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Volume 31, Issue 4

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An ICS Adaptation for Corporate Human Risk Management
Social Scientist, Giovanni de Girolamo, of the World Health Organization, emphasizes that the magnitude of a disaster is not measured by the "altered ecological balance" but by the "adjustment capacity of the victims." He believes a "disaster creates a discontinuity in the social structure," and that "the social aspects of the disaster situation should be considered as more important than the physical event and its components."

The development of effective life-saving response capacities within private industry is an important link in community-wide recovery from disaster. As powerful organizational structures, businesses direct individuals’ bonds of affinity and common interests, and impact thousands of employees directly and many more members of the community indirectly. As such, business is an influential setting for governing psychosocial intervention in the immediate aftermath of disaster. However, in any emergency operations of a corporation, employees will be both primary victims, that is, those individuals directly affected by a disaster, and onsite, front line volunteer employees charged with response and recovery tasks. Corporate emergency operations require support structures to manage the comprehensive human reactions and interations which occur within disaster milieu.
Research shows that disaster’s activation of an inborn "urge to rescue" and an associated "urge to take action," can easily result in poorly-planned efforts of specific individuals to "do everything" without casual or adequate evaluation of the actual needs and resources available. Many survivors are likely to engage in desperate efforts to save the lives of others or to ignore caution in actions to stabilize their environments. Such failures in coordination can cause casualities and emotional trauma.

The Incident Command System (ICS) was developed to manage the organizational difficulties of public safety agencies in integration, i.e., fitting together, and communication, in the delivery of a unified emergency response. Convergent findings of the emergency organization’s capability in communication and coordination (both internally, and with external systems) as the chief factor in its success, elucidate the importance of connectivity. This discovery is not surprising, and may reflect the systematic expression of well-established human effects in disaster milieu.

Studies demonstrate that any individual who has just witnessed and survived horrific circumstances, in the form of a disaster or traumatic event, is struggling with overwhelming emotional reactions, and contending with this turmoil through a mixture of active coping efforts and some degree of numbed, attenuated perceptiveness. Disaster impacts of cognitive disorganization and markedly impaired capacities for symbolization, integration, planning, and assessment, can cause emergency workers to make unsound decisions while believing that they are functioning effectively.

It is relevant to view ICS as designed to mitigate individuals’ and groups’ diminished cognitive ability in synthesizing and integrating massive amounts of information under emergency conditions of acute fright and chaos. ICS functions as a systematic prevention of responders’ difficulties in synthesis and integration: it mitigates these effects by organizing the connectivity of emergency response agencies in a manner which strictly delimits tasks, roles, and the communications channel which link them.

Psychologists, Jeffrey Mitchell and George Everly of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, describe the mechanisms of psychosocial support in crisis intervention for survivors of disaster. They consist of: opportunities for verbalization of trauma, group and peer support, stress education, and encouragement of survivors’ responsibility for their recoveries. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) provisions for disaster survivors and responders have traditionally aimed to prevent individual pyschological casualties from an external perspective.

One of the main difficulties in the application of CISM in disaster situations has been inappropriately timed psychological support services. Interventions which disrupt adaptive coping defenses during the acute emergency phase, when responders must be able to maintain functioning rather than focus on their emotional reactions prematurely, can be injurious to responders’ psychological equilibrium and counterproductive in the emergency management’s ultimate success.

Renate Bugge, in his 1993 study of a hotel fire, introduced a new avenue for CISM provisions through a human systems view of disaster needs. He referred to the comprehensive psychosocial crisis management that occurred after this disaster as a temporary organization. As Bugge defines it, what is clear is that this temporary organization can be built as a stress mitigating component of emergency operations, in advance of an event, through a structured integration of CISM provisions with the ICS.

Construction of an emergency response organization with crisis management capabilities at its core is analagous to the evolutionary shift from the exoskeletons of earlier organisms to the endoskeletons of later forms as the means of protecting body integrity. In this new species of emergency response organization before a disaster occurs rather than delivered by outside CISM teams reporting to the site of need following an event.

In the temporary organization for emergency response emergency operations are supported by an organizational design that: 1) mitigates earliest stress reactions of individuals and response groups; 2) strengthens the emergency operations’ internal communication and coordination capacities; 3) provides a "phase one" disaster intervention to serve as the groundwork for subsequent psychological support and mental health follow-up for survivors affected by trauma. This temporary organization for emergency response is a crisis management system that is preplanned, pretrained, and placed on "ready-mode" in advance of a disaster.

Structures of the temporary organization for emergency response which direct volunteer teams into task-specific activities and role specific communications about these activities are organizing relations that mitigate emergency responders’ and managers’ earliest stress reactions. The human effects which interfere with cognitive integration and synthesis are countered by task orientation and work group support that is practiced prior to an event.

  • Mitigate earliest stress reactions: In the immediate hours following a catastrophic event, the primary task in responding to the psychosocial needs of survivors is that of providing comfort and support. According to Turner, Thompson, and Rosser’s report of a fire disaster in an underground railway station in London, "comforting the distressed and bereaved will alert people to the presence even at such an early stage, of a support team... by setting a model, it may make it easier for others to reveal their own distress to family and friends." Organizing relations dictate the activities of emergency responders who are trained in a brief contact intervention for earliest reactions within disaster milieu.
  • Strengthen coordination/communications: Stress mitigation provisions reside in the contact chain-of-command. These contacts protect coping through a challenge up, support down management approach. Connection to the overall emergency organization is reinforced. Emotional reactions are validated. Response activities are praised and self care is encouraged. Connectivity is furthered by support for field leadership roles and functions, restoration of work group orientation and bonds of affiliation, and clarification of tasks assigned. Organizing relations dictate activities of emergency managers and team leaders who are trained in a defusing model for crises communications.
  • Provide a "phase one" disaster intervention that links to follow-up support: Contemporary research has shown that as long as the social support network remains intact, people are relatively well protected against trauma. According to traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk, "The emphasis needs to be self-regulation, re-establishment of a sense of security and predictability, and active engagement in adaptive action." Organizing relations dictate activities of emergency responders who are trained in how to assess the coping and orientation levels of employee survivors, to provide information on stress and community and corporate HRD programs for family recoveries, to assist survivors in transition off corporate premises, and to utilize a case management approach to needs expressed, in finding the least isolative form of extra support available. The temporary organization for emergency response draws upon behavioral science findings from the domains of traumatology and emergency management, and adapts the principles of Critical Incident Stress Management and Incident Command System to provide a psychosocial crisis management system for human risk reduction in corporate disaster management. As business grows more conscious of its duty to protect its constituents and the community in which it lives, it can also become more equipped for its contribution to the initial recuperative efforts of individuals, groups, organizations, and communities affected by regional disaster.

Trauma Intervention Specialists, located in West Los Angeles, CA, provides consultation and training for corporate human risk reduction and crisis management. They can be reached at (310) 255-9918.