Post 9-11 Employee and Business Protection

It's time for the corporate world to have its own internal Incident Command System.

THE Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have left their marks on all of us. For those who were present in the New York and Washington areas when these coordinated acts of terror occurred, the joy of surviving the assault was tempered by concerns over the safety of local relatives and colleagues. Most friends and family re-emerged--sometimes injured, usually traumatized, frequently with unforgettable survival stories to tell--to great relief and teary reunions. And as the names of the 3,000 fatalities became known, collective grieving occurred, along with thoughts and prayers for them and their loved ones. The realization of the horrific manner in which the victims perished compounded the sense of loss.

Among the many wonders from 9/11 that the passage of time now allows us to appreciate is the great work that was performed by many who barely escaped with their lives. Thousands of dedicated individuals toiled during subsequent weeks, often in makeshift work environments and mounting family issues, to ensure that their companies rebounded from the terror-generated chaos and destruction. The scope of the attacks was so far beyond what had previously been considered possible that the survival of individual businesses had to be ensured on a largely improvised basis. Baseline contingency planning, where it had occurred, did serve organizations well, but it was evident more vigorous processes would be necessary for the future.

It goes without saying that our perceptions of business contingency planning, personal safety, and national and international politics have permanently changed as the result of the 9/11 terrorism. As businesspeople, it's important that we recognize this changed landscape, while we're also continuing to adjust to a dynamic world business climate. The right approach can make a great difference in the comfort level of employees--from top executive to entry-level--as they labor to maintain an organization's viability.

The Need for an Integrated Approach
In the past, large corporations often organized their key safety and security-oriented functions in an isolated fashion. Safety, security, facilities management, business continuity, and risk management have functional areas of expertise that sometimes inhibited collaborations among their leaders. The need for specialization within each of these functions remains valid. Yet the fears of additional terror attacks, as well as our ongoing vulnerability to natural disasters and other business disruptions, require a broader perspective--a truly comprehensive and integrated approach to employee and business protection.

Major corporations with concentrations of employees and key business functions in high-profile metropolitan areas must now simultaneously (1) reaffirm their commitment to remain in large, disaster-vulnerable cities or regions, (2) assure employees in those locations of their safety, (3) streamline their people protection and business continuity programs to make them more responsive in the new, post-9/11 business environment--and (4) still make money! Business continuity, security, risk management, insurance, safety, and facilities management need to pull together, along with human resources and communications, to develop a unified way to meet these challenges. To be successful, the strategy ought both to enhance the protection of people and to be recognized as doing so by the masses of employees.

At FleetBoston Financial, which has had thousands of employees working in New York, Boston, and other major cities, an initiative called "Fleet Safe" was introduced in 2003 to reflect the new employee security reality. Many of the lessons we learned in creating and implementing Fleet Safe are presented in the remainder of this article. This is what was designed to work best in Fleet's situation. Corporations and other types of work organizations should feel free to take our experience and adapt to their own circumstances. Indeed, with Fleet's April 2004 merger into Bank of America, Fleet Safe looks to be redesigned--and renamed--as many of its components are introduced in our new corporate home.

Employee Awareness and Education
A pronounced effect of the 9/11 attacks is that employees are much more aware of and concerned about their safety at work. This expanded awareness level is even more apparent with people who work in large cities, in high-rise buildings, or in industries (e.g., financial, defense contracting, transportation) that are considered likely targets of terrorism. Each time the Homeland Security Advisory threat level is raised or an act of terror occurs somewhere in the world, employee anxiety levels escalate. These fears can be addressed by making both building-specific and universal emergency information available, through several complementary media.

Because many employees now have direct Internet access while at work, the Web can effectively serve as the hub of the emergency informational material. Utilizing the corporate homepage, the latest company-initiated advisories (such as activities in relation to Department of Homeland Security pronouncements and severe weather warnings) can be presented in a headline format. In addition to data provided by the company, links can be provided to organizations, such as the American Red Cross and the National Hurricane Center, for information that instructs on coping with specific types of emergency situations.

Ideally, corporate electronic media should be utilized on a two-way basis, allowing employees to inquire about--and get direct responses to--their own particular situations. A dedicated e-mailbox, administered by a responsive and knowledgeable company source, lends credibility to the overall effort. The ability to inform an employee, with the assistance of internal or external expertise, if his home is in a floodplain or if the wedding she's invited to is located in the area where a health epidemic has been confirmed, makes the organization's efforts seem much more sincere, not just a nice PR gesture.

The more traditional means of information dissemination (mailings, flyers, posters, etc.) also can be effective in emergency preparedness education. Hard-copy advice has a much greater likelihood to be shared among colleagues and family members. Moreover, if presented in a unique and attractive format, it is more likely to be found and used when it's most needed.

Employees who serve as fire wardens, security officers, and contingency planners can be polled to determine which safety topics are most timely. Workplace violence, winter storms, elevator safety; the opportunities to share helpful information are virtually limitless. New information pieces should be churned out with regularity to maintain a freshness of ideas and momentum for your safety initiatives.

The development of a "wallet card," something each employee can carry at all times, is also recommended. Phone numbers for employee assistance, law enforcement and corporate security, business continuity, technological help, etc., can be presented. What to do with the "back side"? Recognize that the adrenaline rush of an emergency situation often confuses even the most grounded employees, and utilize the reverse for critical "reminder" information, such as what to do when an emergency occurs (e.g., "stay calm," "consult business continuity plans").

Information delivered directly to the employee's desk or computer screen does not necessarily equate to having the individual learn it or recall its location when it is most needed. In addition, because most organizations routinely play host to visitors, some quick reference "signposts" are desirable for emergency situations. Identify the heavily traveled parts of your facilities (at least one place on each floor, such as the elevator area or the primary stairwell) and post key information on a well-marked safety board. Highlight the evacuation route for the floor, along with the names and contact points for individuals who serve as fire wardens, security chiefs, and facility managers. Entrust someone to maintain the board, and introduce new information on there at regular intervals.

There is nothing as reinforcing as a well-publicized informational "event" to attract attention to life safety issues and facilitate employee learning. Fleet conducted "Fleet Safe Days," which featured displays of emergency preparedness-oriented materials and compact, two-hour programs that employees could attend to learn more on various safety topics. The agendas were tailored to local interests, such as subway safety in New York and Boston and elevator safety where employees had been recently stuck. At such events, the use of outside experts--such as local fire and police and bomb detection specialists--added greatly to the program's credibility.

Enhanced Facility Emergency Preparedness
No matter where an employee works and whatever his or her position is with the organization, he or she must be afforded a reasonable level of protection while at the work site. Companies with outstanding safety and security programs at one location often have them lacking in other places. Inevitably, employees among the sites will talk, and the perception will spread that safety for some people and facilities is a higher company priority than it is for the others.

The solution, obviously, is a consistent corporate standard. This standard must recognize and be adaptable for the unique situations that exist in the network of company facilities. Emergency evacuation planning in New York City, where local laws are very specific, versus those in the suburbs of Scranton, Pa. and Hartford, Conn., will have distinct differences--but employees in all of those sites deserve the same level of the company's attention.

The public safety community's recent embrace of the Incident Command System is, in large part, the result of many years of poorly coordinated emergency responses due to disputes over "who's in charge." Under ICS, agencies develop plans in advance of an incident to identify which one will take the lead when the emergency occurs.

It is time that the corporate world follows suit with its own internal ICS. Notwithstanding the complex variables that must be considered for each site (number of lines of business in the building, owner vs. tenant, etc.), it is usually feasible to designate a company official to be in charge for the entire facility during an emergency. Important criteria for the designation of the "site emergency manager" should include (1) being as high-ranking as possible; (2) holding a position that allows the person to usually be present in the facility (i.e., someone who does not usually travel); and (3) good leadership skills.

The selection of the site emergency manager must be made, or endorsed, by the ranking executive in the building. That adds significantly to the emergency manager's credibility with other local executives, whose natural reaction in crisis conditions (when they're around) likely will be to take charge of their lines of business themselves. At Fleet, a strong endorsement of the concept by the CEO and the COO of the corporation precluded much of the potential for a local executive to override the site emergency manager. Still, regular communication and reinforcement on the function was made a priority. A separate site emergency manager was selected for each regularly scheduled shift at the site. Two alternates also were designated per shift. Both of these measures ensure someone is always in charge at the facility, should a problem occur.

Skilled managers and leaders they may be, but the site emergency managers in most cases are not experienced emergency decision-makers. It is imperative, therefore, that the site emergency manager has a strong rapport with the building's security and facility managers. Those three sources should be the hub of emergency decision-making--and, as with the public sector's Incident Command process, they must act in unison. Inconsistency and incompatibility among the three transmits a negative message to employees and deflates employee confidence during emergency situations.

Just as the message to employees during an emergency must be clear and consistent, so, too, must your company's contacts with responding police and firefighters. Ideally, the seeds of a strong relationship with the local public safety leadership will be sown well in advance of an incident. Inviting them to your buildings for routine discussions about site evacuations, the locations of stored hazardous substances, and knowing local protocols on issues such as bomb threats, add genuine value to your safety and security capabilities. Perhaps most critically, it creates a positive mutual familiarity when public safety must respond to an incident at your site.

Other key issues on which focus is warranted include the quality of your facility's emergency plan, the necessity of a quick and effective means to communicate to all employees within the building, and recognition of the importance of symbolic acts when the workforce has had to withstand a crisis. The same process your organization places on generating revenue--thorough planning, strong execution, and focused analyses to improve future performance--should be replicated in protecting your people in the post-9/11 environment. To do so is a powerful and appropriate sign to the employees who are generating the company's revenues.

Making It All Work
Successfully addressing employee safety and protection in these anxious times will include an honest and accurate assessment of your industry, facility locations, and your employees' perception of their vulnerability to emergencies. Any complete implementation must include two critical criteria: a genuine commitment by top executives to protecting the workplace to the extent possible; and competent leadership of the safety and protection efforts. Empty and phony assertions by the CEO that employee health and welfare is a top priority become recognized very quickly for what they are. Leadership in protecting employees must incorporate the best and most far-sighted ideas, as well as a seamless, "all for one" integration by traditionally separated internal groups such as security, facilities management, and business continuity.

Challenging, and often difficult, it will be. But as was demonstrated dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001--much of it on a completely improvised basis--the most talented individuals and well-managed business organizations have the capacity to reach deep and bring forth the necessary ingredients to overcome the threats that confront them. The proper organizational focus, energy, and confidence will prevail. It must, in the post-9/11 era.

This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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