I, Robot

To steal a title from the legendary Alan Parsons Project, I wonder if we – professional and practitioners – know what we would do when a disaster strikes – not based on what the plans we developed state but how we would act as people.  Would we become robots and know exactly what to do based on the circumstances at hand or would we revert to basic fears; that we are in danger and need to protect ourselves and/or our loved ones?  Would we kick into Business Continuity mode in the office of would we panic and evacuate the building?  It’s hard to say what we’d do and we can’t say we’d rely on others to lead us either because in the respect that none of us really know what we’d do – we’re all the same.  Meaning, no one would know for sure exactly, what it is they’d do, regardless of what they state.

To put that into perspective, I recently challenged someone who was touting the fact that they’d know exactly what to do – regardless of the circumstances, either at home or in the office – and I really didn’t believe them based on how they were acting.  So, I decided to put their confidence to the test. I knew how to stop them in their tracks and rethink what they were saying, or what they said they’d do.  Of course, they were quite good and answering some of the questions such as they related to evacuations and declaring disasters and what not but when I threw one final situation at them I knew they wouldn’t be so confident.

I happened to notice they kept stating they would know what to do in any situation – home or office – but every example they gave related to the office, not home.  Therefore, I asked them what they would do if they found out their child (he was a new dad) was kidnapped or something else had happened to his young daughter.   (Note: I know it’s a bit of an extreme example but I wanted to test something out.)  Viola!  He froze.  His face went white as a ghost and after a few moments, said he wouldn’t know what he’d do in that situation.  I wasn’t trying to intentionally offend him, I simply wanted to get a different response other than the one he’d been providing – the ones that seemed to be rehearsed.  (I did offer an apology in case you’re wondering.) 

Interestingly enough, he also stated that if he’d seen a colleague die in a disaster – right in front of his eyes or just through hearing about it – would cause him to panic a bit.  He said that with both situations (especially the one about his children) caused his heart to race and that things went blank in his mind.  He had to admit, he didn’t know what to do under those circumstances or how he’d feel – it was something that would have to happen for him to really be able to answer properly. 

Still, we continued to chat about it and I went back to past examples (building evacuations, fires etc) and said that based on his previous responses, throw in the possibility of you seeing a co-worker being injured badly or seeing someone die because of disaster; would you still know what to do?  He admitted that since he’d never seen anyone die as a result of a disaster or a car accident he might not know what to do.  We continued to chat and I asked him that even if he didn’t know what to do at the time of a disaster, was there anything that the BCM program could do proactively to help?  Was there something that could assist him – or anyone – come out of a haze faster to provide guidance to others who would be in the same ‘stunned’ position and would be looking at him for leadership and guidance?

He suggested a few of the following (I’ve only place a few of his suggestions here):

  1. Awareness – Regardless of the level of the person within the organization, everyone should have some degree of awareness of the BCM program.  Some may need to know details and procedures of a much more in depth nature but still everyone should know who is on their disaster team structure (or what it is for that matter) and where information will be coming from and how to obtain it.  Awareness is “…having a basic knowledge of…” and every single employee should have a basic level of knowledge available to them.
  2. Train – Training is different from awareness.  One person may know of the disaster team structure (whatever name you organization calls it) but others that are part of the team(s) may need to know in detail how things work and where they can obtain the activity guides and procedural binders to execute activities.  For these individuals they need to have the opportunity to receive formal training on the plans so they are familiar with what they contain – and give them the opportunity to refine them and make them stronger.
  3. Documentation – You can’t always think that people will remember what to do when something occurs.  Often some people can draw a blank but as soon as they see a page or two of activities documented and in front of them, the memories come flooding back.  The documentation can help remember things that may exist in people’s heads but it may also help remember activities that aren’t normally captured or remembered by people.  In fact, it could be things are only discovered through exercise, then captured, and placed into BCM documentation for others to follow.  That is the other part; sometimes people who “know” what to do aren’t available to actually do them because they are unavailable – for whatever reason – and someone else less familiar must stand up and take charge.  Documentation will help guide them along and take control of a situation until someone more experienced or knowledgeable become available.
  4. Communication – Do I really need to describe this one?  The more you communicate – pre/during/post disaster – the more people will understand what needs to be done and how to do it.  You can hammer a message home in many ways – pictures, email notices, posters, lunch sessions etc – and the more varied ways you get the BCM message out there the better chance you have that people will remember what to do and what is expected of them.  Now, I’m not going to go into detail here, as communication will be a subject for a blog all on its own so I’ll just touch the surface here.  (Feel free to provide any insightful comments though.)
  5. Employee Assistance Providers (EAP) – He said that these groups should be involved and activated as soon as something occurs.  Sometimes trauma is noticeable immediately in people but with others it might take a few days – or longer – before shock sets in and the realism of the disaster situation kicks in.  Even those that can suddenly shift into ‘high gear’ and take charge will eventually run out of steam and need to take stock of what happened.  Having a link to the EAP in a disaster would be beneficial to everyone involved.
  6. Availability – Even those that may actually be able to respond as expected may not always be around to be there to take charge and get circumstances under control; take leadership.  So that’s even more reason to work on the first 4 points.  And to quote him, “Anyone should be given the opportunity to step up and take charge or at least have the means in place to be able to step up if they are able to.”

(NOTE:  These were his suggestions and I’m well aware there can be more but I don’t want to put words in his mouth.)

It was rather interesting to note that people who think they know what they’d do – the robots – under many conditions when confronted with circumstances, don’t actually know what activities they would implement or how they’d respond.  In some cases, people have told me they would look to me for direction.  That’s fine, I’m happy to provide it but would I be able to knowing that the co-worker I’ve been working with for years was just killed beside me as we were evacuated?  Would I really shrug it off and move on?  Maybe, maybe not.  Quite possibly I might continue evacuating and offering guidance to others only to have trauma kick in hours, days or weeks later from what I’ve seen and experienced.

How would you respond?  Would you consider yourself a robot; unaffected by a disaster and able to continue with expected activity execution and leadership, regardless of what you’ve just experienced?  For as long as it takes?  As Kraftwerk once sang, “We are the Robots” but for people it may not be so easy to be unemotional, static and unresponsive.

“You know I’d hate to ask but are ‘friends’ electric?  Only, mines broke down and now I’ve no one to love.” – Gary Numan


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