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Scare Tactics: Reacting to a Crisis Without Panic

Mar 01, 200415 mins
IT JobsIT Leadership

How will employees at your company react if a real crisis hits? Here's what to do to keep panic at bay.

In the pressurized cabin of a commercial jet, 30,000 feet in the air, 125 people are clamoring to get out.

Five minutes earlier, they looked just like any other group of passengers sitting back in their seats, some resting with eyes closed, others quietly reading, still others making small talk with the person next to them. The plane had a sudden drop in altitude during a turbulent ride, and panic ensued. That’s all it tookone anxious passenger to stand up and announce he couldn’t take it any more. He wants off the plane now. Before the crew can respond, everyone is out of their seats.

When rational thought is gone, all we have to fall back on is emotion. Whether it’s on a flight to Chicago or in an elevator in your office building, emotion can be a dangerous thing in a high-stakes security emergency.

Panic. It’s what causes us to run instead of evacuating in a calm, orderly manner. And you can’t imagine the speed with which it spreads. You probably like to think that your employees would be calm during a crisis. But unless you’ve trained them to work through the stress of a security emergency, you might be surprised at that too.

You’re not alone. Many security executives put extensive time and effort into developing contingency plans, but they fail to take the stepstraining and practicethat enable employees to calmly follow those procedures during a crisis. In fact, most CSOs are far less prepared to handle crises than they would like to thinkor have led their bosses to believe.

Panic is a manifestation of the body’s basic fight-or-flight responsethe same involuntary response that prepared early man to defend himself against a saber-toothed tiger or gather up his animal skins and head for the hills. The physiology of this process is about preparing the body for either decision. When a person perceives danger, a flood of adrenaline speeds up the heart and respiration rates so that more oxygen is circulated throughout the body. Blood rushes to the thighs and biceps and away from extremities to prevent the body from bleeding to death if seriously injured. Fight or flight also causes the body to produce more sweat to prevent overheating and cause the skin to become slippery and harder to grab hold of.

All that is a very healthy response to danger, notes psychiatrist and author Dr. Stuart Shipko. “A little bit of fear can be helpful. It makes you more alert and gives you greater strength. But you don’t want that fear to reach a point where it becomes dysfunctional,” he says. “Panicking is allowing your fear to get so out of control that your mental and physical functioning is less effective.” He notes that people experiencing an elevated state of anxiety are easy to pick out because their voices get loud and their actions are less purposeful.

In a crisis, a panicked person will often become unfocused, scattered and have difficulty following instructions. In short, they will have a harder time recalling what they need to be doing. You can have a great contingency plan, but not if it’s contingent on employees who are calm, cool and collected.

A study released by the American Management Association in December 2003 found that although many companies are doing a better job of crafting contingency plans, they’re not training their employees to follow them. Of 146 companies and executives surveyed, 64 percent said they have a crisis management plan in place, and 62 percent have designated a crisis management team. However, only 42 percent of those respondents said they routinely conduct drills or crisis simulations to test those plans in action, and a mere 39 percent have trained their key personnel and managers in crisis management techniques.

Employees who either don’t know what they should be doing or are too overcome by anxiety and emotion to take the appropriate steps during an emergency can make a crisis management plan virtually ineffectual. Crafting a plan is only the first step in emergency preparedness. Practice, Practice, PracticeOnce a plan is in place, frequent drilling on emergency procedures is critical to keeping employees calm during a crisis. At Hydro One, the third largest electrical transmitter in North America, Director of Corporate Security Services Chris Price has to deal with everything from the extremes of Canada’s wintry climate to threats against the critical infrastructure. Unlike many companies that rehearse an emergency evacuation once a year, Hydro One drills employees monthly so that the procedures are a habit rather than a novelty. “In an emergency situation, if people don’t feel comfortable and don’t know what to do, that feeds panic,” he says. “I know people think [drills are] a pain, but I’ve seen the time to evacuate steadily decrease to the point that we now have 100 percent compliance and 100 percent evacuation.”

How often you should run drills depends on the complexity of your plan. However, in many tall buildings, drills are even more important because it’s not always a straight shot from the 50th floor to the lobby. Some stairway systems are complex, and if there are crowds or low visibility, people can easily get turned around and confused.

Price has ensured that the importance of emergency evacuation procedures is woven into the fabric of daily office life at Hydro One’s Toronto headquarters. Company policy dictates that at the beginning of any meeting where visitors or contractors are present, an announcement should be made notifying them of the location of emergency exits and the presence of fire wardens who will direct people in the event of an emergency.

CSOs need to make sure that those life-saving steps are distilled to their simplest form. Asking people to do anything that is too complex is an invitation for confusion and panic to take over. “If employees have an ill-defined task, they will feel more chaotic,” says Dr. R. Reid Wilson, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine and author of Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks (Perennial, 1996). The danger is that they will channel all that excess energy into nonconstructive behavior. Train, Train, TrainWilson also recommends that companies invest in extensive training for the individuals in each department who will lead employees through emergency procedures. Security representatives need to learn what to convey to people during an emergency and how to deal with people who are having difficulty following instructions.

At Southern California Edison (SCE), Bob Sypult, director of corporate security and emergency preparedness, worries about the kind of panic that terrorism in particular can cause, but he has also been through wide-scale natural disasters, such as earthquakes and the recent firestorms that swept through the state. “If you have the fundamentals in place, your emergency plan should be able to react to any type of disaster,” he says. At SCE, the company goes through “duck, cover and hold” drills for earthquakes as well as full-scale evacuations once a year. His emergency response coordinators receive ongoing training throughout the year, and he takes emergency planners through corporate operating facilities and the grid control center so that they can understand how the company reacts during a crisis. Sypult’s planner training also includes a trip to the regional emergency operation center for Los Angeles County, which the company must work with during a disaster. SCE also has volunteer search and rescue teams on staff. The teams are intended to be a stopgap measure to provide assistance until public resources arrive, but they will also alleviate the burden of responsibility from regular employees who might feel it necessary to run back into a building to help a coworker.

Security emergencies, however, don’t always result in an evacuation. Often a company needs its employees to stay calm and focused because they are integral to keeping corporate operations running. If you work in an industry or geographic area where a variety of crises are possible, you must drill employees on the full spectrum of possible events. David Noznesky, director of corporate security for FPL Group (parent of Florida Power and Light), runs his employeesall 11,000 of themthrough a variety of elaborate scenarios. “We do a full dry-run once a year at minimum where we simulate a large disruption of power,” says Noznesky. “We create an elaborate scenario to see whether things work, and we come up with conditions that make it very difficult to sustain operations.” FPL recently ran a scenario in which a major storm cut across the state in several locations, affecting large population areas and damaging major FPL facilities. “Each time our employees learn, we as a company learn where there are areas for improvement,” he says.Talk, Talk, TalkIn the past two years, security has become a high-profile issue. As a result, employees are now paying close attention to everything the security department says or does. Smart CSOs will take advantage of it.

Employees want to feel that corporate security is vigilant and that there’s a system in place to keep them safe. That message should lie at the root of everything that the security department does. CSOs should communicate often with employees about changes in security, training that is taking place and responses that the company may be taking to national security issues.

At American Express, Tim Strawman, a vice president in the company’s global security program who’s responsible for crisis management and executive protection, is dealing with an employee base that is deeply invested in the company’s security plans. American Express employees were directly across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11. When the company made the decision to move back into the World Financial Center, some employees were anxious over the height of the building and that having the American Express brand on the outside would make it even more of a target.

To allay those fears, the company hosted town hall meetings for employees to vent their concerns and to explain new security measures. “We tried to alleviate their fears as much as possible because, if they don’t feel comfortable, obviously it’s going to affect their performance,” says Strawman.

In addition to continuing the town hall process, American Express offers a security website that gives tips and pointers for handling security situations and puts out information when there is a change in the national terror alert level. “We want people to know that we’re on top of [the situation], that there will be increases in securitysome they’ll see, some they won’tand that we’ve increased our vigilance,” he says.

Communicating well during a crisis is even more important. In late 2001, Hydro One, like other companies in Toronto, received anthrax and bomb threats, and Price was concerned that employees would panic. He found that a focus on strong communication during that period alleviated much of their anxiety. “The staff really responds well if they’re communicated with on a regular, consistent basis,” he says. “Tell them, when possible, exactly what’s happening, and what your next steps will be.”

Companies have also found that the more communication methods you have available, the better. At Edison, Sypult is constantly working on improving communication during a crisis. “We have tried virtually every mode of current technology, and there are gaps in every one,” he says. Cell phones have spotty coverage and won’t work in some remote California canyons. During the fires, the smoke was so thick that satellite phones couldn’t acquire a signal, and some of the equipment that the radio network relies on burned. While Sypult still depends on those technologies, he also supplements them with e-mail updates for people working in offices and on BlackBerrys for staff out in the field. That has helped Sypult weather a number of situations where different aspects of the communications structure were affected.

Many companies also supplement their regular communication technologies with backup radiophones and walkie-talkies for emergencies in addition to relying heavily on their buildings’ public address broadcast system. If those systems are controlled by the building owners rather than the tenants, companies need to make sure that the technologies match their needs. And if you have employees who don’t speak English, be sure the building has the capability to communicate emergency messages in other languages.

Security directors struggle with how much they should say during a crisis because too much information can stir up unnecessary anxiety. Be honest but avoid giving out information that is unconfirmed. “In the first half an hour, you can save people with a good decision or hurt them with a bad decision,” says Jim Trainor, vice president for security at Verizon Communications.

From his office on the 29th floor of Verizon’s Manhattan headquarters, Trainor has a clear view of the patch of blue sky where the World Trade Center towers stood. “That incident raised the consciousness of people about evacuations,” he says. “In most cases, evacuating is the right thing to do; in some cases, it may not be. But the most important thing to do is to assess the facts, determine the best course of action and let employees know about it as quickly as you can.”

When the terror threat level is raised, Sypult sends out a notice to Edison’s key managers and supervisors and to the company’s emergency response coordinators telling them exactly what the company knows. The government doesn’t usually provide much information, but Sypult works with the Department of Homeland Security on electric-sector security issues. If there are no known threats directed at the electric industry, he makes sure employees know that. At the same time, “if unreliable information surfaced that suggested we had been targeted,” says Sypult, “the worst thing I could do would be to hit the panic button and send that information out across the company.” It’s a balancing act.

When security messages are watered down or employees feel the company is not giving them all the information it has, mistrust and panic can result. “If we lie to our employees, if we insult them and dumb down the message, we lose some credibility,” says Steven Kuhr, senior vice president and practice leader of Kroll’s Emergency Management Group.

Hydro One received a bomb threat a few years ago that turned out to be a hoax. However, an actual object that was made to look like a bomb was placed in the building. While the search was going on, employees started to question what was happening. The security team announced that it was looking for a “suspicious article,” but because of significant evidence that it was likely a hoax, the team was careful not to panic people by saying it was a bomb. “Be honest,” says Price. “Don’t communicate something that’s not true. Tell them what you can, but not something that hasn’t been confirmed.”

During a crisis, misinformation can also run rampant. Like a game of telephone, the details of a security incident can become distorted as the information is passed from person to person. To counteract that, some companies have set up rumor hotlines that provide employees with accurate information and dispel rumors. The hotline operates only in an emergency, but Noznesky’s employees know that they have one central place where they can get timely and factual information.

espite all the carefully crafted communication and drills, it’s inevitable that during an emergency some people will panic. But if the people around them remain confident, anxiety can be kept to a minimum. The security coordinators on the front lines need to be trained to manage employees who have become overanxious.

The first step is to remove nonessential people from the scene so that panic doesn’t spread. When UNC’s Wilson was leading a seminar for fearful fliers, he saw how quickly panic could spread among the already anxious. His solution was to isolate those passengers at the first sign of panic. “If one person is escalating emotionally, separate him off physically,” he says. “Pull him 6 feet away from the other people and then calm him down and give him some instruction on what he needs to do.”

In a case where you have panicked people who need to follow instructions, Wilson suggests getting a little tough with them. “If they’re not focusing, walk up to them, put your face in theirs, hold onto their shoulders and say, ‘Look at me! Listen to what I’m saying.’ You have a responsibility in that moment,” says Wilson.

Often the most panicked people are bystanders who become extremely fearful but have no outlet for that energy. If a person overcome with emotion is not essential to the task at hand, sometimes the best solution is to give him some busywork to focus on. Give him something to deliver to another department. Instruct him not to run but to get it there as quickly as possible. During a crisis, activity can be calming.

The keys to preventing panic are good training and preparation. With well-crafted plans and well-trained people, panic and chaos can be minimized. “There’s always the potential for limited panic,” says Noznesky. “Employees see a lot of craziness in the world. They just want a sense of comfort that they’re safe at work.”