Steven Wilder

There’s nothing like a real disaster to expose the weaknesses of response and recovery plans, says consultant Steven Wilder, and he cites 9/11 as a fine example. The post mortem revealed serious shortcomings, among them the lack of coordination by first responders and little thought given to the health and safety of recovery workers.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security developed a comprehensive protocol entitled the National Incident Management System—NIMS for short. The public sector embraced NIMS and Wilder hopes the private sector will too.

Wilder knows of which he speaks. He is a former director of safety and security for a network of hospitals and nursing homes, and he is a former fire chief. His unit was among those responding to the 1999 collision of a semi truck and an Amtrak passenger train in Bourbonnais, Illinois, which killed 11 and injured and trapped many more. The situation was chaotic, made more so because the lack of immediate security allowed an army of onlookers to flood the scene. A lesson learned, Wilder noted.

Wilder said that so many disaster plans that he reviews as a consultant fail to address what happens when the emergency crews pack up and leave, a crucial lapse. “How many days of cash do you have on hand—how long can you afford to remain shut down?,” he asked.

Another weakness is that managers assume that they can manage anything when often employees who are trained paramedics or firefighters are better suited to lead the disaster response, Wilder stressed. In Illinois, the company is protected from liability in these situations as long as the employees are licensed or certified.

Wilder also recommends that disaster plans be written as guidelines rather than as a step-by-step response. “Don’t force people into fixed courses of action—let them make decisions based on circumstances.” And plan for more than the obvious—to the point of being silly. “If your response plan relies on cell phones, what happens if a tornado takes out the cell tower?”

The bottom line, Wilder emphasized, is whether your company is still in business once the disaster response is completed. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” he concluded.

Steven Wilder is a partner in the firm of Sorensen, Wilder & Associates. He was the presenter at the September 28, 2010 meeting of the TRMA Safety Division.