Ask Betsy: Building a Rapport and a Plan with First Responders

Both in the Women in BCM – Ask Betsy webinar and live at DRI2019, we encouraged you to send in your burning questions for our presenter, BCM veteran Betsy Sayers, MBCP, and you delivered! We’re pleased to present the next installment in a continuing Q&A series.  

Q: Do you have any advice for a female BCM coordinator in a first responder organization? 

Betsy: As a former female fire chief and emergency management coordinator for my small rural municipality, I understand your challenge.  In my experience, it was two-fold. First gaining respect from ‘the guys,’ and secondly getting them to recognize that we were the second highest budget municipal business service to our residents who were concerned about property tax bills as well as health and safety. Here it is a Municipalities Act requirement for municipalities to have a BCP for all services, including first responders. Having this regulatory requirement helped a lot, as it was very simple: “GUYS – WE HAVE TO DO THIS, so let’s work together to do it in the best most efficient way possible.”

First, the women-as-allies challenge of gaining respect from the guys. I found this to be both the toughest and easiest challenge all at the same time. I had to recognize that there were simply some people who would never respect me. I decided to adopt my approach of four generations of cultural change and ignored these team members. I worked with the ready, willing and able, then progressed through the motivated and fence-sitters to make significant progress across the organization. By the time I got to the generation of ‘nay-sayers’ there was only one of them left and he had lost all power to block my progress so I just continued to ignore him. On my retirement from the FD, I was shocked when he was the one who gave me the greatest testimonial for my work to improve their on-the-job safety….yup, seriously!

In order to get my program off the ground, I put all my focus into working with the guys who recognized first responder organizations are actually a major business service of the municipality. Having said that, it’s important to recognize that, organizationally, they are very different than a typical business service.  In business, you are usually dealing with a few representatives from one level or another of a hierarchical organization and never get to meet the rest of the team to find allies. In first responder organizations, the teams are much more horizontal and allies stand out quickly (and then there is always the team where there simply are no allies – do them last!).

Since my heroic firefighters who hated paperwork tended to also be those who were not allies, it was not all that difficult to be able to work with those who were. Choose to work only with one ally rather than a team of two allies and five naysayers if you can. Through the process of developing a BCP you will no doubt identify areas of investment required (especially in risk controls) and will have the opportunity to make business case presentations to council that were never achievable before. This will motivate fence-sitters and eventually bring the naysayers on board with your program.

Each first responder organization is unique. Fire, police, and ambulance all have different service delivery models; therefore risks, impacts and continuity strategies can also be completely different.  There are a few risks they all share — loss of dispatch and communications capability, building loss due to fire and major equipment outage of incredibly expensive specialized gear with extremely long replacement lead times (communication towers; fire trucks; ambulances; 911 dispatch centers, etc.).  There are lots of media examples of tragic consequences of the impact of these losses for you to use.

Like many other business service teams, first responders have no time for BCP so the process you use must be comprehensive, yet fast and easy. Workshops are the answer. Do each department (fire/police/ambulance) separately, but within a department the more roles represented in the room the better. It’s important to recognize that we typically did not hire these staff members for their business acumen. Yo you need to design a continuity planning approach or methodology that will build on their strengths, not make them attempt to participate in a project that is outside their comfort zone.  Don’t start with an assessment of risk/BIA/strategies, etc. Start with an exercise.

Note that if you are a large municipality with many stations, you will want all plans for all stations to have the same look and feel. You will quickly realize that risk/BIA/strategies are over 90% consistent across sites, so don’t reinvent the wheel for every station house. Working with the first ready, willing, and able station, create a customizable template BCP that can then be used as the base model for all other stations. This is also attractive to some because they like to be the station that was first to set the standard for all others in anything. Whether you get to work with a representative from each station or a single station is fine.

I took the following approach, which may work for you:

  1. Create a scenario that will resonate with staff (usually burned down station or at least a fire large enough to cause extensive damage to expensive long lead-time gear)
  2. Conduct a walk-through table-top exercise. Just start with one of the online videos of the fire and when the video ends say, “What if that was us? What would we do next?”
  3. As they answer these questions, start capturing the discussion on a whiteboard, facilitating them into providing input on risk assessment, BIA and continuity/recovery strategies. Be sure you have a scribe with you taking notes
  4. The intent is to get a strategic level plan out of this session so you can roll that out across all stations for additional input either specific to their span of control or feedback on the strategic level BCP itself.
  5. After you have a strategic plan pulled together that outlines risks, impacts, strategies, etc., you will no doubt have identified unacceptable risks that will require business cases for Municipal Council approval of investment required.
  6. While these business cases are making their way through the budgeting process, you proceed with moving your strategic BCP to the next level by expanding on team structures, player roles and responsibilities etc. All first responder organizations in North America are not only familiar with ICS, they use it every-day. That’s a HUGE bonus for you as your command and team structure is already well defined and understood. You will identify some command roles that will require coordination with council, the municipal admin staff, etc. — but that’s the easy part.

All BCPs are subject to continuous improvement. Remember, this is a program, not a project. Make progress, keep moving forward, and make sure that you are always sharing with your leadership the current status of your program. And at least once a year, revisit your risk assessment, BIA, and exercise data.

Hope this has been helpful, and good luck!