just wrong. The concept of "it won't happen here," and "why would anyone want to hurt us here?" is so deeply ingrained in the herd that it is difficult to bridge the gap that arises. Bad things just don't happen in our world. After citing various examples and reminding them that we can stop 99 out of 100 events, and still be hurt and made to look inept by the one that gets by us, is making stomachs are starting to churn again. At this point, the herd's feelings are again mollified by the explanation that doing this planning and training now will pay huge dividends when an emergency does occur. So as acceptance of the fact that doing this type of training and planning will pay off in case of an emergency settles in, people begin to work diligently on their piece of the plan.

The next shock, however, is waiting just around the corner, and we spring it on them unmercifully, maybe as revenge for all the seemingly off-the-wall questions we are getting. We must exercise these plans and test them. The undercurrent that arises is somewhat ugly in nature. It seems to stem from a couple of directions, like the fact that questioning whether the fact that there are plans is an insult to their abilities, and secondly, the fear that they will fail and look foolish. It is at this point that it is explained gently that the reasons are not to make the plans fail or make them look bad, but to identify gaps and issues in the plans that we didn't see or realize when we conceived them. Once the herd realizes this, an uneasy sense of acceptance falls into place.

Now my favorite part starts--we start a table top exercise. This is one of the simple types, designed to be low stress and give people a feel for the way things happen, but at a relaxed pace. The incident unfolds and an uneasy calm falls as the senior leadership has to activate their emergency plan and get an emergency operations center up and running. This goes fairly well, as it is the kind of task they are used to. The incident commander begins to take in information and make decisions. Now the level of anxiety in the herd is almost palpable as they implement various parts of their plans. Hesitantly, they realize that their efforts and work seem to be having the intended effect, and all is working as they hoped it would. At the conclusion of the exercise, we do our after-action debrief and self-assessment that gives the herd about a B + for their efforts. Relief is evident on several faces, and comments about "it was not as easy to do as we thought" are offered by many.

We cap off the training sessions with words of what we hope are encouragement, and that we hope they have all learned something. Since this is a senior executive group with lofty ideals, we offer them advice from none other than Albert Einstein, who stated "The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." They leave the sessions with good feelings about themselves, because the instructors have compared them to Albert Einstein. What they don't realize is that the quote we use translates out to the same advice we use to give to lowly civilians about crime prevention back in the day. The advice then was to play the "What-if?" game and plan, because it's too late when the problem is happening. Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, just isn't gonna cut it.