The Silo Syndrome
For as long as we’ve had egos, manuals of procedure, and departmental rivalry, emergency management professionals have been plagued by thoughts such as, “That’s not how we do it here. We know best. We’ll do it our way.” This common malady – considered by some of those afflicted to be a form of open-mindedness – can often result from spending too much time in a silo.
Let’s call it the Silo Syndrome – a costly problem that some experts feel is one of the major obstacles we face in making our governments, businesses and citizens adequately prepared and protected in the event of emergencies and disasters.
A few years ago, CCEP’s annual World Conference on Disaster Management focused on ‘Connecting the Silos’. The theme was prompted in part by the death of hundreds of New York City fire fighters at the World Trade Center. Those frontline responders were guided by fire department radio systems that, tragically, were and still are incompatible with police department radio systems. The police were first to learn that the towers would collapse, but they could not get the message to the fire fighters because of ‘interoperability problems’.
As experts reviewed this interoperability issue, it became clear to many across the emergency management spectrum that this was symptomatic of a widespread communications problem, extending well beyond the realm of technological compatibility issues. In the words of one project leader trying to solve the problem, “It’s not a technical problem. It’s a people problem.”
At the time, the Silo Syndrome was just being recognized as a communications problem with many root causes. And its toll is greater than the loss of those on 9/11. Almost in unison, a few individuals in various disciplines of the emergency management and business continuity professions began a process of self-examination into their own Silo Syndromes.
After years of talking with practitioners in both the public and private sectors around the world, CCEP’s sense is that those who are trying to address the Silo Syndrome in Canada are too few and far between, especially compared to colleagues in other countries such as the UK where they have learned the hard way.
Emergency management planners, administrators, responders, mitigation engineers, emergency preparedness organizations, relief agencies, recovery specialists and others were often focused on their own silos. Each was the centre of its own world and communicated with other silos on a need-to-know basis. Even within sectors and organizations there existed mini-silos. Police, fire and EMS considered themselves the extent of the ‘first response community’.
Then came SARS. Those who understood the Silo Syndrome quickly recognized that public health must be put on an equal footing. That break-through opened many eyes.
Government and emergency response agency planners began to realize that they couldn’t plan only for disasters that affected others – they needed to ensure that their own essential functions could continue following a major emergency. What is commonly known as business continuity management in the private sector became known as continuity of operations planning (COOP) in the public sector. In the process, they were making themselves more robust and resilient so they could respond more effectively and with more certainty to external emergencies. This was a big step forward.
Private sector business continuity planners, corporate controllers and sales-driven executives have different aims and priorities. Sometimes they agree on little, and communications between their silos is often ineffective. But when they learn of disasters hitting their competitors and service providers, they have to consider how they would fare in the similar circumstances.
To be certain, there are more businesses incorporating continuity and risk management processes into their day-to-day operations than ever before. But the vast majority of small- and medium-sized businesses still do little or nothing at all. It is gradually getting better, but if we consider the business community as a spider web of supply chains, there will be an awful lot of missing links when a major disaster hits.
The public and private sectors interface in myriad ways to get things done. But, for most businesses, communications with their municipalities about emergency planning and local disaster management is simply non-existent.
Think about that for a moment. All municipalities plan and prepare for emergencies. Some businesses do, too. But, with some exceptions, they don’t talk to each other about those plans – until it’s too late. The municipality isn’t responsible for the health and safety of independent businesses. And businesses often assume that the municipal services and utilities they rely on will be restored within hours. The implication of these misunderstandings is starting to sink in with those in the public and private sectors who are reconsidering their plans for a major widespread disaster like Hurricane Katrina or, far worse, an influenza pandemic.
For scenarios like a major hurricane, planners must consider that their physical locations could be destroyed, seriously damaged or simply unavailable (as in an evacuation). But should a pandemic occur, up to a third of their employees might be unable, or unwilling, to come to work. The same applies to their suppliers, customers, municipal services, utility providers – everyone in the community. For many planners, the potential impact of a worldwide pandemic is sparking the realization that effective contingency planning has to involve all stakeholders.
It’s not just about developing a plan. It’s about developing and nurturing a process – identifying the risks, taking steps to prevent or mitigate them, developing, maintaining and regularly testing plans to enable the organization to respond to, and recover from, any event. General Dwight Eisenhower described it well when he said, “…plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
In far too many communities, government and businesses have not done their emergency planning and exercising together. There are exceptions, and they are the instances where valuable lessons are being learned. For example, the Region of Halton recently conducted Operation Flu-Phix, a multidisciplinary tabletop exercise involving more than 220 participants from 35 public, private and volunteer organizations. They focused on sharing ideas, developing solutions, and preparing for a health emergency that could seriously affect the delivery of services to individuals and businesses.
The organizations and individuals learning these lessons are emerging from their silos with the understanding that we are all in this together. These are the people who will save our businesses, our communities, our lives.
The Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness is a Burlington-based non-profit organization in emergency management and business continuity. CCEP presents the annual World Conference on Disaster Management this June in Toronto, “Emergency Management and Business Continuity – Working Together.” Details of this learning and networking opportunity are available at www.wcdm.org. CCEP also partners in DisasterManagementJobs.com, and is preparing a new initiative – the Emergency Management Portal. Visit www.ccep.ca.