Recovery from Chaos: The Human Element

We all have recovery plans in our arsenals, right? Does your recovery plan stop with clearing roads and restoring utilities? How much detail does it include about helping employees get back to work?

On Nov. 18, 2009, student protestors at the University of California, Santa Cruz, occupied Kerr Hall for 3 1/2 days. When they were finally removed, they left broken promises, broken doors and equipment, had trashed the floor that housed the Chancellor, and had dislocated 149 employees. If you want to see pictures of what the students left behind, check it out at

Emergency management at a higher education campus is different than emergency management in a public jurisdiction. The distinction between higher education and the private sector is that students are given a lot more latitude and protesting is part of higher ed DNA. It goes along with the culture of academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Campus administrations support the rights of students to protest. There might not be a typical student protest these days, but it usually involves gathering peacefully (if noisily), presenting demands, and then dispersing. Times are changing, however, and new tactics are being employed by protestors on all our campuses.

In this event, although Kerr Hall at UCSC was locked down, 200 students managed to get in and were anything but peaceful. As staff attempted to shut down systems, students pounded on windows and doors and yelled loudly. We don’t expect staff to defend their workspace. Many were stressed and traumatized; most of them were frightened.

As professionals, we preach the four (ok, five) phases of emergency management, and write plans to put disasters into a nice package tied up with a bow. But we are learning that there are some incidents that just don’t fit the typical “disaster” – events that are predictable but not preventable and can’t be mitigated. Preparedness is almost impossible, and response is complicated.

Recovery from these events is difficult because it doesn’t involve roads, utilities or structures. This kind of recovery involves the human element: reestablishing work stations, reestablishing employees’ return to work when they were so suddenly pulled out of their element, personally and professionally, and respecting their fears about returning to those environments.

UCSC Recovery Plan Additions

UCSC Business Continuity Planner Elaine Rivas learned some important lessons in recovering from this incident, and developed a section in the UCSC Recovery Plan to convene a “Building Recovery Team” – specifically to facilitate the orderly and timely restoration of the facility to normal operations. It includes ongoing consultation with tenants and department heads and some unique variations on traditional ideas:

  • Set up a “recovery center” as soon as possible after the event begins, specifically to get information to department heads about the situation and establish temporary workspace for the recovery team members as well as for any of the displaced units of the building.
  • Institute regular tenant briefings to both gather and disseminate information about business recovery and the availability of human resources.
  • Collect tenant assessment forms – how they left their workspace, what might still be operating, and what might be necessary to return the workspace to its original condition.
  • Provide workplace assessment forms for returning workers, considering what functions were interrupted, what is broken and needs to be fixed or replaced, whether employees can login to their computers, whether their computer settings and bookmarks are intact, whether their voice mail was changed, and whether personal property is missing.
  • Set up a work center in each building to create work orders for repairs, coordinate actions, and expedite both repairs and special requests.
  • And, of course – the only one we usually include in our plans – establish crisis assistance teams to support employees’ return to work.

The Human Element

All too often in our planning, we concentrate on the material repairs and ignore the “elephant in the room.” But the human element is what makes our systems work.

Let me pose this question: Is this part of emergency management, part of recovery, or part of continuity? It doesn’t really matter, does it? Restoring human capital is an essential component of restoring your institution’s viability after an emergency.

About the Author
Valerie Lucus-McEwen, CEM, CBCP, is an Emergency/Continuity Manager at the University of California at Davis and writes the “Disaster Academia” blog for Emergency Management Magazine,

[This article was previously published in the IAEM Bulletin, the monthly newsletter of the International Association of Emergency Managers,]