Team Coordination in Crisis Management
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The ability to prepare, implement, and execute a committed, well-trained group, in response to an imminent or potential damaging situation to resolve problems and minimize impacts.
Employees engaging in emergency response activities must function as a team for effective results. Teamwork requires individuals to take on specific roles and to depend on each other fulfilling their obligations in that role while addressing a problem or a mission. A successful team, one that can respond to a crisis and create a positive outcome, is not difficult to create; however, it does take commitment, training, and the ability of the team members to develop skills together in order to function as a unit. This entry covers some of the key considerations to create, develop, and coordinate a successful emergency response team.
What Is a Team?
A team is considered “An energetic group of people who are committed to achieving common objectives, who work well together, enjoy doing so, and who produce high-quality results” (2001, p. 124). According to experts, individual capabilities alone do not make a group a team (Walker 2009; Salas et al. 2008; Miller et al. 2008). There must be more than just putting employees in training classes or handing them a procedure manual and expecting that during an emergency, when potentially life-threatening situations are occurring, responders will both remember and be able to execute appropriate actions smoothly while under stress. In emergencies, responders each fill a unique role. Each person depends on the others performing their tasks. Problems develop if roles are unclear, or if more than one person assumes the same role, or if a role is not filled. Safety can be compromised and errors can increase.
Emergency management within an agency may be built on teams that manage the overall emergency plan or that deliver direct services to employees, like first aid or evacuation assistance. At the community level, public safety agencies operate as teams and may have specialized units like hazardous materials teams. At the state level, the National Guard responds as a team to enhance local capabilities or bring specialized competencies, such as medical response teams.
Effective teamwork is not automatic (Burke et al. 2004). Sports teams go through extensive training long before competitive games begin. While each individual must join the team with some basic talent and skills, there is more to teamwork than the individual application of tasks. Several scholars point out the value and necessity of ensuring that all members can function within a team. It is well established that teams make fewer mistakes than do individuals (Miller et al. 2008). Therefore, it is beneficial to develop emergency teams to be ready to respond to a crisis.
Often, during a disaster, the National Guard is called in to assist. Their strengths include their numbers, skills, and ability to work as a team to get things done. During a crisis, an emergency response team must be fully prepared, engaged, and able to respond as a unit to effectively deal with a situation, just like the National Guard, but with an emergency management approach at the organization level.
Organizational culture also influences the ability of emergency teams to be prepared and function during response. The success of response is based on the teams’ capabilities to assess and respond accordingly. Without a positive culture, there may be little availability or incentives for employees to participate in training to learn proper assessment and response capabilities or to participate in exercises to develop skills and knowledge. Without reinforcement with practical applications, employees may not develop skills necessary to carry out response measures or have confidence to make decisions to initiate response activities, especially if they are concerned with their own safety. Effective emergency team response and coordination is more likely to be achieved when there is a culture that supports learning and the use of a team for response capabilities.
Switching from an autocratic, dictatorship, or controlling management style where only a few people make decisions to allowing a team to respond and make decisions is often challenging. This first requires confidence in the team’s leadership skills and abilities, along with the capabilities of the group to allow them to function independently. Having enough employees trained, prepared, and ready to respond with the right equipment in sufficient quantities is an essential component of emergency response team capabilities. It is unlikely to achieve this level of preparedness without the full commitment of senior management and a culture that supports and encourages program development and exercises.
Team sponsorship by a senior manager is also essential. This individual must also engage the team routinely and ensure that resources are available. This support is best if the senior manager has some accountability for the team results. Team review and recognition should be part of the meetings and the team development. Without senior management sponsorship, team effectiveness will be limited. High-performing teams are made (Burke et al. 2004), and teamwork is a necessary component (Burke et al. 2004). Senior management is responsible for ensuring that all team members are engaged and that teamwork is occurring. This will lead to better results.
The team leader has an essential role in the outcomes of the group. The team needs to be able to rely on the leader’s actions and words as good intentions for the team, as well as between team members. If the team members do not believe that the leader has their best interest at heart, members are unlikely to carry out the roles specified. Leaders are often judged on past performance, and the reflection of the team is measured on the leader. Team member talent is also an important determinant of team performance (Dirks 2000).
The right leadership is needed throughout development to form into a successful team (Walker 2009). Leaders establish team norms, set performance guidelines, create a feedback mechanism, work with people from different backgrounds, take personal ideals into account, and foster a working environment so all members feel free to state and discuss their opinions among the group, especially members whose opinions differ. Creating an environment where staff members can come to consensus to achieve the required end state is vital for a group to become a team. If a team is to be successful, unit proficiency will come from a well-developed process allowing members to understand tactics and can operate, move, and communicate together. A retired military leader emphasized this point, “Four good platoons do not make a good company, but the leader who can take those four good platoons and turn them into a team with a single purpose will have a great company” (p. 8). Team leaders establish the environment for productive group response capabilities.
Team Knowledge and Skills
Ensuring that enough staff members have the right knowledge and skills to respond quickly can improve outcomes. There must be a sufficient number of employees trained and available to support response capabilities on all shifts. Team members must also have the ability to work well with others, and it is critical that frontline staff can identify the signs of a potential emergency situation and can take immediate steps to activate proper response measures and additional teams if an event occurs. While these individuals that identify triggers or potential situations may not be considered part of the team, they should be.
On an individual level, there are several attributes to consider when selecting team members. Skills, personal familiarity with past positive performance, cooperation, creativity, positive attitude, good work ethics, and willingness to learn or try new things are essential. Avoid those individuals who are combative or confrontational, even if this individual is the most skilled, as these attributes will negatively affect the team dynamics. For crisis or emergency response, the abilities for sound decision-making, rationalities, calm demeanor, and the willingness and ability to take actions are also essential to consider. In a crisis situation, problem-solvers, communicators, planners, and doers are needed.
Effective training must be a key component of the emergency plan so individuals can recognize indicators and take appropriate steps. This training must include methods to improve the team response approach. There is a need to integrate new skills and knowledge learned within the organizational emergency response program to ensure a basic competency, especially since large-scale events occur infrequently. Periodic exercises help maintain proficiency and confidence. This application and maintenance of skills and knowledge will reduce anxiety, improve response outcomes, and protect the employees, occupants, and facility during a large-scale or crisis event. It is necessary to train together for operability, understanding each other’s roles and priorities for various types of events, and to prepare for the unexpected with those that are likely to be a part of the response process. Training must also include a clear definition of their role that everyone understands, including management and other employees. Everyone must know that the team exists, how they are activated, and their function and capabilities.
Team building is effective for improving team outcomes, processes, and performance. There is a positive relationship between team building and team functioning. Most importantly team building not only helps improve interpersonal relations within a team but also helps improve process. Team building is about building better and stronger relationships, developing a sense of a common purpose and unity, boosting morale and motivation, and encouraging communication, while supporting the psychosocial well-being of team members (Oxfam 2007).
Furthermore, teamwork is more than knowledge; it also includes behavior and attitudes. Therefore, team training must include more than conveying knowledge but also include time for either simulation or role-play of new skills and developing interpersonal relationships. Team building is necessary to develop a comfort level and trust among members.
For a team to work effectively, the members need to be personally acquainted. Knowing each other’s names, calling each other by name comfortably, and the ability to voice opinions to contribute to the group outcome without fear of reprisal are essential to team outcomes. Effective teamwork does not come from just sitting in a classroom but from developing working relationships. Team members must also have a feeling of confidence and understanding of both individual members abilities and limitations, as well as the capabilities of the group as a whole (Sheng et al. 2010).
Trust is a major component of successful emergency response teams. There are many definitions of trust. Spector and Jones (2000) state that trust is an expectation or belief that actions from another person will be motivated by good intentions. Costa (2003) states that trust is a willingness to be vulnerable, combined with the expectation of good behavior from others when there is task interdependence between individuals, which in turn, is related to the willingness to engage in cooperative actions and depend on others. Risk is often a prerequisite in the choice to trust, whereby the actions of others would be considered at least not detrimental and preferably beneficial (Costa 2003; Dirks 2000). Trust can also be described by a high degree of social conduct and frequent social interactions, whereby two parties care about each other, exchange information, and may even share personal information (Sheng et al. 2010). Trust is a key component in all interpersonal relationships and particularly important for emergency response teams (Oxfam; Sheng et al. 2010).
In the workplace, an employee’s perception of his or her perceived status, individual identity, potential or actual involvement in contentious relationships, and/or acceptance can facilitate or hinder the ability to change the behaviors of others. People may completely refrain from discussing their ideas with the other group members because they are afraid that their knowledge may be inadequate or unimpressive and fear loss of ownership and/or the loss of individual competitive edge. The acceptance of an idea is dependent on the trustworthiness between the interpreter and potential recipient, and this knowledge transfer may be less effective if the exchange is unpleasant for both sides. Innovations may not be accepted simply because of the person who proposes them, rather than the content. This has been shown to be the case where newcomers bring ideas to the group; however they may not have earned the confidence and status of the group to convince them to change (Schilling and Kluge 2009). Personal trust is linked to cooperation, performance, and quality of communication in organizations. Working well together requires some degree of trust, and the type of work encounters that occur in today’s organizations requires trust to be formed rather quickly.
Information is a critical component in emergencies, yet lack of trust will inhibit communication (Costa 2003). Especially for infrequent, high-cost events, response teams must be willing and able to speak up; this relies on trust that what they say or do will not cause reprimand or be held against them. This is especially important when team members do not all hold the same rank (Miller et al. 2008).
An essential foundation for trust between team members is competence in individual skills and roles, which comes from education, training, and practice. Training and practice improve skills, builds competence, and increases trust between team members. This is where an individual’s skills become important; however, in order to ascertain if an individual has the proper skills, the skills must be demonstrated in action for the rest of the group members to see and affirm. The willingness of individuals to work with others is also measured during practice. Practice is a much better time to determine the workability of a group.
Trust is also a key factor for cooperation in teams. Where there is a lack of trust, there will be failings in communication, delegation, quality, and empowerment (Erdem et al. 2003). While other variables impact team effectiveness, such as how long the team has been together, specific personal attributes, and the influence of organizational culture, unit cohesion needs time to develop. For employees to respond to an emergency, they need not only knowledge of procedures but also the ability to respond effectively as a team, functioning as part of the overall system of response. Building trust needs to be considered when developing policies, procedures, team selection, training, development, and supervision (Erdem et al. 2003).
Team Activation and Response
Once a team has developed skills and can function as a single unit, they are ready for response. Activation procedures should be part of training and exercises. The team leader should be the one to activate members. Ideally a realistic alert should go out to members. If there is a potential for an emergency to develop, the team should be alerted and put on standby to respond. This can increase both their mental and physical ability to respond should they be needed. There should be a way to confirm that each team member received the message and can respond so there are no gaps left. With the need for redundancy, the notification must ensure that there is team coverage without duplication. Team response to the alert must be well known and practiced, including meeting points. Briefings and frequent updates should be made, both to active team members and those on standby. An official deactivation should also be made when the situation is over, so that it is clear that team response is no longer needed.
In a team, each member has a specific role to carry out, and trust is what allows each member to do so. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that roles are being executed, communication is open, and difficulties are resolved. During activation, leaders too must evaluate team members for signs of stress or fatigue and initiate steps to ensure the well-being of each member.
After each event, whether a drill or real, the team should debrief. Reflection on personal feelings as well as performance needs to be considered to avoid burnout and make improvements. While most people will deny the need for assistance, ensure that there are outlets to release stress and talk about the situation. For individuals who appear to have more serious or long-lasting negative impacts, arrange for critical incident stress counseling. Recognizing the team is also important. Public recognition will go a long way to promote the team. Any lessons learned should be incorporated into policy and procedure and practiced by team members, thus ensuring the cycle of improvement.
While many leaders assume their organization is equipped to bounce back after a disaster, without a focus, a team, and a plan, it is unlikely that resilience will happen. Effective team coordination for a crisis begins long before such an event occurs. There needs to be a true willingness by management to put the necessary components of an emergency preparedness program in place to support the team. The right people with the right skills and demeanor need to be included on the team. Training and skill development are needed, while a camaraderie must be fostered within the group. The ability for each member to trust and work with other team members is essential. Team response includes notification, activation, and use of necessary equipment. The team must be allowed to function within their role, with a strong leader in charge. Follow-up, recognition, and continued improvement are necessary to sustain team success.
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- Walker EH (2009) Developing successful teams. United States Marine Corps, Command and Staff College, QuanticoGoogle Scholar