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URGENT: What the Business World Can Learn from Emergency Management

There’s a pervasive fondness in the business world for the phrase “fire drill”. It’s usually used in relation to an executive demanding a deliverable within an impossible timeframe. It’s bound up in urgency and saturated with importance. It’s an emergency of our own making and it can spike anxiety and sap efficiency.

Context is something crucial to account for in these experiences.

As a producer, I have a philosophy about my work:

My job isn’t to ensure nothing will go wrong. It’s to know some things will go wrong, to mitigate as many issues ahead of time as possible and to handle the rest with grace so we can keep moving.

A presentation, data report or status update might feel essential, but when squared against true emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, the perspective has to shift.

That doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from the harrowing experience of weathering a disaster and apply them to the peaks and troughs of the “daily grind”.

For Rebecca May, Director of Innovation for New York City’s Emergency Management Department, preparing for and navigating emergencies is a daily occurrence. We talked about the ways in which folks can prepare for the unexpected, meet the challenge of sudden change and support each other along the way.

What constitutes an emergency?

Emergency is defined as a sudden, urgent, unexpected event that requires immediate action. And I think individuals might define that differently. Someone may feel that it requires immediate action and someone else might not.

A disaster is an emergency that overwhelms the available resources.

What have been some of the specific challenges you’ve faced this year?

How to distribute the workload with the staff that has been working incredibly long hours and have been really asked to step up.

I want to make sure that the staff that I’m working with has had time to recover, some personal time to process everything and rest so that we’re not going to be burning them out or totally running them into the ground.

How do we prepare for the unexpected?

Make a plan for yourself. Socialize that plan. Make sure every member who is a part of that plan is aware of that plan. Practice your plan and then keep your plan updated.

An example: if you plan to evacuate to your cousin’s house, if you know there’s an impending hurricane, then you would want your cousin to know about that plan, and maybe that will encourage your cousin to create a plan that involves that. So maybe they might leave you a spare key somewhere.

How do we manage the anxiety of things going wrong?

Preparation is one way to decrease stress. From a staff perspective: we have an emergency plan and we’re aware of what that plan is, but to feel more comfortable and confident while we respond. I think training and exercising that plan really helps to build confidence. And then once you walk through it, it becomes more second nature.

How can we best help others through a difficult time?

When you’re supporting someone who has been through a disaster, this person might not have power, they might not have had power for two weeks. They might have a lot of issues at their home going on with their family. And so to be there is to support the person in ways that aren’t [just] work-related.

On a daily basis, what are ways we can be more vigilant?

  • Respond to the now (make sure there’s nothing immediate).
  • Maintain your existing level of preparedness, meaning make sure you’re maintaining those community connections: You’re maintaining your support network and your emergency contacts are up to date.
  • Then, look to the future.

It’s normal to think about what could go wrong, normal to plan for that. And it’s normal to be ready for that.

Imagine this through the lens of the aforementioned corporate “fire drill”. If you make a plan on how to address incoming missives, share it with stake holders and even do test runs to review the strength of the plan and process, the business emergency may feel less urgent and at the very least, less chaotic.

Above all, treat coworkers with grace, never knowing where they might be struggling at home or otherwise and give your team the rest, rejuvenation and support they need to succeed.

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