Disaster and Crisis Management Principles : Truth & Myths - John N. Zeppos
Disaster and Crisis Management Principles – Truth and Myths
John N. Zeppos1
COSMOTE Mobile Telecommunications S.A., Athens, Greece. E-mail: email@example.com
ABSTRACT: The time gap between incident and catastrophe is smaller than we think. In order to effectively withstand a
significant disruption, organizations must have a clear, precise and rehearsed Disaster/Crisis Management Plan in place.
The very next moments following a significant incident leading to a disastrous impact, are the most important regarding response
and tactics followed that would give us a chance to reach the Recovery phase. Stick to the Who-does-what-how-when rule.
Communications: is at the very heart of managing any incident. Having a call-tree does not mean anything if the means are not in
place and - guess what - tested. Options include numerous solutions such as: Landlines, Cellular network, VoIP, SMS, BB IM,
Roaming sim cards e.t.c. Satellite phones though, are here to make our lives easier, having as only prerequisite that the other
party we are trying to contact, also has a device himself. As satellite communications do not rely a lot on land based
infrastructure, you have much more possibilities to communicate - hoping that the satellite service is operating flawlessly (e.g.
The Authority - and capability - to conduct the correct actions in terms of criticality while facing a Crisis/Disaster is another
critical aspect. No matter what one is willing to do, must have the appropriate jurisdiction and visibility in order to mobilise the
necessary team members and make good use of the resources to respond effectively. Jurisdiction does not usually go along with
Coordination: It is essential that everybody know their role and the overall responsibility is held by someone having high
visibility of both the organisation and the disastrous situation.
Succession / Deputies: No matter who is available, the incident will still happen! Responses need to be planned using roles not
specific people, and people must be trained to perform the roles they need to perform.
Having the above embedded into your daily activities, will most probably give you the chance to think about Recovery coming
next. If failed to do so, 5 minutes before the party is too late to learn how to dance.-.
Keywords: Crisis, Catastrophe, Incident, Principles.
Catastrophes are neither welcome, nor foreseen. Incidents do not respect borders and boundaries. If we accept that we cannot
prevent all incidents, then it is how we respond to them that will be judged. In order to be on the safer side, we should probably
follow the C.A.C.S. (Communications-Authority-Coordination-Succession) principles and give ourselves the chance to think
about recovery. Actions come right next. It all comes down to practicality than bureaucracy and – as always – the final choice is
This might be the only word to describe the very next minutes / hours / days following a disaster. If we try to find the exact
meaning of the word “chaos” we’ll come up with something like this: “a state lacking order or predictability.”
Undoubtedly both order and predictability seem to be absent during a situation whose impact is huge to either just infrastructure
or even worse, assets and human life as well.
People often get themselves into a “panic” situation and some kind of “mental disorder” for at least a while, trying to understand
the size of the catastrophe. It is not always obvious what has happened.
Professionals on the other hand are the ones to not only seem to, but really be in control of the situation. That said, it is self
understood that they have done that again and again and again in the past not just because they happened to be in the scene – or
even arrive afterwards when all hell broke loose - but have exercised their role in a safe environment many times before being in
position to perform on the field, because they then have confidence and a structured way of responding.
Having said the above on the disaster side, we can quite easily realize that it has to do with destruction incidents, while crises
might have to do with something that either did not escalate to a disaster or an incident that only had less impact.
Despite that, both disasters and crises do bring chaos and panic as well, mostly because they have to do with the fear of the
unknown; namely the size of the catastrophe or the problem itself, despite its nature.
Still, no matter what the exact consequences are – because it’s all about consequences after all – there are certain things one
should do, as under situations and such pressure, it’s easier to perform specific things than avoid others.
Speaking of specific actions to take place, it is important to analyze the most basic principles to consider when responding to a
situation like that.
The time gap between incident and catastrophe is smaller than we think. In order to effectively withstand a significant disruption,
one must have a clear and precise Disaster/Crisis Management Plan in place. Of course a plan alone is almost nothing but as
Dwight Eizenhower said: “planning is everything”. Even if when in any other real life situation happening in a “safe”
environment time most commonly is money, dealing with a disaster, time can quite easily cost human life.
The very next moments following a significant incident leading to a disastrous impact, are the most important ones regarding
response and tactics followed that would give us a chance to reach the Recovery phase. Stick to the Who-does-what-how-when
rule. Focus on info & decision making!
It is very important to have a concise tested plan, that supports the key roles and responsibilities that come in power when an
incident occurs, according to the level of its impact.
Regarding impact levels, we are coming to another serious issue which is the drafting of an “Impact Criteria Table” that will
clearly state the different impact levels according to the exact consequences of the real incident, that itself leads to the proper
actions to be undertaken by each different role.
But, since the above seems to be a bit more on the theoretic side, let’s get down to some practical advice that can probably lead to
Above all is Communications. Having a call-tree does not mean anything if the means are not in place and - guess what - tested.
Just because a call tree worked when tested does not mean that it will deliver when the incident occurs, for a number of reasons.
Other options include numerous solutions such as: Landlines, Cellular network, VoIP, SMS, BB IM, Roaming sim cards e.t.c.
First thing that goes down the very next seconds after a disaster strikes, is the traditional communication means. Survivors will
immediately try to reach their relatives, friends, colleagues using either fixed lines or most probably nowadays, mobile phones
causing an overload or even break down to the network used. Capacity is always a serious problem and cables are another,
meaning that since the interconnection backbones that mainly rely on the fixed lines are possibly down, your device could be
practically useless. A great idea is to have all useful numbers in a hardcopy, as mobiles could run out of battery as well! (Solar
chargers could also help with that)
Satellite phones are here to make our lives easier, having as only prerequisite that the other party we are trying to contact also has
a device himself. As satellite communications do not rely a lot on land based infrastructure, you have much more possibilities to
communicate - hoping that the satellite service is operating flawlessly. Of course problems might persist here as well as history
tells us that even satellites can go down or just have communication disruptions. Globalstar is a good example of how can one
think that he can flawlessly communicate, and suddenly find out that direct sight to the satellite does not always mean
communication as well.
Nevertheless, latest Haiti disaster proved to everybody that satellite seems to be the most reliable communications means on
earth, despite of the infrastructure loss on the ground locally.
There are other means and ways of reaching one another as well, some of them more traditional than others; namely human
runners – that have a limited range of course - , Tetra phones and VHF that both rely on ground infrastructure and except for that
they could both cause problems to rescue services communications as well. (Depends on Tetra availability to every country
Internet (accuracy issues exist-access to alternates ways to verify the information as well is needed) was intentionally left last, as
it can largely help by spreading the information worldwide in seconds by the time the first news, blogs, pictures appear online but
to most people, it mostly provides news than help. That is definitely a huge “plus” but we cannot still rely on the critical
information being spread in time. Googling “Haiti Earthquake” for example, returns us more than 32 million articles and more
than 12 million photographs… But how much time did it take before the first article and picture hit the sites? Maybe not much
but in any case, longer than what it is needed for responders to communicate.
The Authority - and capability - to conduct the correct actions in terms of criticality while facing an incident is another critical
aspect. No matter what one is willing to do, must have the appropriate jurisdiction and visibility in order to mobilize the
necessary team members and make good use of the resources available to respond effectively.
It is of significant importance for a team or an organization to understand and realize that except for the organizational roles there
are operational ones as well that come to power when a serious incident occurs. (Predefined framework – structured response)
This means that you should - and must - not rely on the organizational role of someone in order to take over a situation and lead
the group he/she is responsible for to a solution or at least a practical, down to earth and fit-for-purpose approach of the situation.
Competences are a safer way to appoint roles than hierarchy rank.
There are more than many examples worldwide of people trying to take advantage of their seniority level in order to “show” to
their own managers that they can either effectively manage a situation or even to try to make things happen, without them having
neither the proper experience nor the ability (being calm, decisive and in control) to respond to a serious incident.
It is quite common that many organizations have chosen people to be positioned in senior levels not judging by their personal
abilities to not only manage people but to have other leadership characteristics as well, but most probably because they managed
to create the appropriate lobbying and networking around them that finally lead them to get promoted.
This proves to be quite sad because every individual – even if really being in position to manage people and projects or programs
during business as usual ( BAU ) situations - are not quite effective while being involved in an unforeseen or even foreseen
unwilling situation such as an earthquake, a bomb attack or generally speaking a disaster that usually leads to chaos.
Coming back to my earlier statement, operational roles in either incident management or even in a Business Continuity
programme, are there just because some people happen to have certain competences and capabilities to coordinate others
effectively, and that is exactly the reason why teams or organizations decide to use them to have a leading role in disastrous
incidents and recovery situations. A huge plus is always their high visibility of an organization or territory and their
Consequently, authority should never follow one’s organizational role (at least not always – exceptions to the above statements
always exist in order to justify the rule) but their operational role instead, meaning that the individual must be selected on a
personality and competences basis that usually tend to demonstrate capability to take over and lead a “situation” to a successful
recovery. Roles and responsibilities for planning response to an incident need to be well documented, formalised and rehearsed –
especially by deputies.
Next, Coordination. It is essential that people know their exact role and the overall responsibility is held by someone having high
visibility of both the organization and the disastrous situation.
A practical “Roles and Responsibilities” plan should be in place. This really helps a lot in order to have clearly predefined
responsibilities for all existing roles in a plan. It should be complimentary to the above mentioned Impact Criteria Table (because
after all it all comes down to the impact and not the nature of the incident) and use them both to get to a predefined and
acceptable coordination level. Watch out : Higher hierarchical level teams do not take over !
In order for the coordination part to operate, everyone should be aware of the exact tasks they have to undertake, making things
run smoothly without having many people trying to perform the same tasks. A good example is Meryl Lynch that had so
extensively prescribed roles that when 9/11 happened, there was an employee that immediately after the strike managed to order
miles of network cable (cat5), which consequently helped the organization set up multiple ad-hoc recovery sites having their PCs
networked in no time after bumping in the recovery venues.
Except for that, certain teams expect to be efficiently coordinated just because they are used to and guess what – trained to – so if
no one gets himself in charge of the situation as described above, they will not have the confidence needed to take action, their
own prescribed action during a crisis.
A good example is that many organizations around the globe that, generally speaking, are adequately trained and rehearsed, tend
to have their top management teams sitting in a room, waiting for the CEO / Managing Director to appear before taking strategic
decisions and therefore, actions. You will never get the lost time back !
This brings us to the last bit : Succession. What if the previous team realize that their CEO / MD is either unavailable or even
hospitalized (not to mention worse situations), and the relevant info did not reach them? How much time would they normally
waste waiting to see when he will be present? Remember, time could cost human lives!
Since disasters –as said- are usually unforeseen by nature, since no one seems to know when will they happen, what will the
impact be, and who will be available, there is a demand of a succession plan as well. Even if we are not willing to think about
fatalities, does anyone know when an incident occurs where will his boss or manager be? Will he be in town? Will he be in the
city? Will he be alive?
Deputies are there to solve that problem, which in fact is a workaround for succession planning. Every human in command of a
group of people / organization / city / nation should have clearly appointed and rehearsed deputies in order to make sure that even
during his absence, the situation will be handled properly – at least until the boss arrives, being available again (that’s the best
you can wish for).
So, do not just stick to the traditional succession planning but start considering appointing deputies as well. They both work
complimentary to each other. People might not be available due to Holidays, air-travel, training, meetings, private appointments,
dentists e.t.c. Give your teams a chance to react and respond according to their trainings and rehearsals.
Organizations that are successful at managing incidents are often those that have integrated / embedded the key roles and
responsibilities into their everyday business activities – it’s part of how they choose to do business or operate.
If failed to do so, 5 minutes before the party is too late to learn how to dance.
https://www.wikipedia.org (2010). Chaos – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos
https://www.wikipedia.org (2010). Globalstar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalstar
https://www.coogle.com (2010). http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=ie7&q=haiti+earthquale&rls=com.microsoft:el:IE-
https://www.eric.ed.gov/ (2010). ED481519 - McCormick's Mayhem.
Zeppos John (2005) Business Continuity Management – PowerPoint Presentation