5 Lessons Learned in the Emergency Services Sector
I’ve spent most of my life (over forty years) as a part of the Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB) working in senior management for much of that time. Team building and community engagement have always been my particular passions and this has led me to work as a coach and mentor to other members of senior management.
As such I have spent a lot of time thinking about leadership and crisis management. When we get it right and when we get it wrong and what we can learn and improve in the future.
I have collaborated closely with others in the emergency services and though my working life has been based in Victoria, Australia, I have collaborated with emergency services workers from around the globe. Although the challenges we face differ (bushfires, earthquakes, storms or floods) we have much to learn from each other in terms of leadership, and the ways we prepare for, handle and recover from crises. Here are a handful of lessons I’ve picked up along the way alongside trends emerging in the emergency services sector.
1. Listen to the ranks
As David Baker, Deputy Chief Officer for Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES), wrote recently, “I appreciate members that respectfully challenge policy during Q&A time – it is essential we are able to explain the ‘why’ behind direction and confront hard truths ourselves as senior leaders.”
Whilst most leaders would agree with Baker that this is a priority, it is important to note that our policies can always be improved and that real leadership takes into account the views of those actively responding to crises.
2. Leading diversity
What do I mean by leading diversity? I mean being a leader who focuses on the strengths of an inclusive organisation, one that is ready to communicate with a diverse community in our everyday work, and in times of crisis.
Research repeatedly shows that diverse and inclusive organisations and industries are higher-performers, more innovative, and adapt better to change.
Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) recently implemented a new emergency management and diversity framework, citing the need driven by the Australian state’s diverse communities, with “more than 20% of the population speaking a language other than English at home.”
That’s the case in my home state, and I daresay the percentage would be higher in the districts where I spent my working years with the MFB.
As the EMV report went on to note, “People’s lives depend on the emergency management sector being able to communicate clearly, quickly and effectively with all of Victoria’s diverse communities.
“The more diverse we are as a sector, the more capable we are of achieving this.”
There are some fantastic organisations working with the emergency services to promote diversity and inclusion. Women and Firefighting Australasia (WAFA) is one non-profit professional organisation supporting women either in, or considering a career in, the Australasian firefighting industry.
Organisations such as WAFA, and initiatives such as the EMV emergency management and diversity framework give important clues as to how leaders can foster emergency services workplaces that reflect and engage with our wider communities.
3. Resilient recovery
Leaders in the emergency services play an important role in crisis management of course, but what we must remember is that crisis management doesn’t end when the crisis is ‘resolved’. Following up on crisis and learning from these devastating events is where a lot of the real leadership takes place.
One of the worst crises to hit Victoria in recent times was what came to be known as the Black Saturday bushfires.
Nearly six years after the bushfires, a survey found that a quarter of survivors from the worst affected Victorian communities were still experiencing serious mental health problems.
The Beyond Bushfires: Community Resilience and Recovery study, led by the University of Melbourne, surveyed more than 1,000 people who were affected by the fires in 2009 and found 26% of high impact communities, 17% of medium impact communities, and 12% of low impact communities were reporting symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe psychological distress.
The EMV Resilient Recovery discussion paper recognised the need for the development of a modern, resilience-based relief and recovery system for Victorian communities.
The concept of resilient recovery sees that “The experience and knowledge of communities, agencies, government, academia, and business gained following major emergencies is significant.
“We are now well positioned to co-create a sustainable and efficient relief and recovery system which empowers individuals, communities, government, agencies, and business to plan for and achieve resilient recovery.”
It is not enough for leaders to ‘weather the storm’ of crisis management. We must follow up, review, redesign, and learn.
4. Learning through crisis
Increasingly, the emergency management sector is expected not only to respond to emergencies, but also to the lessons that arise during the response.
This idea was central to the Lessons Management Forum 2018, a two-day event in Melbourne. The Forum saw 110 delegates and presenters participate, from across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Presentations from keynote speakers across a range of sectors provided insights and perspectives on effective lessons management, with culture, methodologies, capability development and leadership emerging as recurring.
This shift in emergency response and crisis management is one that is taking place worldwide.
Environmental disasters must be studied and managed using a “holistic standpoint” that extends beyond an investigation of natural causes, says Prof. Emeritus Anthony Oliver-Smith, anthropology, University of Florida.
Oliver-Smith advocated for a shift away from using the term ‘natural disasters,’ arguing that “we have to get away from the thinking that disasters are unavoidable natural phenomena.”
“Disasters are socially generated and constructed and we can do something to avoid them by reducing vulnerability, exposure and risk,” he recently told reporters at The Sun.
This community-based approach which takes into account the particular society rather than adopting a blanket approach “will help reduce current confusion in risk analysis and allow the formation of more specific and targeted management strategies,” Oliver-Smith says.
5. Lessons management
A collaborative case study published in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, looked at the small but growing capability of lessons management across the emergency management sector. The case study explores how a number of emergency services organisations have collaborated to grow this capability both internally and across the sector.
Organisations are finding that when priority is given to the work of lessons management teams it results in the discovery of strategies for managing large volumes of data, learning the value of trend analysis, the importance of publishing results and the approaches used by lessons managers to gain support for the capability from across their agency.
Collaboration between states and emergency services has brought about the development of a standard terminology for lessons management and a concept for common coding and analysis of observations across many emergency services organisations (ESOs).
Not all organisations deal with catastrophic crises, but all will face ‘crises’ of sorts at some time or another. Another thread common to all industries is the need to perform, and as we well know, ‘what is measured is what gets done.’ I hope that you can take some use from these learnings for the next time you seek to measure leadership or crisis management success.
Spending the last 25 years in senior leadership, Alan has won state awards for his change leadership initiatives as well as earnt fellowship status of the esteemed Australian Institute of Management, at Leadership Victoria. Outside the work environment, Alan is a keen golfer and interested in most sports. He has a regular exercise regimen that would be envied by younger people. Alan is a devout family man and in his limited spare time he loves to read adventure.
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