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Public Safety Now: Leadership in crisis

Challenging times require everyone in public safety to demonstrate leadership. In this episode, join Hexagon’s John Whitehead as he leads a conversation with two public safety veterans about how to overcome challenging periods and the steps agencies can take to ensure their organisations are successful, even when it feels overwhelming or almost impossible.

JW:  Hi. Thanks for tuning into Public Safety Now on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safety at Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure division. Today, we’ve got two guests joining us, and I think it’s going to be a good conversation. We’re going to be talking about leadership in a crisis event. I think it’s extremely important topic as we go through into our world, our emergency services world, because these crises pop up at unexpected times, and it really comes down to the leadership and those that are bringing in the troops, if you will, and how they react to it as to sometimes the successful outcome of these crises. So, I’ve got two people, as I said, that’s going to be joining me today. The first one is, Tony Harrison. He’s the president of the Public Safety Group. He has over 30 years of public safety communication experience. I’ve also got Chris Carver. Chris Carver is director of the East for Hexagon and Public Safety. And both of these guys come with years of background. I won’t get into that. I will let them give themselves their introduction. So, Tony, why don’t we start with you. You want to tell us a little about yourself?

TH:  Yeah, absolutely. Good morning, John. Like you said, I’ve been in public safety a long time. I’ve worked in small, medium, and large agencies. A good part of my time was at the Oklahoma City Police Department and was there 25 years ago, during the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and I was on the on-duty shift supervisor during that incident.

JW: Welcome. Yeah, I know that’s—yeah, you’ve definitely been there and done that and managed through a crisis. Chris, you want to give us a little bit about your background.

CC: Yeah, sure. Thank you. I’ve been with Hexagon about a year. I’m proud to be the director of our east team. Prior to that, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in public safety, starting as a fire/EMS dispatcher in central Ohio and then working for the New York City Fire Department, where I was fortunate to go from dispatcher up to director of FDNY Fire Dispatch Operation. I was there from about 2000 to 2015, so I worked through a variety of events that all of your listeners probably know well, ranging from, unfortunately, 9/11 to the blackout of 2003 and Superstorm Sandy and some others.

JW: Great. Thanks, Chris. Yeah. And I got the honor, you and I get to work together on a daily basis. So, we’ve talked about a lot of these items over many dinners, I think, over the last year or so.

So, listen, I’m looking forward to this conversation, again, just to talk about. First of all, let me just say, I know that it’s all about the people that are sitting in the chair, doing that day-to-day job. I know that is so important. Well, one of the areas that this topic is really focusing is on the leadership, because I think that as a dispatcher, I’m focused on my role, I’m focused on exactly what I’m supposed to do, but the supervisor level and that leadership level is so important to make sure that, if I look at it like as a director of the band, all of the instruments have their place, but when they all come together, man, it really makes some beautiful music there. So then in these types of roles during challenging periods, how important do you think leadership is during those times?

CC:Yeah, sure, John. So, the first thing really that I think is fundamental for anyone that’s in a position of leadership to understand is that it’s even more than normal, in a time like this, where the odds are everybody inside that center has concerns about their family and their friends and their own personal health and overcoming whatever that event is, it has to be, the first focus of anyone in a position, a formal position, of leadership to really care first and foremost about the people on their team and make sure they’re supported. There are a variety of forms that can take, everything from making sure that there’s provisions for food; to make sure there’s provisions for accommodations, say, for example, if you’re stuck at a center in during a hurricane; all the way up to ensuring that there are mental-health services available later on or potentially during a long-term incident. Whatever those needs are, really as an event progresses, both in duration and complexity, those that are in leadership roles inside an organisation have to understand that it’s people first, 100 percent, and that none of the operations is going to be effective if we don’t keep a very close watch on the needs and condition of those on our teams who are actually doing the day-to-day work. It has to be about them first, or else we can’t serve the public or do the rest of our very important mission.

Tony, what do you what do you think about that from your experience?

TH:Yeah, I think you’re right on. And I think one of the keys that we have to remember is there’s a difference between leadership and management. You know, I manage the schedule. I lead people. And where people come into problems is when we try to manage the people instead of lead people, and leadership is about all positions, all roles in the communications center. And working major events through my career, it is always interesting for me, and I’ve also studied many, many more is the true leaders are not necessarily the highest-ranking person that’s in a room. Usually, it’s somebody that steps up—someone else that steps up and takes that leadership role during a crisis to show the way and to show the path to lead the organisation through times of trouble.

JW: I think that’s a good point, Tony. And one of the things I’d throw in there is just that, in my time at the comm center, you can lead without having a title, meaning that you don’t have to be a shift supervisor, you don’t have to be a comm director, you don’t have to be a chief to be a leader. And I think that even within, if you’ve got just a fire dispatch group and they’re segregated from the police dispatch or the call-taking area, during a large incident or during a time of crisis, you’ll see even different dispatchers that lead just their small little team there through what’s going to happen. You may have new dispatchers. They’re going to need the leadership skills of a senior dispatcher. And I think it’s important, one of the areas that you just said, you don’t have to be the titled person. It doesn’t always come down to just the supervisor on shift or the comm director. It can be any of us that can step up and lead.

CC:Yeah, John. And if I may add, one of the most important things that senior folks can do, those that have been there before, is, and it sounds so simple, but is to remind those that are newer and maybe even some other senior folks that just need a reminder that we’ll get through this, that understanding that we have faced—we’ve faced challenging days before, we’ve faced really hard times before. But sometimes the most important thing you can do is, quite literally, pat somebody on the back or just say, “We got this. We’ve been through this before, and we can do it again”.

And, you know, the reality is, if you ask a group of 911 dispatchers or supervisors or responders in the field, “Hey, what was your worst day?” Well, did you ever think that the morning of that day that that was going to happen? Did you wake up and think that there was going to be some massive fire or a bus accident or a tornado or some other really devastating thing? Most of the time people, of course, don’t think that. But then five or six or 10 years later, they can look back, and they can realise that along with their coworkers, that they were able to do really great things. And that’s really what it’s about.

And, so, sometimes just reminding everyone of what we’re capable of and that it’s so much more than maybe we assume, that’s really, I think, a powerful tool of leadership, to your point, no matter what your role is.

JW: I completely agree. Tony, you know, in some of your past, you’ve done some pretty big crises and been in a leadership position during those times. What are some things that you found, as far as stepping up and leading?

TH:You know, one of the uniquenesses of what we are in the middle of right now with the coronavirus outbreak is the differences between we had a major incident, an officer-involved shooting, a firefighter that is down, that’s going to last hours; this incident is going to last months. How many months? We don’t know. But it is going to tax organisations and the leadership of organisations to really keep things in check. Because of the way information spreads in this day, in an environment that we are in, social media, and the truth information and the false information that spreads, I think one of the roles of leadership in this specific crisis is going to separate fact from fiction to keep people on, here’s what’s the facts, as we know them, today. And those are going to change day by day.

We once had a tuberculosis scare in our center, and it went from one of our dispatcher’s daughters had tested positive for the initial test from, oh, my gosh, the daughter has TB, the dispatcher has TB, she’s come to work and has now infected the entire shift with TB. And it took one of us, it took me, to go to the State Department of Health and talk to the person in charge of infectious diseases for the entire state and run this scenario and have him tell me, “No, that’s not possible”, and tell me the facts of TB and how TB is spread, and then take this back to people and say, “No, she does not have TB. Nobody here has been exposed to TB”. And that becomes critical of leaders. As Chris said, taking care of our people in so many different ways and leading through the next 30 days, 90 days, or however long this is going to take.

CC: Yeah. And if I could, Tony, onto what Tony just said, in order to be successful at this time, we need the facts. We need the information. Bbut there’s another skill set that dispatchers have that is really important. And it’s prevalent throughout public safety, when it’s encouraged, I think, and that’s creativity. As Tony mentioned, this potentially could be a very long duration event. That means we are going to have to think outside the box. So you’re already seeing some 911 centers think about, what do we do to split our operations so that, God forbid, if there’s a contamination, we don’t lose our entire workforce. Well, that concern about resiliency and redundancy of systems, that should honestly be a consideration of 911 24/7/365, especially in a world of cybersecurity threats, which could also knock out an operation for a long period of time; major weather disaster, say, for example, flooding event that can take out your 911 center. So this whole idea of we need to be creative, we need to think, hey, how could we do X, Y, Z? And when you know what’s going on and you have the facts, you can do some really great things when you bring together dispatchers who inherently are creative folks. They are responsible for interpreting caller information to get really great results in terms of the responses that we send, or identify potential needs for responders.

Now, I’ll give an example from the fire service community. We have a local fire department near me in central Ohio that, concerned about contaminating their workforce, turned up a new substation of their fire departments so they could split their operations in 48 hours from concept to implementation. And now they have half their department working out of a community center area in Worthington, Ohio, that’s been adapted for that use. So that amazing level of when you have the information, like Tony mentioned, and you know what the potential is, now you can put your heads together and really start to figure out, hey, how can we potentially make this a more effective event for responders and 911, for field responders and 911, alike. And you’re starting to see some really great things.

And the one thing I would add to that is that it’s really important for us to capture those, for us to document what it is we do, because the challenges can happen again in a different form. So as the nation comes together and we all start figuring out ways to solve these problems and get creative and show leadership and action, I want to make sure that everyone knows we should really be documenting what we do, too, because you might solve a problem that someone else doesn’t even know they have yet.

JW: Yeah. I think what we’re saying here is this is a marathon, not a sprint. And I think that what we plan for in public safety is normally those sprints, right? We plan for the fifth alarm working fire. We plan for “what if” type of scenarios. And then whenever a major event comes in that doesn’t fit that mold, it can really throw us off. But I think that as long as we, to your point, kind of focus on, just focus on the event and understand that this thing is going to be a marathon and it’s not going to be over quickly, we can learn from this. We will grow from this. And I’m actually kind of excited at the end of the next several, three, four, six months, whatever this is, some of the best practices that come out of this as we prepare for the future. So, it’s definitely good ideas.

You know, it’s interesting. I found some leadership type of steps, leading your team. And there’s a handful of items out there. The first one that I found said, “Take care of yourself first.” As we talked about this being a marathon, great leaders and people are going to come in and they’re going to be like, I’m here. I can work the overtime. I can sit behind the desk. I can run the ship. I can do this. And you throw yourself into this thing. Mentally, emotionally, physically, you throw yourself into it. The problem is that only lasts so long. We’ve got to take care of yourself first. And that was one of the rules that I found, as a leader, I think that it really plays well. Don’t be afraid to know when to say when. Let someone else step in. You step back and take care of yourself. Any thoughts on self-preservation?

CC:Oh, yeah. You’re absolutely right, John. We have to take care of ourselves. And so many of our people in this industry are by nature caregivers. They like to take care of others. And many times, they take care of others at their own expense. And you are so right in saying we have to practice self-care. And I think part of that, we go to, what Chris was talking and what you’re talking about, is we’ve got to remember to have fun during this next however many days or months this lasts. If we’re breaking up comm centers—and I know of an agency in Florida, they have a plan to activate a backup center, and they’re going to be working out of two centers live—then, let’s have some fun because that can be scary. It can be scary to the frontline people that are doing this, and oh my gosh, so-and-so is going to get infected, and we’re all going to get infected, or whatever the issue is, is to remember to have fun. Do we have a shift dinner? Do we do something to remember to just enjoy the time to take care of ourselves as we walk through this?

JW: Yeah, you’re right, because having a ship full of people that are sick or burnt out or just exhausted definitely doesn’t—that’s not a long-term plan.

I know my local dispatch center here, they did a really cool thing they just announced yesterday, I believe. They were saying that they’re going to open their backup center. They’re going to separate their shifts into both areas – their primary center and their backup center. And then that allows them to get a little social distancing, if you will, between the dispatchers to where they’re not sitting on top of each other. I thought that was a cool thing, because now not only am I taking care of handling all the incidents that are coming in, I still have the same number of staff, but now I’ve got them spread out into two centers, and it gives them a little bit of distance to where they’re not feeling—because some of this is a mental game, too, right? If I’m sitting next to somebody, and they’re coughing and sneezing, and I’m trying to do my job, it’s a tough thing to do. And having that type of leadership and the ability to look at this differently, I thought it was a great thing when I saw him post that.

CC: Yeah. John, if I could add to what you both are talking now about, there’s another difficult personality trait that sometimes happens with public safety professionals, and sometimes maybe not quite stating it as much as it does happen, but we also have a propensity for wanting to be people that can handle it no matter what. You know, we can overcome this. We can lead the charge, and we’re iron women and iron men, and we got this. I’ll just share an experience that I’m aware of, that happened in a large city after a major disaster a few years ago, where a large number of dispatchers were impacted by it. It was a really complex situation. The tragic aftereffect of that was that there were leaders that dismissed the need to look out for their people, that dismissed the human side of that equation. And it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard to hear people whose job it was to look out for their teams to say, “Oh, they don’t need a counselor”, or “They don’t need any help”, or “We got this all on our own”, or “We don’t need to reach out to anybody else. We got this. It’s going to be just fine.” And the reality was it wasn’t just fine. And it took a very long time for anybody to realise that. And because of that, it was delayed. So people didn’t, even with the little stuff, like having fun on the tour and finding ways to kind of gloss team just a little bit and share your experiences all the way up to engaging professionals who could come in and support the public safety professionals who were going through a really challenging time. And then beyond that to, in this case, actually providing assistance for those who had had their family homes destroyed or damaged and other financial impacts.

So, it is so imperative for us to sometimes put our pride on the side to really do what’s best for everyone. And, thankfully, there’s been a lot of developments over the last few years and we’ve actually done another podcast as part of this series on this topic. But it connects with leadership quite well. And that’s looking out for people in a way that actually recognises what it is they’re going through and also recognises the resources that are available and why it’s so important. So, just to follow onto Tony’s point, that’s something to always, whatever your leadership role is in, and also to Tony’s point earlier, that’s a leadership role that everyone has, no matter what your rank or official position. We all have an obligation to look out for each other inside the center, especially during periods like this.

JW: The other rule that I saw here, and I really thought stood out and it’s something that I’ve continued to live my managerial world in since I’ve started managing is be transparent with employees. You know, bad news is not easy to share. You know, as a leader, you’re always wanting to be positive. You’re wanting to keep people pumped up and keep things going. But you know what? Sometimes things are going to fall apart. Sometimes the plan has to change because of a reason. Being transparent and sharing with the team the information that you can share, I think is important. I think it shows the mark of a true leader, someone who’s not afraid to get up there and say, hoo-rah, we’re doing great. But also not be afraid to be the first one to say, here’s what we’re going to have to alter our course. Have you guys seen that in some of these areas? because I’m assuming you worked pretty major deals where they haven’t been perfect from the beginning. And how does good leaders, how can they be transparent with their employees?

TH: John, you’re right about we have to communicate. We have to communicate inside the communications center that information flows from all levels of the organisation, from the top to the frontline telecommuter, the frontline officer, the frontline dispatcher. We have to, what I call, a movement of information during these events is huge. It’s one of the most important things we do.

JW: It really is, because as I’m sitting there in a workstation, I see things going on, maybe we’ve got the EOC in our center, you see really important people walking by that window. You’re seeing things going on. It is frustrating, because I’ve been there, it is frustrating sitting in the room, handling your next call, handling your next call, maybe working on that large incident, and not getting updates. Not that I thought I needed to know everything, but what’s happening is really the key that’s going into your own mind. I think it gives a piece to the group to share that, to be communicating, to be sharing data that you can share, and allow everybody to be part of that process.

Chris, any thoughts?

CC:Yeah. John, there’s another important direction of information along this same topic. It’s not just sharing sort of the situational awareness and what’s actually happening downward through your teams and making sure everyone knows. It’s also making sure that public safety communications shares upward into the organisation. This is a time where policy is written, and I know everybody on this that’s listening to this that’s worked in a center is going to nod their head right now. This is a time where those policies that are written by ops folks with little understanding of how 911 works really can do some serious damage. So, if for those that are listening or those that are involved in this, that are actually in police, fire, and EMS. field responsibility management or leadership, this is the time to absolutely engage with the folks that are in the 911 center and run by them ideas about how to make sure that you can get the right information in to trigger a policy.

For example, understanding exactly what questions are asked as part of the call-taking script that perhaps an agency uses IED or critical—I’m sorry, critical is a bad example—power phones, I want to say, or someone else or APCO Meds or whoever, the agencies need to be on the same page with their 911 folks because from minute one the entire information about an event is starting with that phone call. And for any policy or procedure or situational awareness to happen, it really requires everybody to be on the same page about how it works, what can be asked, and what can be reasonably expected to be ascertained from a phone call.

We ran into that in New York with the Ebola response, which was, there was a great policy, but that policy was sort of built on a certain belief of how much data we would get from a caller. Well, that wasn’t really realistic. And in the cases where we got calls from passerby who had no awareness of the person that was now laying on the street, that was a substantial risk.

So absolutely, there has to be an information sharing sort of culture that has to arise from this event and hopefully will continue, that encourages 911 leadership to be at the same table as your emergency managers, police, fire, EMS, law enforcement and beyond to ensure that there’s a holistic understanding of what’s going on in the community. And then that gives us better information to share with all of our field responders and ultimately with the public as well.

TH: You know, Chris—

JW: Yeah, I get it. Go ahead, Tony.

TH:If I could jump in, John, it’s what I call when policy kills, when we don’t have that movement that Chris was talking about, we end up getting policies that are not effective, and if we don’t have the right people to understand, hey, wait a minute, this policy is thinking a, b, c, I am now confronted with d, e, f; am I empowered on the  frontline, the frontline supervisor, to go, wait a minute. They wrote this policy for Ebola thinking about this. I am now confronted with this. If I follow this policy, I would put this person in potential danger. What do we need to do?

Chris is right on about if we are not moving the information up, down, and side to side, we end up getting into problems. Even if we are moving the information in an open organisation like it needs to be, sometimes we are going to write policy that we were thinking  a, and then all of a sudden, because our world is what it is, we are confronted with something that nobody ever thought about when writing that policy. And then we empowered people to make a decision that is in the best interest of public safety, even though it may be contrary to the way the policy was conceived.

JW: A lot of good policy has been written just because of the changes that are needed right during the times. I mean, I think that that’s what I’m hearing there is, yeah, it’s great to have policy, and as Chris said, we need to be sharing those across the organisation. But I think as we go through new events, new crisis, things that come up, those policies are fluid, but we have to be able to … willing to change. I think that’s the key point there that I’m hearing what you’re saying there, Tony.

So, guys, as we kind of wrap this thing up, I got one more question for you, and I just want you guys to share a little bit on both sides. So, Tony, why don’t we start with you on this one. I’m looking for any advice you might have. What are some things that you might tell public safety, working through a large crisis like this and any advice you may give them?

TH: You know, there are events that changed us forever. And for some people, this event will be it, whatever that event is for you. In the aftermath of these events, we go back, and we find our new sense of normalcy. And that is sometimes something we have to actively go out and find. And for some people, it takes days. For some people, it takes weeks. For some people, it takes years. But whatever the effect of whatever incident is, and if it has changed you forever, understand that you can’t go back to the way it was before the incident, because this incident has happened, and it will change you forever. And do your work to find your new sense of normalcy. And I think that was not only as a person, but as a supervising leader, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned after some of the events that I’ve experienced.

JW: Yeah. Good point. Chris?

CC: I would echo largely what Tony just said. And in the sense that for those that are working during this period, no matter what your role inside public safety, understand that this can be gotten through, this will be overcome, that no matter how frustrating, no matter how scary, no matter how traumatic, is probably the word, that this experience may be inside your agency, that there will be a new normal, that there will be a place on the other side of this. It will, in fact, be different. But you’re not alone. We’re all going to go through this together, and we’re all going to find whatever that new normal is after this event, just like we found it after any of the other events that every single person that’s listening to this has had that worst day. And they had what it was before then. And they have what it is after. And, you know, change is the scariest thing in the world. In fact, I had a doctor on a plane once tell me that the only person in the entire world that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. And I think she was right. And especially in times that are tragic and times that are of this scale, then that change can be especially terrifying. But we all have the honor and the privilege of being in the positions that we’re in right now, helping to make this a little bit better. It’s not going to be ideal. It’s not going to be perfect. There’s going to be a whole lot of stops and starts along the way and probably some very frustrating meetings and frustrating shift meetings and some technical things that maybe don’t work and glitches and also the kind of stuff. But the reality is, is that everybody that’s involved in public safety during this time is in a position of need, is in a position of responsibility to serve their community, their fellow public-safety professionals, and those who are in need of help. And we’ve done it before, and we will do it again. And there are a great many resources to help us along the way, both today and tomorrow. So keep your head up, no matter what your leadership role is, know that we will get through this. Reach out to those you can reach out to, and just know that we can and will get through this. And we know that because we’ve done it before.

JW: All good points, guys. And I appreciate your time here. I think that there’s been a lot of good lessons. Again, I think you just said it there at the end, Chris. We will get through this. We’re going to get through this together. And I think it’s going to be, we’re going to all be better for it. There’s going to be some cool lessons that we’re going to learn. There’s going to be some new policies that are going to be put in place. But at the end of the day, we’re going to continue to grow in emergency services and public safety.

So, a big thank you to both of our guests, Tony and Chris. To hear additional episodes or learn more, visit us at hxgnspotlight.com, and thanks for tuning in.