PressPass writer Melissa Ellingson recently sat down with host Pamela Hill of the show âFear Is Negotiable: Business Survival Skills 101,â to talk about her career as a consultant to businesses around the country. Hillâs specialty is how to best prepare organizations in identifying and mitigating risk to their operation, infrastructure and physical security in the cases of information security, cyber-security, work place violence, and natural disasters. Her 30 year career makes her one of the most qualified consultants in her space and she has A LOT to tell us all about in how to think, react, and respond to virtually any emergency situation. How will you act in any situation?
1) How long have you been in your line of work?
Coming up on 30 years now!
2) What professions ultimately led you to becoming a consultant?
I actually started my career as a business analyst, which gave me a deep understanding of how businesses function, how they are organized and ultimately what is critical to an organizations survival. Understanding all aspects of a business and how it works is really the key in helping it survive a disaster. I got into this as a consultant, rather than an in-house expert, because I love the challenges of building resiliency programs for a wide variety of industries and business practices. I also love the travel and opportunity of working with unique and diverse clients.
However, I have to say I got into the business of teaching people to be prepared to take action during emergencies when I, for all intents and purposes, watched a man die in front of me because at that point in my life I had no training to help him. Within 1 month of that experience I was in Emergency Medical Technician training, within a few years I was on a Fire Department, and I spent several years teaching CPR and first aid for the American Red Cross and American Heart Association. That experience changed the course of my life, and I have spent the last 30 years teaching others to take action as a result.
3) What is your main focus in helping businesses?
I used to think it was building the Business Continuity Program, but after having gone through a lot of disasters with clients, I realized my primary responsibility is training executive teams to maintain the ability to think through an emergency, maintain communications and make sound, timely decisions. I do that through intensive face-to-face training, scenarios and rehearsals.
4) What roll does the government play in creating some of the policies you help companies adhere to?
This varies upon the type of business, but the government does regulate certain industries, such as banking and financial services, to have a business continuity and disaster recovery plans to ensure the people, technology and processes are in place to give people access to their money, and that their confidential information is protected and secure.
5) What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Actually being part of a recovery with clients, or at a minimum, holding debriefs after an emergency to talk about how they responded and what they learned. It may sound cheesy, but my clientâs success during a crisis is the best part of my job for sure. And whatâs interesting is how much better they come out on the other side of a disaster. It may take them awhile to see the silver lining, but I have never had a client not glean something useful and meaningful from any situation. They teach me about life with every encounter.
6) Why is it important for businesses to be prepared?
Because something IS going to happen, and it will come out of left field and be completely different from what you imagined. Those are the events that take your rational, thinking brain out of the equation for a while. Thatâs why you must have a plan. Preparation lessens fear, it lessens anxiety, and it puts you in a position to respond rather than react. Peopleâs lives may literally depend on a businessâs preparation. This is the reality of the world we live in now.
7) Have you personally ever experienced any type of workplace violence, cyber-attack, financial crisis, etc.â¦?
As I mentioned, I got into this business based upon my own personal experience of NOT acting when I needed to, but wasnât trained to do so. Also, I was on a Fire Department for 5 years, so I had the unique perspective of being front and center during a lot of true emergencies. I have also been involved with clients in every major disaster since the Loma Prieta earthquake back in 1989. While it may not have been my business affected, I have been personally changed by every single experience.
8) Where are most of your clients located? Do you travel mostly locally, nationally or internationally?
My clients are all over the world, but most of my travel is to the west, gulf or east coast due to the high risk factors in those areas. Believe me, on the coasts, itâs a much easier sell for necessity of a business continuity and disaster recovery plan!
9) What is the best way to be emotionally prepared for workplace violence?
This is a really important question because, as we talk about on my show Fear is Negotiable, mental preparation and rehearsal is absolutely essential to surviving any event, but most importantly a life threatening event such as an active shooter. Itâs critical to understand that your rational mind leaves your body during a life threatening emergency. Your body wants to ensure your survival, so it reacts, and it may not always react in the most effective manner. So, you must have the skills to get your brain back in control, as we discussed in Episode 2.
Second, understand all the ways that an active shooter incident can come about. Most people just prepare for an active shooter in the lobby, but the fact is these events can come about in any number of ways, on any floor, in any location of your office. You may hear a loud noise or see people running well in advance of actually seeing a shooter. Doing a mental rehearsal of what you would do, where you would run to or hide, it trains your brain to automatically respond in an appropriate manner. Mental or physical rehearsals are THE keys to emotional preparation.
10) What type of organizations do you find need more help with disaster preparedness?
I think geographic location and the related risks are more of an indicator of who may need the most help, rather than the type of organization. That said, in my opinion itâs probably the service industries that need the most help. Itâs not as easy to quantify the loss or true costs of downtime, or the impact of a disaster to many service industries. Also, they are often reliant on people as their key resource, and dealing with people after a disaster is clearly the most challenging task any organization will face because you simply donât have the type of control or predictability you would have, say, with a machine.
11) What was the largest-scaled disaster you have ever had to work with?
Without a doubt, Hurricane Katrina. Keep in mind even just that few years ago (2005), the processes, communications and infrastructure werenât (really) in place within the government or local authorities to deal with a disaster of that size and scale. Certainly businesses where not prepared like many are now. Back then, if they even had a plan, most business focused on the recovery of their technology systems. They did not account for the scope of human need that would come about when over a million people were displaced from their homes for an extended period of time. Iâve been saying this for years â if you want people to come back to work so your business can continue, you must help them take care of their basic needs, like a safe place for their families to stay while they are at work. If you donât put people first, they wonât be there when you need them. And you WILL need them following a big disaster. Hurricane Katrina taught that lesson in a way that no other disaster before or since has.
12) What are 3 main things that businesses can do to prepare for a crisis?
Have a communications plan. Know who, when, how and what you are going to communicate to employees regarding the status of the business during any hour of the day or night. Disasters donât just happen during the day.
Build redundancy and failover for your businesses key technology and data, and make sure they can be accessed from outside the company just in case you canât get into the facility. Businesses are almost 100% reliant on access to technology to continue functioning. There is a good reason why so much effort was, and continues to be, put to ensuring systems resiliency.
Train, train, train. Training and mental preparation are the key to ensuring a timely and effective response, rather than a visceral reaction.
Pamela Hill is a host on the VoiceAmerica Business Channel, where she hosts the show “Fear Is Negotiable: Business Survival Skills: 101”
Tuesdays at 11 am Pacific. Hill has over twenty five years of experience in business continuity planning and emergency preparedness. She has managed and implemented all phases of business continuity planning, including risk analysis, technology recovery solution development, life/safety planning, crisis management and communication.