Man in a tie answering questions at a press conference

How will your company react if involved in a catastrophic event with news cameras rolling? With technology and social media linking the world in seconds, there is no longer a margin for error.

This article is from the ​Fall 2015 issue of The Quill. To view the full issue, visit The Quill archive.

Expect the unexpected. An often overused cliché, but planning and practicing for unthinkable events is more critical than ever in today’s world. How will your company react if involved in a catastrophic event with news cameras rolling? What will your driver say? What will the public think? With technology and social media linking the world in seconds, there is no longer a margin for error.

An emergency or crisis is a situation that has reached a critical phase in which immediate decisions introduce the possibility of a highly undesirable outcome. The event that leads to an emergency or crisis is often described as unexpected. However, according to the National Safety Council, “managing safety starts from the premise that most accidents can be prevented.” Therefore, accidents are not random, but rather a sequence of events that can be prevented with proper management commitment, evaluation and controls, ongoing planning, monitoring and training.

So where to begin? In simple terms, there are four basic steps in crisis management and emergency planning:

  1. Establish a planning team
  2. Analyze hazards and capabilities
  3. Develop the plan
  4. Implement, practice, refine

Starting with establishing a planning team, you should consider selecting individuals in key roles throughout your organization. For example, select a representative from operations, maintenance, safety, dispatch, sales and IT. You want accurate representation from all aspects of the company, but keep the committee size manageable at no more than 10 people. Next, define roles and responsibilities for each person on the committee. Document the areas they represent and the time commitment expected both in the planning process and execution during a crisis. Further develop the committee by establishing authority and issuing a mission statement. Don’t forget to appoint a team chairperson or “crisis coordinator.” This person will be the primary decision maker and public relations speaker.

According to Jim Parham, COO of Hirons & Company, an Indianapolis-based public relations firm, “from a public relations perspective, it really comes down to one word: Communication. This is much more than an emergency telephone call tree. It’s a detailed plan on who should be contacted and why, how to interact with various public entities, legal representation and ultimately the general philosophy of executive management.”

The first priority in any crisis is to assess the situation, call authorities and minimize further injury or property damage. In an immediate emergency, it’s not a good idea to instruct your drivers to always call dispatch first. This could lead to critical delays and communication breakdown. Jim continues, “Always remember that options will be limited, so your company should display consistency, credibility, accuracy and speed.”

To attain this, consider developing a press kit. This press kit could include the company background, photos and descriptions of the facilities, relevant facts such as the annual report and community relations, and executive biographies and photos. Most importantly, you should have pre-written statements on various scenarios at your disposal. Remember, during an emergency every second counts. Decisions must be pre-determined and information flow should be clear and concise.

Before a crisis occurs, you should have pre-written statements on various scenarios at your disposal. Remember, during an emergency every second counts.

Let’s move to the second step in crisis planning, analyze hazards and capabilities. Begin by collecting all relevant policies, procedures and documents that exist. This includes all facets of the company from executives to operations, drivers and support staff. Pay particular attention to gathering as much detail as possible on incident reporting and emergency procedures, such as a call tree, first responders and investigation steps. Once you’ve collected this information, perform a vulnerability analysis or risk assessment. A vulnerability analysis can be a very detailed assessment tool or a simple spreadsheet that lists scenarios with an assigned probability of occurrence and severity of impact. Start with the most basic issues that require emergency response such as fires, floods, tornadoes, winter storms, earthquakes and hurricanes. Then list everything you can think of that could negatively affect company operations, from environmental spills to worker injury, motor vehicle crashes, workplace violence or terrorism, health epidemics, and even utility and technology failures. 

Next, try to identify your critical processes, services, operations, and people. Is there something or someone that if removed, even just temporarily, would have an immediate and detrimental impact on the business? Quantify both the vulnerabilities and criticalities in relation to time, dollar impact, brand and reputation. Finally, to truly understand the hazards and your capabilities, meet with outside subject matter experts. This includes state/local emergency authorities, regulatory agencies, insurance specialists and safety consultants. Invite them to your planning sessions to ask questions. Share some of your documentation and ask for feedback.

Diagram showing components of a crisis plan

The next step is to actually develop the plan and document the team’s work. Start by drafting an executive summary and table of contents. Develop a purpose or introduction that includes a detailed, but perhaps limited, scope. If you tackle too much, the committee will become frustrated and efforts will fail. Organize the documents you’ve collected such as procedures, contacts, diagrams and vendor/utility lists into groups. Some tools that may be helpful in pulling together the information include a mind map or prioritization matrix. Include specific steps and instructions, perhaps in a flow diagram or decision tree format. Try to answer questions like “If this happens, then who is notified? How are they notified? What action is taken and who is responsible?”

Allow ample time for review and approval from each member of the team. Don’t wait until the document is near completion. Work one section at a time and pull the pieces together at the end. This will allow for short breaks in between and the celebration of many individual accomplishments throughout the project. As you near completion of the first draft, consider exploring other resources such as smart phone apps that can help streamline communication and provide real-time access to your critical plan documents.

Finally, once the initial plan has been drafted, it’s time to implement, practice and refine. Implementation consists of announcing the existence of the plan, distributing copies and training key people and affected individuals. Be sure that everyone in your organization understands their role and has clear instructions on what to do and what not to do. To accomplish this, consider developing a wallet sized “crisis card” for drivers that contains emergency contact info, first step instructions, securing the site with law enforcement and a strict policy against discussing details with emergency responders or the media until designated company officials arrive on scene.

And don’t forget, the plan is not something that once drafted and implemented sits on the shelf. The plan should be tested regularly with outside organizations such as local law enforcement and fire departments. Furthermore, consider conducting drills or exercises that simulate actual emergencies to work the details and timing. This allows for continuous improvement and modifications as necessary.

  • Categorized in:
  • Transportation Safety
  • Workplace Safety