Sunday, October 28, 2007

Leadership Under Fire

This week has certainly seen some difficult situations for many here in Southern California. The fires that raged from San Diego to Santa Barbara caused the evacuation of nearly 1 million people and burned over 500,000 acres. And scenes like the picture to the left that I took on a tour of the town of Rancho Bernardo (ground zero for the really destructive fires in San Diego County) highlight the human toll from the 1500+ homes that have been damaged or destroyed in the last couple of days.

This could have been much worse. Thankfully, the 80+ mph Santa Ana winds that helped stoke the fires, died down and allowed the fire fighters to gain an upper hand. More importantly, leaders at the local, state, and federal level worked together to solve problems and minimize the impact to the region. No question, it could have been much worse.

As I toured the affected areas, I made a few notes about "leadership under fire" that I thought were important take-aways for us all:

- Good things happen when we don't care who gets credit for them. The State of California was front and center during the response and they did a great job. Kudos to them and well done, Governor Schwarzenegger. As part of the federal effort, I am comfortable being part of the team. My organization responded to FEMA and FEMA provided support to the State. And when egos are less important than accomplishing the mission, things work out.

- Be ready. Leaders of any size team must do some pre-planning for disaster type scenarios. Ensure you have contact information for all teammates and have a procedure to establish accountability. Have contingency plans ready. Rehearse them regularly. Identify key initial actions that will allow for establishing command and control, developing the situation, and making decisions.

- Build vertically linked teams to make rapid, well informed decisions. I visited several of the County Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) here in Southern California. While they were different from each other (and different from my own), they all had common elements:

  • Representatives from each functional area (public works, transportation, utilities, etc.) were present in the "War Room." They were enabled by the presence of representatives from the State and Federal (FEMA) level that could pass information, share resources, and update the situation.
  • The lead in the crisis management team was a function of the situation. Because it was a fire, the Fire Chief had the lead. If it was a flood, the public works director would step forward. If an earthquake, the Police Chief would be at the head of the table. Each of them had to be comfortable functioning in either the lead or support roles.
  • Information had to be "fuzed" together somewhere. They all had EOCs and, within each, a cell where information came together and major decisions could be made. They built a common operational picture that threaded all of the known data together to enable the best decision making - and key representatives were there to make those decisions.

My own team did okay as well. We staffed up our EOC (they are still at 24/7 levels) and provided support within our functional responsibilities. While we have not been major players in response to the fire (we probably will after the fires are out - debris removal, flood mitigation, erosion control, etc.), it was my first crisis here with my team and allowed me to develop a few personal lessons learned:

  • Always ask "Where do I need to be to see the battlefield...and where do I need to position my key leaders?" It is always difficult to make decisions with imperfect information. Fill in gaps by getting "eye's on."
  • Build a Common Operational Picture. We're still not where I want to be. But we are getting better. With GIS and Google Maps, it is increasingly easy to build overlays, share data, and build the picture that enables decision making.
  • Capture lessons learned. We are a learning organization. There are many things we can do better. Our lessons will be incorporated into revised SOPs and organizational policies and make us better prepared for the next event.
  • Position key leaders. I have visited with my counterparts at the state, federal, and county levels. I have sent subordinate leaders to liaison with other response nodes to ensure we are linked. This has been helpful to all of us.

The fires are still not completely out. And we can be sure that the impact on families will certainly remain for some time. For them, and the first responders who put their lives on the line every day, I hope you will continue to pray. But there is certainly plenty we can all learn during these crisis situations. I know I have. That's Leader Business.

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