At the 2017 PARMA Conference, a panel discussed disaster response planning for public entities. The panel was:
- Ken Hernandez – County of San Bernardino
- Steve Robles – County of Los Angeles
- Michelle Colosimo – Black Swan Solutions
- Ariel Jenkins – Safety National
Disasters can be both natural disasters like earthquakes or floods and also man-made events such as mass shootings or bombings. Public entity risk managers need to be mindful of not only their employee’s response to a disaster, but their responsibilities to the general public. The government needs to be able to continue to function through a disaster. One of the big challenges risk managers face is preparing for the unknown. You have a baseline because some events have happened previously, but there are always new challenges that arise.
In a disaster situation no one knows exactly how they will react until the event actually happens. Human nature is to want to reach out to your family when something bad happens, so you need to account for the fact that everyone may not be focused on their job at a time of crisis. You also cannot assume everyone is able to travel to your office in the time of a disaster as the roads may be impassible and communications may be out.
It is important that your crisis management plan has several options. If your first option is not available you need to have other options or people may lose focus and panic. It is important to practice and train for crisis events so that if something happens people know what to do. They cannot be referring to your crisis manual at a time when response is needed. The goal is to have a planned response to the situation, not just reactions without structure.
It is important to consider all the stakeholders when you are doing disaster response planning and also consider the different methods of communication that may be available. You need backup ways to communicate as your primary method may be unavailable. Stakeholders not only include your employees, but members of the media, others in the community, and other outside organizations you work with. In public entity you are also dealing with politicians. Consistency is the key. The information being disseminated must be consistent across all channels and to all stakeholders or you will create confusion and not get the consistent response that is needed.
In public entities, you have to make sure your mayor, board, city council, etc are all aware of the plan and support it. The public relations associated with an event is another important consideration as there is reputational risk to your municipality if things are not communicated quickly and accurately. It is also very important to work with community based organizations as they can assist you in a time of crisis with both communication and response.
When events happen, the media will be swarming looking for a story and they will be looking to interview anyone available. Things may not necessarily flow through your media relations people as planned. Your city officials and employees must all understand your messaging and goals. They must refer the media to the appropriate individuals. Your media relations people should be ready to prepare statements for your city officials so that they can stay on message. With social media information spreads quickly so you need to get information out quickly. If your response is delayed people will look for other sources of information.
Internal communications are just as important as external communications. Your employees need to know what is going on so they feel comfortable with the plan and know their role. You need to direct your employees who to refer the media to and what to anticipate in terms of questions from the media. Your employees need to understand what people can say and what should they not say. It is important to train your key employees to be able to deliver key talking points in the event they have to speak to the media. It is best to avoid a “no comment” situation as that has negative connotations and implies disorganization. They key messaging can be very generic such as “we are investigating”, etc put it is important to have those planned responses. Things like “we are assessing the situation”and “our focus is on the safety of the community and our employees” are good generic responses.
Contingent planning is so important. Too often your initial plans do not work out. The places you planned may not be available, and all your key people may not be available. Have contingencies and contingencies for your contingencies.
As a public entity, you cannot simply “close” if a disaster strikes. You still have to provide the normal municipal services that they public depends upon. It is important to have good relationships with nearby municipalities so you can assist each other in providing services when needed.
An element of any municipal disaster planning is volunteer management. Lots of people will want to help and will have the best intentions, but their execution may not be what it needs to be. It can be very challenging to deal with these volunteers. You also need to have a plan to deal with donations, both monetary and otherwise. It is important to manage these donations and often you can work with local charities to assist in managing these donations so you do not have to be responsible for them. It may be best to not try and directly manage the monetary donations in-house out of concern for how those funds are handled.
Situations of civil unrest can create some very unique challenges. Some of the protests are planned in advance so you have time to coordinate things like staffing and road closures. However, unplanned protests or things that get out of hand can escalate quickly. Too often people come to the scene for the express purpose of creating chaos. The media can at times fuel this chaos by sensationalizing things and rushing to report without knowing all the facts. Managing situations of civil unrest falls on law enforcement but it is important that your risk management department is communicating with them closely.
In a high-profile event, impacted employees can become frustrated with the workers’ compensation system and be very vocal about that. Because of privacy laws, you cannot publicly debate the merits of a workers’ compensation claim, but that does not stop your employees from going public with their complaints. You may be doing everything required required under the workers’ compensation statutes, but the perceptions may be otherwise. As a risk manager you have to manage both the reality of the situation and the perceptions.
Natural disasters usually occur with little to no notice and can create widespread damage. Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other events can cause widespread damage and bodily injury. As a risk manager, one of the things you need to plan in advance is the insurance impact of these disasters. Work with your carriers to know how they will respond to a loss and how quickly claims can get paid. Your carriers can be a great asset in providing resources to assist in the event of a natural disaster. You need a good relationship with your broker too so you can reach out to them and they can assist in communicating with the carriers and verifying coverage.
A big challenge with natural disasters is accounting for your employees. When you are trying to respond to a situation the first thing you have to know is which employees are available to assist. You should have a strategy to determine which employees are available. In addition, be prepared to assist your employees in dealing with their personal impact to the situation. If they are worried about their home and family, they cannot be focused on doing their job and assisting the general public.
Budgeting for disaster response is important. You do not know what will happen or what it will cost, but you know it is likely something can happen. You can build some funds in for response, but insurance has to provide backup for things that go beyond what your budget could cover. You need to know what the plan will be to account for funds well above what you have budgeted.