An Emotional Response Plan
When a medical helicopter crashed with three crew members inside earlier this year, Dr. Tania Glenn’s crisis response team was among the first responders who showed up to the scene. While paramedics administered aid to those involved in the crash, who all miraculously survived, Glenn’s team circulated among the crowd, beginning what she calls the emotional triage process with each individual involved. The team provided food, water, and other basic needs to the rest of the crew members at the base, and facilitated communication between family members and victims. Once the victims were home from the hospital, the team widened its scope and briefed other bases in the state on the incident. After contacting and debriefing anyone directly or indirectly involved with the crash, Glenn’s team focused again on the victims and began addressing their emotional needs.
“In a crisis, it’s like a dance—it’s very fluid, it’s constant triaging and covering all of your bases,” says Glenn, an Austin, Texas-based counselor who helps first responders and other disaster-response organizations work through the trauma that follows an incident. “It’s never forgetting the people who are out of sight and out of mind, maybe the people who weren’t present or are in different parts of the country,” she says.
Although most large government agencies and corporations have developed disaster management plans, many of them don’t address one of the most important and unpredictable aspects of a crisis: the human emotional response. Critical incident management experts see it all the time—employees frozen in place during imminent danger, personnel unaccounted for hours after an incident because they dropped everything and ran, workers not taking the simple steps to protect themselves and others as described in their company’s disaster response plan.
And if the emotional responses of those involved in a crisis are not addressed properly, it can have adverse effects on the individuals, organization, and community for years, especially when it comes to a homeland security incident, a shooting, or a natural disaster. “The emotions of people who are affected by a crisis aren’t peripheral. They’re a central part of the crisis,” says Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant. “Crisis communication isn’t about reducing people’s fear; it’s about helping them bear their fear and helping them choose appropriate precautions.”
Whether it’s a hurricane, workplace violence, an on-site accident, or a terrorist threat, organizations and agencies need to prepare a response plan that builds emotional resiliency before, during, and after a critical incident.
A good way to mitigate the emotional trauma that follows a crisis is to plan for that response. Glenn says that from a psychological perspective, the best way a company can prepare its employees for a crisis is to engage in frequent training based on a well-developed disaster response plan.
When people react to extreme stress, their higher cognitive functions stop operating and the more basic parts of the brain activate, allowing muscle memory and the fight-or-flight response to take over. Although it is impossible to predict how someone will act in a crisis, engaging in frequent, realistic training gives employees that muscle memory, Glenn explains.
Another component many response plans fail to develop is communication. Oftentimes a plan will have all the right logistical details laid out on how to manage the hazard but will not take into account how upset people will be and how to address that.
“I have seen plans that focus almost exclusively on who gets a seat on the crisis communication team, how many times a day it meets, even what room it meets in,” Sandman says. “But they don’t say one word about messaging, or what I sometimes call meta-messaging: how reassuring to be, how candid to be, how emotional to be. They set up the crisis communication team but give it absolutely no guidance on how to communicate in a crisis.”
A good plan should also prepare employees for their roles both in and out of the workplace during a crisis. Most plans typically detail what roles managers and employees should take if a crisis occurs at work, but they do not usually address how employees should prepare their homes and families, Sandman explains. That means that when a crisis arrives, doing their assigned jobs competes with trying to cope with the disaster’s effect on their personal lives.
“Good crisis response plans address this issue front-and-center,” Sandman notes. “They urge employees to prepare on the home front as well as in the workplace, and they design crisis management responsibilities to accommodate personal responsibilities as well.”
In the event of a crisis, Glenn emphasizes the importance of immediately taking care of the basic needs of everyone involved. The emotional triage process begins not with talking about feelings, but with helping the individual become resilient.
“When my team responds to a trauma, we immediately ask, ‘What can we get you? Food? Supplies? Gatorade?’ In the midst of a crisis people don’t have time to talk, and they certainly don’t want to talk,” Glenn explains. Both Sandman and Glenn recommend having a trained crisis response team on hand, composed either of individuals at the organization or from an outside group.
“Those at the operational levels are going to be way too busy to manage others, so what you need is a team that you trust that understands your culture, your work ethics, your policies and procedures, to be able to come in quickly and start to assess and work with individuals,” Glenn notes.
The key to maintaining emotional control over a critical situation is to truthfully and effectively communicate with employees, law enforcement, and the media as defined by the crisis response plan. “In crisis communication [people are] rightly upset, and your goal should be to help them bear it and help them use their strong feelings to motivate appropriate actions, rather than inappropriate ones,” Sandman explains.
The single most common mistake made by managers of a crisis is to expect panic and focus their communications on allaying that panic, Sandman says. In their minds, this justifies rash decisions, such as suppressing frightening information or issuing unhelpful reassurances.
These types of reactions routinely backfire, as people can sense when officials are giving them false reassurance and become more anxious because their concerns have not been addressed. If the situation later deteriorates, it makes people feel misled by officials, and perhaps even more terrified because they belatedly learn how bad a situation really is or was. This causes overall mistrust of officials, and people will turn to rumors instead, Sandman explains.
For example, a week after the 9-11 attacks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a news release stating that the air in New York City was safe to breathe. However, a later look at the EPA’s response revealed that the agency did not have data to support the reassurances; it lacked monitoring data for several contaminants that were, in fact, in the air. These false claims continue to reverberate in public opinion of the government, as many New Yorkers suffered long-term health damage from the materials released in the collapse of the World Trade Center, Sandman says.
How an organization handles its employees in the days and weeks following a crisis greatly affects how the individuals involved overcome the event. Glenn says that it’s important for managers to help their employees understand that all responses—physical, behavioral, and emotional—are normal, and that the company will work with each individual to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. There should be a total triage process for each individual, she says.
Managers should monitor the baseline levels of their coworkers: how they function, interact with others, and handle stress. If that baseline changes, it’s a good indicator that the individual is having a difficult time coping, Glenn says.
After a trauma, some people experience what Glenn calls a delayed stress response, where the impact of the event will hit them once they have gone home and decompressed, and that’s why companies see employees calling in sick a few days to a week after the incident. It’s important for people struggling with a stress response to talk through what happened to allow their brain to process the events.
“Maybe today the event is running through your head over and over again. This is your brain’s way of trying to process this information that it doesn’t know how to handle. What we’re looking for by the end of the first week is for that to start to slow down, and by the end of week two that you’re not thinking about it all day long, that you have to consciously think of it,” Glenn explains. If an individual hasn’t started coping with the event after 30 days, they may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and should receive further help.
Although most organizations bring in a counselor after an event, Glenn recommends working with a trauma response team that will be on site from the day of the incident until all employees are debriefed and on their way to recovery. Putting someone in charge who doesn’t understand trauma counseling could have a negative impact on employees.
One organization that benefited from a crisis response intervention plan was Family Dollar, a chain of more than 6,700 retail stores in the United States. The company saw its stores getting robbed daily across the country in the early 2000s, and its employment numbers reflected that. Following a traumatic event, the affected store would experience a crippling 50 percent turnover rate. In 2004, the company initiated a critical incident response support program to improve employee retention and reduce worker’s compensation claims. The program, which provided team members with professional support within 24 hours of an incident, lowered the turnover rate to 10 percent by 2008.
Every person handles stress differently, and what is “no big deal” to one person could be a traumatic event for another. Building and maintaining resiliency before, during, and after a crisis is crucial to complete recovery, Glenn emphasizes.
9/11 COMMISSION ISSUE UPDATE
Released in 2004, The 9/11 Commission Report detailed what led to the 2001 terrorist attacks and what could be done to make the nation safer. Ten years later, the Bipartisan Policy Center has released Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of The 9/11 Commission Report, a look back on the changes made during the last decade, recommendations that were not followed, and where the terrorist threat stands today.
The center, which works to address challenges facing the nation through dialogue and analysis, interviewed unnamed national security leaders to understand the threat landscape. Findings included concerns over the changing face of terrorism, a lack of cyber readiness, and fragmented oversight of national security programs.
The report acknowledges that the “core” of al Qaeda has been diminished, but its affiliates have dispersed throughout the Middle East and pose a greater threat to more regions than ever before. Terrorist attacks rose by 43 percent worldwide in 2013, according to the report, and the United States still faces an evolving threat from terrorists. (For more on the increase in terrorist attacks, see “News and Trends” on page 14.)
A major concern discussed in the report is the nation’s inability to defend against cyberattacks. Although the threat is not from terrorists, state actors such as China, Russia, and Iran have caused damage in the digital world. Chinese hackers accessed U.S. weapons systems, Iran hacked into Navy computer systems, and a virus that originated in Iran disabled 30,000 computers owned by a Saudi Arabian oil company. “A growing chorus of senior national security officials describes the cyber domain as the battlefield of the future,” the report states. “Yet Congress has been unable to pass basic cybersecurity legislation, despite repeated attempts.”
The report did not hesitate to condemn Congress for being “deeply resistant to needed change.” In the 2004 9/11 Commission Report, authors urged Congress to garner control over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to curb fragmented congressional oversight of the program.
“Regrettably, the Department of Homeland Security is still being simultaneously overseen by an unwieldy hodgepodge of committees,” the report states. “In 2004, we remarked with astonishment and alarm that DHS reported to 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress. Incredibly, Congress over the past 10 years has increased this plethora of oversight bodies to 92.”
Lastly, the report raises concerns over “counterterrorism fatigue”—the waning sense of urgency among Americans about the terrorist threat. “One of America’s most pressing challenges as a country is to resist the natural urge to relax our guard after 13 years of a draining counterterrorism struggle,” the report states. Underlying all recommendations is a call for bipartisan trust and cooperation.