Human Impact Preparedness for Municipalities Ensuring Continuity of Services During Crisis

By Jeffrey Weir

Municipal leaders face a tremendous challenge when it comes to emergency management and crisis response. While many other organizations such as those in the manufacturing or service sectors have the opportunity to temporarily suspend operations, municipalities have no such luxury; their Return Time Objectives are immediate.

Events such as large-scale natural disasters, pandemic disease, large industrial accidents, and acts of terrorism can place enormous strain on individuals, communities and public health services; if careful preparation is not instituted, the results could be drastic and far-reaching.

While logistical preparedness has been attended to on a significant scale, less attention has been paid to the human impact of such events and the need to adequately plan for the inevitable complications that will arise pertaining to the human element of disaster. Our experience has shown us that in the absence of such preparedness the rest of the plan can become less effective, if not obsolete. Every aspect of a Disaster Response and Recovery Plan is dependent upon the people who are charged with its fulfillment.

This article will address the rationale for implementing a comprehensive and integrated Human Impact Preparedness Program in order to maintain continuity and efficiency of operations in municipal employees before, during and after a crisis event. We will discuss the potential vulnerabilities in these organizations regarding the human element as well as some of the essential components of an effective Human Impact Preparedness Program.

To appreciate the complexity of Human Impact Preparedness one must first appreciate the complexity of the human response to crisis. Recovery from crisis or disaster is not linear. Initially, employee response is quite positive; heroic, at times. There is a life cycle to a disaster that starts with this “heroic" phase and moves quickly into a “honeymoon" period. As time progresses, however, there is a period of disillusionment that manifests in multiple social, psychological, and biological issues amongst employees.

Attention to the human element in organizations is typically paid during the first, heroic, phase of a crisis. This is not necessarily the most effective time for intervention, however. Attention must be given to the needs of employees throughout the entire life cycle of the disaster in order to maintain optimal functioning and health of an organization’s personnel. Human Impact Preparedness Programs focus on any and all aspects of daily life that are impacted by a disaster from basic survival needs, psychological needs and family related issues, to organizational readiness and outside stakeholders. A robust model of Human Impact Preparedness must combine knowledge about people, organizations, communities and disasters.

Human Impact Preparedness
Human Impact Preparedness is the set of policies, procedures and protocols that serve to address the needs of an organization’s employees and other stakeholders in the event of any occurrence that might potentially disrupt operations. It involves three components: assessment, planning, and training and exercising of such procedures. It is a living document that must be regularly updated. Human Impact Preparedness takes an “all hazards" approach in that it does not only address one or a few risks but is broad and flexible enough to prepare the organization for any possible disruption.

The primary goal of Human Impact Preparedness is to ensure a present, healthy and productive workforce with which to implement other aspects of an organization’s disaster preparedness plan (in the short-term) and to return to normal operations with greater resiliency (long-term gains).

Organizational Assessment
The process of assessment is comprehensive and should encompass any and all levels of a municipality’s personnel. The purpose of this assessment is to explore an organization’s readiness through the “human lens" and identify gaps in the existing plan. This can include a review of existing crisis plans, personnel policies and procedures, and existing resources with an eye on the needs of employees during a crisis. Also included in this phase is an assessment of information flow in the organization and the organizational culture in general.

Human Impact Planning
Having a plan is not, in itself, sufficient. It is the development of the plan that is most critical. Once a Human Impact Planning Team is established, the process of planning identifies gaps, lessons learned and unforeseen personnel issues that will be crucial in producing and effective and efficient plan. It also identifies existing but non-integrated policies or procedures that could be brought into the plan.

The plan itself structures, organizes and centralizes these policies and procedures and coordinates them with all other crisis preparedness plans in the organization. Therefore, the Human Impact Plan augments the overall crisis preparedness program by ensuring that the “people needs" are addressed.

Development of the plan is collaborative and reaches throughout all departments and roles of an organization. It establishes thresholds for activation, roles and responsibilities, budgetary parameters and lines of authority once the plan is activated.

Exercises and Training
The final component of a Human Impact Program addresses issues of maintaining awareness of the plan, updating and exercising it. There are three major parts of this component:

  • Simulations and tabletop exercises: These need to be done periodically at all levels of the organization.
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  • Training on psychological responses to crisis and disaster: This type of training has been carried out throughout the world (U.S., Sri Lanka, Pakistan) and has proven invaluable in providing stakeholders with information about psychological reactions to disasters.
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  • Periodic reviews and refresher courses.

Toward a Comprehensive Preparedness Program
Any crisis preparedness program is only as good as the people who implement it. A coordinated and comprehensive program that addresses the human needs of employees before, during and after a crisis is essential in assuring a viable and productive workforce with which to serve a community during a critical event.

A Human Impact Program should be as attended to as, and integrated with, other aspects of crisis readiness such as IT infrastructure, Communications, Emergency Response and Security plans.

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