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Exercise Your Crisis Decision-Making Skills

Operational exercises are absolutely essential to good emergency planning and the participation of senior executives is critical. However, it is important to include senior executives not just as observers.

by Lucien Canton
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On July 19, 1989 United Flight 232 crash-landed at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa killing 111 of the 296 people on board. Many of those who survived owe their lives to a coordinated interagency response by the county. The outcome might have been much different. The Sioux City airport was not rated to handle the large jumbo jets such as Flight 232’s DC 10 aircraft. However, the county’s emergency services manager, Gary Brown, understood the strategic implications of the many flight paths that crisscrossed Sioux City airspace and anticipated that there might one day be a need to respond to an emergency involving large aircraft. Against much opposition, he exercised local responders and hospitals in dealing with mass casualties. This strategic thinking meant that county agencies and hospitals were ready to respond on that fateful summer’s day.

In any crisis situation, there are three levels of activity taking place. The most obvious is that at the tactical level where people are actually dealing with the immediate effects of the crisis. The operational level provides support to the individuals engaged in the tactical response. These are the people that comprise your incident management team who attempt to get ahead of the crisis and anticipate the short-term needs of the tactical responders. Finally, there is a strategic level, which normally consists of senior executives whose emphasis should be on the long-term impact of the crisis.

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Unfortunately, this strategic level is often neglected. One reason is that it is easier to solve problems than to make decisions. The problems created by a crisis are fairly tangible and the solutions are often obvious. It is easy for senior executives to be drawn into the relatively easy work of solving these tactical and operational level problems than it is to take a step back from the crisis and try to see the big picture.

But there may be an even more subtle reason for failing to think strategically: organizations tend to build exercises around operational issues rather than strategic ones. It is a cardinal rule of emergency planning that no plan can be considered complete until it has been tested through exercise. Consequently, our exercises focus on solving operational problems using the organization’s emergency plan. This is completely appropriate but it does not truly prepare senior executives for crisis. Instead, these types of exercises focus the attention of senior executives on short-term issues that could, in most cases, be delegated to the crisis management team.

Consider the following example:

A major fire has occurred at your principal manufacturing facility, severely limiting your ability to produce your key product. People working at the tactical level are busy clearing away debris and assessing the damage while the operational staff is considering options for regaining the capacity to produce product. In the typical exercise, senior executives are usually drawn into this operational level by being asked questions such as

  • What should we tell our customers?
  • Should we authorize over time?
  • Should we pay people who can’t work?
  • Should we ask a competitor for help?

If we think about questions of this type, it soon becomes noticeable that many of them can be answered by asking for recommendations from the crisis management team or through existing company policies. In other words, they really do not require serious decision-making on the part of senior executives. In fact, they can lead to a mistrust of the ability of the crisis management team to deal with these issues. They also may fail to engage senior executives in the exercise.

To truly increase the ability of senior executives to make decisions in a crisis it is necessary to ask questions that truly challenge them. Using the same example, consider asking questions such as the following:

  • What is the true risk to the company that is posed by this crisis? In the example, the problem is not the loss of production capacity; the true crisis is what that loss of capacity represents. The true risk might be reputational; by failing to fulfill contracts the company develops a reputation as unreliable. The risk may be financial; failure to provide product on schedule could result in severe financial penalties. The reason for asking this question is to get senior executives thinking beyond the immediate and obvious event to identify the true crisis.
  • What decisions will I need to make? With an understanding of the true crisis, it is now possible to identify strategic decisions that may need to be made. For example, does this crisis offer an opportunity to modernize production processes? Will the organization’s customer base or labor pool be affected and require changes to company strategies?
  • What information will I need to make decisions? Understanding risk and the decisions that need to be taken generates a need for information. That information may be related to the organization or may require analysis of the operational environment and the local community. In some cases, the crisis management team can be used to collect this type of information.
  • How will I implement these decisions? There is an old saying that, “the devil is in the details”. Decisions that do not include some thought to implementation are doomed to failure. This is because thinking about implementation sometimes forces a re-examination of the decision. This is particularly true when resources are limited or information is not readily available. Thus, an important part of the decision-making process is to test decisions by making sure there are sufficient resources to implement them.

Operational exercises are absolutely essential to good emergency planning and the participation of senior executives is critical. However, it is important to include senior executives not just as observers or by giving them work but by offering them opportunities to improve their crisis decision-making skills. A carefully crafted exercise will both engage them and help them understand their true role in crisis response. 

About the Author

Lucien G. Canton, CEM is a consultant specializing in preparing managers to lead better in crisis by understanding the human factors often overlooked in crisis planning. A popular speaker and lecturer, he is the author of the best-selling Emergency Management: Concepts and Strategies for Effective Programs. For more information, please visit, or email