Decision Making in an Emergency

In the real world the chain of command and the decision making process needs to vary according to the nature of the incident and the speed with which decisions must be made.

"There's a bomb in your car park. It will go off in ten minutes." Click.

Sometimes business continuity involves reacting very rapidly to events over which you have little control…

Part of the development work for Plan424 — a customizable emergency response plan designed to be distributed to staff mobile phones — we've been looking closely at how organizations need to react to fast-paced events

In a slower moving event, the flow of information is as follows:

  1. Staff member learns of event (Hurricane Warning)
  2. Staff member notifies member of Emergency Management Team
  3. Emergency Management Team meets and decides on best course of action
  4. Instructions are issued to members of staff, contractors, etc.

There can be some problems with this arrangement, even with slow moving events:

  • Staff member has to know who is on Emergency Response Team and how to contact them.
  • Emergency Management Team members need to be able to contact each other and arrange a meeting.
  • Team members may be off site or on holiday, and acceptable deputies may not have been appointed. (Consider, for example, events which occur at night or during a weekend.)

However, this is a good information and decision making arrangement when there is sufficient time, or when organizing recovery after an event.

But the problem with this theoretical flow of information is that it does not work for more urgent events. Going back to our hypothetical car park bomb, the decisions need to be made:

  • Is the threat genuine, or is this a hoax call which we can safely ignore?
  • Assuming that there is a bomb in the car park, what instructions need to be issued to staff?

How long would it take to arrange an Emergency Response Team meeting? And after they have met, how long will it take for them to make a decision?

For more rapidly moving events like these a different flow of information and decision making needs to be adopted:

  • Staff member learns of event (Bomb Threat)
  • Staff member calls Security Team Duty Officer using Emergency Number
  • Duty Officer decides on best course of action
  • Instructions are issued to members of staff, contractors, etc.

We might coin this arrangement benign dictator mode. It has the advantages that:

  • Staff know immediately who to contact. It's always the same phone number.
  • Decision process is shortcut for urgent decisions.

The main difficulty that has to be overcome with this arrangement is that the Duty Officer has to have authority to make an immediate decision without waiting for management authorization, and management must back up the Duty Officer even if the decision is wrong. What if the bomb threat was thought to be a hoax and turned out to be genuine? What if the bomb wasn't in the car park but was somewhere else? What if the bomb was bigger than expected and too small an area was evacuated? What if the bomb threat proved to be a hoax and was treated as genuine?

It's really important that the Duty Officer has both the authority, training, and confidence to make a reasonable decision with the information that is available at the time without worrying about a management team with 20/20 hindsight.

But this is still slow. For certain emergencies there may not even be time to call a Security Team Duty Officer. If there is an earthquake, or a fire, staff will not even have the time required to make a phone call. In these cases, the sequence has to be:

  • Staff member learns of event (Earthquake, Fire, Hostile Intruder).
  • Staff member decides on best course of action and takes it.

We might call this arrangement every person for themself mode. Under these circumstances the staff member needs to know what to do immediately. There is no time to consult with a higher authority. This means that either that the staff member has to be trained, or that they must have ready access to staff emergency procedures.

To Sum Up…

The information and decision flow needs to change according to the nature of the incident. While some incidents allow time for management preparation, others need to short-circuit management approval, and for really urgent events staff must be trained and given the information to make their own decisions.

Other Observations

In writing this I made a couple of notes which I think are important, but didn't really fit into the above discussion:

  • In all circumstances, staff members need to know who to contact and what to do. (This is the problem that our product Plan424 — mentioned earlier ‐ is designed to solve.) A business continuity plan sitting on an office shelf is effectively useless in any fast moving event…
  • For anything but the smallest company, life is easier if you have a simple method of issuing emergency instructions to staff. Setting off a fire alarm only really works well for fires. (In our bomb threat example it would cause your staff to leave the building and head towards your assembly point — which I bet is your car park.) A public address system (with battery back up) is a very flexible method of notifying staff. Emergency communication systems which send texts or make phone calls can also be useful, but are considerably slower and don't work with visitors.
24 December 2015

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