Workforce Resilience

Dec 15, 2007

Over the past several years, a series of previously unthinkable events have caused the RCMP to consider its state of operational readiness. Sept 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and massive bombings in Madrid and London required extra­ordinary efforts from a wide range of responding agencies. Here at home, reports of flooding, forest fires, severe weather, blackouts, terrorist threats, and warnings of an inevitable flu pandemic arrive from all quarters on a regular basis.

72 hours ... is your family prepared? For year-round emergency preparedness information visit: (Photo: Alive D'Anijou, RCMP, Operational Readiness Response)

The probability of the RCMP being asked to respond to a large-scale emergency, be it man-made or a natural disaster, seems to be increasing daily. In addition to its federal responsibilities, the RCMP provides the local police force of jurisdiction in hundreds of communities across Canada.

The RCMP’s Operational Readiness Response Coordination Centre (ORRCC) is dedicated to ensuring that the RCMP is prepared, at all times, to mount effective and sustainable responses to emergencies. Much of ORRCC’s work over the past year has focused on strengthening traditional pillars of emergency preparedness including emergency operations planning, business continuity planning and exercising.

Many of the challenges that have arisen will be familiar to first response organizations. These include resources, governance, Information Management /Information Technology (IM/IT) capacity, interoperability and horizontal coordination. However, as we examine lessons learned from recent events, an interesting new issue begins to emerge: the importance of the human element in operational readiness.

How does the RCMP respond to an emergency when its own human resources are affected by the emergency? Acknowledging that “our most important resource is people,” Assistant Com­mis­sioner John Neily, Head of the ORRCC,  notes “this not an academic question – the answer is critical to our ability to fulfill our mandate.

Alternate modes of transportation were useful in British Columbia during severe flooding in the spring of 2007. (Photo: RCMP E-DIV, North District Air Services)

“Police officers are, by nature, skilled problem solvers who are trained to react quickly in uncertain and sometimes dangerous circumstances,” Neily continues. “Ask any police officer and they will tell you that responding to emergencies is all in a day’s work.”

The Human Factor
Disasters and other large-scale emergencies pose unique psychological, social and physical challenges that can test the mettle of the most seasoned first responder. Additionally, many live in or close to the communities they serve. “Chances are good,” admits Neily, “that when disaster strikes, many of the responding officers will be personally affected by the event in some way.”

The importance of the human factor in emergency and business continuity became painfully clear in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when many first responders, already overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event, were severely distracted from their jobs by concerns for their own safety and the well being of family and friends. Some simply left their posts and did not return. Others are still dealing with the psychological trauma today.

“We have to remember that our officers are people too,” says Neily. “In a disaster, we are just as vulnerable as everybody else.”

Because we cannot predict when or where a disaster may occur, developing a resilient workforce that is able to adapt – to work under difficult, long and changing circumstances and recover quickly following a disaster or a challenging mission – has become an important component of the RCMP’s operational readiness effort.

These same principles of resilience and operational readiness also apply to planned, large-scale and challenging events – such as the 2010 Olympics.

Bill Maxwell, a retired RCMP member, has returned to work on this critical initiative. He views three key components as critical to workforce resilience: ­personal preparedness, professional ­preparedness, and organizational support.

“A resilient organization has the policies, processes and resources in place to support its workforce in difficult times,” Maxwell explains. To this end, his efforts include strengthening and enhancing existing employee assistance programs, ensuring that appropriate health and safety systems are in place, and that appropriate personal protection equipment is available for events such as a pandemic.

All RCMP employees need to be prepared to work long hours under difficult circumstances, be it on the front line or in critical support roles such as in the Emergency Operations Centre, shown here. (Photo: RCMP E-Division, Communications Services)

However the most important component, Maxwell says, is people. “The workforce resilience initiative stresses the importance of planning and preparing for emergencies both at work and at home.”

At work, employees should be familiar with the communities they operate in and the risks that could affect them. They should be familiar with their work unit’s emergency plans, and their role and responsibilities should they be activated. Participation in exercises and training, and maintaining up-to-date equipment and contact information are also essential.

Most important, however, is being personally prepared. “Resilience begins at home – by planning for emergencies with our family and loved ones,” says Maxwell. “We recognize that our officers’ primary concern is, understandably, for their family. If they are concerned about the safety of loved ones, they may be distracted from their jobs, or not even show up for work just when they are needed most.”

“In developing a workforce resilience plan for families,” he says, “we are encouraging employees to ‘take it to the kitchen table,’ which means to discuss individual situations with your own family and prepare emergency plans suitable for each families’ needs.”

 User-friendly resources that employees and their families can use to prepare for emergencies at work and at home are being prepared. Pro-active communications strategies are planned to help ensure employees and their families have the information they need in the event of an emergency.

While workforce resilience has become a cornerstone of operational readiness for the RCMP, A/Commr Neily encourages other organizations to consider the resilience of their workforces too. “If an organization waits until a disaster strikes to consider this issue, it will be too late,” he stresses.

“While we hope that the worst won’t happen, we know that there are always bad days. We are working hard to ensure that if, and when, things do wrong, we’ll be ready. After all,” says Neily, “you can’t take care of someone else until you have taken care of yourself.”

Alice d’Anjou works with the Operational Readiness and Response Coordination Centre at RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa.
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