Empower your employees to respond during emergencies

November 1, 2022 By    
Photo: Syahrir Maulana/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

All employees should have authority to respond during emergencies. (Photo: Syahrir Maulana/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Responding to disasters is one of the most important activities that can be asked of employees.

From natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes to technological situations such as power outages, chemical spills and transportation accidents, as well as security emergencies such as acts of terrorism and mass shootings, a property should be prepared for anything.

The metric for success in a disaster response is not the detail of the plans or the usefulness of the equipment. It’s the level of employee empowerment that makes all the difference. Employees must go beyond being just bystanders who are told what to do. They must be transformed into emergency responders capable of activating themselves and leading in the instant a disaster strikes.

Step 1: Rewrite your disaster plans

Currently, most property disaster plans expressly hand off leadership responsibility of a disaster response to management. This would seem the most logical way of handling it.

However, in practice, this leaves a property underprepared. Disasters can be sudden events that leave managers injured or unavailable through traditional communication devices. When disaster plans require a manager to approve a certain immediate disaster activity, such as initiating a basic evacuation or crisis communication method or explicitly state that managers must perform it, they immediately convert employees into useless bystanders.

Disaster plans should be rewritten so that employees are able to conduct immediate response activity surrounding evacuation/shelter in place/lockdown without the need of a manager. Manager titles and proper names should be removed from disaster protocols in these areas so that employees can perform actions without required permissions.

Step 2: Reevaluate your disaster ‘EST’

Disaster equipment, supplies and technology (EST) has long been considered a critical element in any property preparedness program.

However, in most instances, EST has made properties less prepared. This is because employees are not authorized to use them without permission of management, and/or they are inaccessible to employees. This goes beyond first-aid kits or AED defibrillators. It also includes disaster equipment such as search and rescue tools, emergency food and water, and critical-use supplies such as flashlights, rope and PPE masks. Many properties also have specialized emergency communication mobile apps and expensive technology. Ironically, this is what makes them unprepared because it shifts the dependency on equipment to perform activities that, if they were unavailable, could not be performed by staff or management.

To be effective, disaster EST must be tailored specifically to your employees. It should sync up perfectly with your disaster plan. For instance, if your plan doesn’t include search and rescue, then don’t put those supplies in your bags. Technology should also be used sparingly in a disaster. But when it is used by a property, employees should have complete access to it, know the passwords and how to effectively perform the process of sending messages or otherwise activating it.

Patrick Hardy

Step 3: Redesign your training and drills

Training and drills are the most important elements of a disaster program. They are more important than disaster plans and EST combined.

This is because the way a workforce is trained and drilled will not only reinforce the behaviors necessary in a disaster but also expose the strengths and weaknesses of your program overall.

The problem is that most training is too detailed. Going through earthquake or wildfire procedures point by point is unnecessary because it detracts from information that is necessary for employees to act during a disaster. Drills are equally as troublesome because most times employees are converted into bystanders, while managers do everything and simply instruct the staff. This is not conducive to real situations where employees can be incredibly valuable members of a disaster team.

Redesign your training and drills so that line employees are the stars. Training should focus on leadership ability and the basic steps in a disaster response and where to find the information they will need for more in-depth procedures. In fact, this should be reinforced with drills where managers are made to stand on the side and employees are instructed to perform an entire disaster drill without management participation. This will give an accurate way to assess their readiness. It will also reinforce individual initiative and responsibility so anyone can put together an impromptu emergency team.

This is how you turn bystander employees into emergency team members who can work for you in any disaster.


Whether you run a large or small property, with five or 500 employees, it is critical for companies to prepare each team member not just to respond to a disaster but to organize a disaster team.

This involves more than red binders, written plans, fancy equipment and an expensive communication mobile app. It’s about empowering employees to act with authority and lead during a disaster. If you don’t, you will turn them into bystanders who not only are excluded as part of the solution – they become part of the problem.

Patrick Hardy is founder and CEO of Hytropy Disaster Management, a full-service small business disaster management company. A certified emergency manager and a master business continuity professional, he was selected in 2012 as the national private sector representative to FEMA. His book, “Design Any Disaster,” will be published in March 2023 by Benbella Books. Visit americasdisasterplanner.com.

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