Just in case anybody has forgotten, the Atlantic Hurricane Season opens on 1 June. The first named storms of the year, Arthur and Bertha, have already come and gone. 500-year flooding events are happening in Michigan, with two dams already breached. The USDA Forest Service is reporting eight large wildfires across the country, and Tornado Alley is waking up with a total of 503 tornadoes confirmed so far this year. All this would usually add up to a regular spring disaster season, and then we add COVID-19.
Everybody has been heads down, focusing on managing the COVID-19 crisis and the consequences of the decisions made to try and control the pandemic. That management effort has focused on adapting to the new world of physical distancing, the recognition that offices may not be necessary, and figuring out where to find the last available roll of toilet paper. All of those efforts have merit on one level or another. I am finding that a majority of the organizations that I interact with have fallen prey to tunnel vision and are focusing solely on COVID-19 with little-to-no consideration of other potential disasters.
Think about how the world has changed because of COVID-19:
- People are working from home – depending on the internet to accomplish things that they performed in person, in a centralized office before COVID-19.
- Some of those same people are sheltering away from their homes, with family or in other locations where they may not be thoroughly familiar with local risks and hazards.
- Physical distancing guidelines are limiting the size of gatherings of people, recommending that individuals stay at least six feet apart from each other.
- Hospitals in some areas continue to be severely stressed by COVID-19 patients, repurposing resources to meet local demand and running short on critical medications, equipment, and supplies.
- Other hospitals are almost empty. Laying off staff and reducing operations because protective actions have prevented voluntary medical procedures, which were a primary source of income for the facility.
- First responders have altered the way they work, changing practices and protocols to protect themselves and their communities from the COVID-19 virus.
- Emergency Operations Centers across the country have been in continuous operation since January, working to manage the COVID-19 crisis to the best of their ability.
How could these changes impact your crisis readiness?
To paraphrase a line from a popular 12-step program, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that it exists. COVID-19 has added complexities to managing a crisis while taking measures to protect the health and safety of your people.
- There has been a marked loss of trust in leadership and “official” sources of information. Multiple survey results are demonstrating that this applies to business leaders as well as elected and appointed officials.
- People have been living in crisis for weeks, if not months. The emotional and psychological consequences of that prolonged stress are coming to light in surprising ways.
- Previously centralized organizations are now distributed—sometimes on a national or international scale—with resulting exposures to new or unexpected risks.
2020 is a brave new world. Crisis managers must recognize that the environment is evolving and be prepared to address emergent incidents that may require a new approach. Previous assumptions regarding how individuals and organizations will respond to a crisis may no longer be valid.
So the world has changed. What next?
Whenever anybody asks me that “What’s next?” question, I always think about some advice that my father gave me. When you are overwhelmed and not sure about what to do, go back to the beginning.
1- Start with what you have
Start with your existing plans – reread them and focus on calling out the assumptions that were made the last time that they were revised (because you’re adjusting your plans regularly, right?). Are those assumptions still valid? Do the plans still apply to the new COVID-19 world?
2- Understand the state of your people
After looking at your plans, look at your people. Where are they? How are they handling the prolonged crisis? What are they dependent on to keep going? Are they personally prepared for severe weather or other disruptions?
3- Evaluate the conditions of your community
And finally, look at your communities. How is the world outside of your organization going to respond to an emergency? How will an evacuation work in a COVID-19 world? Will storm shelters be opened? How might hospitals deal with a surge of injured or ill patients?
4- Enhance your crisis readiness
After assessing your current situation, it’s time to adapt and overcome the new challenges of crisis management in a COVID-19 world. As you update your program, consider the following questions.
- How will a distributed workforce impact your plans?
- Have you adapted and updated your business continuity/continuity of operations plans?
- Do you have a plan to manage disruptions in communication?
- Do you have a plan to protect your personnel who may be in high-risk areas?
- Do you have a plan and a process to access current, timely information regarding your distributed personnel?
- Do you know if your personnel are at high-risk for COVID-19, and are your plans adapted to maintain their safety?
- Do you have a system that can collect and share data to support decision-making?
- Will your coordination and management processes function across multiple incidents that may be geographically separated?
5- Integrate these new plans and processes into the culture of your organization
The process does not just end once you update your plans and policies to address the new challenges. The next step is to make sure they work seamlessly, remain top of mind when they’re needed, and support your objectives. As a starting point, this includes:
- Increasing communications across your organization through virtual town-halls, social media platforms, and other relevant platforms for communication in order to coordinate messaging for both internal and external stakeholders. Make sure that you communicate in ways that are clear and easily understood. Your messaging should answer questions and support confidence, not create more problems than when you started.
- Ensure that your remote personnel have the most up-to-date policies and procedures for crisis operations, that the organization recognizes and meets their training needs, and that they and their families are personally prepared for the severe weather season.
COVID-19 has had significant impacts on all of our lives. With the beginning of the severe weather season for the United States, crisis managers should review existing plans and programs and begin updating their readiness with a focus on changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The requirements for a distributed workforce, physical distancing, and the loss of trust in “official” guidance and leadership have combined to create an entire constellation of new challenges. Don’t let these challenges impact and hinder your readiness. If you are vulnerable to the impending severe weather season, take the above five steps seriously and mitigate some of the risks of further impact in the coming weeks and months—for yourself, your teams, your brand and your community.