Floods, tornados, pandemics! OH MY!

By John Lindsay

Manitoba’s experience with natural and technological events over the past twelve months is probably about average or, at least, at a level we should now consider normal. From the 2019 Thanksgiving weekend snowstorm through to the summer’s deadly tornados and flash flooding in the west, Manitoba is discovering what its future climate could be like. However, the spread of a novel coronavirus has overshadowed these more common impacts, dominated the news cycle, and driven economic and social decisions that will have long-lasting implications.

The COVID-19 experience
The COVID-19 pandemic is not our first experience with the introduction of a new disease. The past two decades have seen West Nile Virus, SARS, and H1N1 influenza generate significant public health responses interspersed with the more mundane outbreaks of illness from the likes of E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, or Legionella bacteria. These public health emergencies were characterized by factors such as being primarily in one community (e.g. 2001 E. coli in Walkerton, ON or SARS in the Greater Toronto Area), or connected to a specific food (e.g. 2008 Listeria in cold cuts, or Salmonella in red onions in August of 2020). The difference with the current pandemic is the degree to which the Provincial and Federal governments, through their public health actions, have attempted to stop the spread of the disease at the cost of social and economic disruption.

This has highlighted a distinction that is recognized within the emergency and continuity management profession between the impacts generated by the causal agent – in this case, the illnesses and deaths from the virus – and the response-generated impacts such as the disruption of the education system. While the virus is essentially causing the same illness around the world, the truly distinguishing factor in how different countries are coping is in the way they are enforcing public health measures. This is one valuable lesson that must be heeded by those involved in emergency and continuity management.

Understanding vulnerability
The implication for human resource management is also clear: organizations and employees do not need to be directly impacted by the disaster event to be affected. Disasters, by definition, are events that disrupt the normal functioning of society. Those disruptions include the direct physical injuries and death produced by the extreme incident, but more likely will be the widespread secondary consequences of utility outages, evacuations, transportation disruptions or, as we now appreciate, public health measures. With an organization’s human resources often being the most diverse and dispersed asset, it is crucial that their complete vulnerability is assessed.

Knowing your resources
This is one important point of interaction between HR professionals and their colleagues in emergency and continuity management. Understanding the organization’s workforce goes beyond knowing how ‘normal’ positions and duties may need to shift as part of an emergency response. It is necessary to understand how everyone’s skills may be put to the best use. Perhaps someone in accounting is also a volunteer firefighter; how will those skills be useful to the organization and how will those external responsibilities affect that employee? These are the questions that HR professionals can help answer as part of emergency and continuity planning.

There are other external factors that can influence how quickly and for how long the organization’s human resources can be available to work. Issues such as residential location, mode of transportation, and family & community responsibilities can influence which employees are able to report for work following a large-scale impact. Do your senior executives and custodial staff all live nearby or do their residences tend to be geographically grouped along other social and economic lines? Such locational differences may determine what segments of the workforce face damage at home, or altered commuting times. Discovering such patterns can help emergency and continuity planners anticipate delays and arrange alternatives.

Advocate for home preparedness
This connects to another role HR professionals can perform advocating for home preparedness. In the Spring 2020 edition of HRmatters, Scott Park covered important points about working from home. The connection between the workplace and an employee’s home is growing tighter. It is prudent for organizations to actively promote and support home preparedness so employees are less vulnerable in a disaster and can return to work, either on-site or remotely, as soon as possible. The added benefit of encouraging home preparedness is it reduces the demand on the emergency services and other critical response agencies so that those resources can be more effectively deployed.

Emergency and continuity professionals
One final contribution HR professionals can make to their organization is ensuring the necessary skills and knowledge are available to implement a comprehensive emergency and continuity program. The Canadian Standards Association’s CSA Z 1600-17 – Emergency and Continuity Management Program highlights the importance of having appropriately trained and educated professionals managing an organization’s disaster planning activities. While this expertise may take different forms depending on the size and risk profile of the organization, from occasional consultancies to a full-time emergency and continuity team, HR has a pivotal role in selecting and supporting these efforts.

The current pandemic has all of us wondering what the ‘new normal’ will look like for our organizations and our communities. Citizens across the country, from places like Fort McMurray, AB, Lac Me ́gantic, QC, or Elie, MB, have also wondered what would come next for their damaged homes, businesses, and communities. Successful emergency and continuity management – whether at home, in the private sector, or as a government function – relies on people. HR professionals have an enormous opportunity and even an obligation to make sure those people are safe, trained, and ready to meet the challenges of the next disaster.

About the author: John ‘Jack’ Lindsay is an associate professor and chair of the Applied Disaster and Emergency Studies department at Brandon University in Brandon, MB. He can be reached at lindsayj@brandonu.ca.

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