Planning for leadership under crisis
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Mark Gillan BBA, CFO, MFireE
Whether you are putting out fires around the boardroom table or with a hose and ladder truck in the field, you get similar results if you are not prepared.
So it is no surprise that the founder of Emergency Solutions International is a retired deputy fire chief and 27-year veteran of the Saint John Fire Department. With a mission to support partners (in both government and private sector) in their “All Hazard” emergency planning, preparedness and risk assessment, Mark Gillan founded ESI in 2009.
Mark has an impressive track record that started when he was 19. Prior to founding ESI, Mark served the City of Saint John Fire Department as an active firefighter, hazardous materials/CBRN-E technician, as well as a member of the rescue squad. He had a 27-year career, which culminated in holding the position of deputy chief and acting fire chief. In his distinguished career he received commendation five times for civilian rescues.
I started my interview with Mark by asking him if it was hard to leave his career as a firefighter and jump into the entrepreneurial world.
A: I was with the fire service in Saint John for 27 years. No matter how long I’ve been in business I’ll always be a firefighter. Once you’re a firefighter, you’re never really anything else.
Q: As deputy chief, was there a particular point in time that you became acutely aware of the need for emergency planning?
A: I was in New York City two days after 9/11 and I spent almost four days there. For the fire service, the world changed right at that time. Shortly after that, I became involved through the Saint John Fire Department with a national initiative around terrorism. It was called Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive and looked at resiliency within our nation for not just intentional events but accidental events that would be of an overwhelming nature to any local jurisdiction.
Q: What did this experience teach you about the resiliency of a municipality or a nation?
A: There was a time period at 9/11 – from the Tuesday to the Sunday afternoon – where the city, the state and to a large extent the nation were brought to their knees and really weren’t prepared.
Although we never really thought there would be a 9/11 type of event here in Canada, we certainly saw potential for intentional and accidental acts that could really cause great harm and certainly affect our ability to work with our trading partners. A lot of our local economy is natural resource-based. When that border closes like it did during 9/11, we’re choked off as a nation.
Q: As you mentioned, lack of planning can have a huge impact on our economy, which in turn hurts the business community. How has emergency planning been embraced by business?
A: We work with a really diverse group of businesses – petrochemical, mining, utilities, health care, senior facilities and even an international baby food and nutrition company.
Every firm has the same issues. They really need somebody with a critical eye to look at their operation from the standpoint of the true risks that they face, not just the ones that would be identified by insurance companies or creditors.
Q: How do you assess risk for your clients?
A: We develop some crisis modelling to validate their internal processes and documentation. If they have things like business continuity plans, emergency management plans or security plans, we look at the plans, look at the risks and make sure that things are updated, congruent and then run a validation process – usually with the executive team.
We actually run them through a crisis scenario to ensure that they would get the outcome that they would expect to get by virtue of preparedness.
Q: I understand that you also ‘stress test’ the leadership in organizations?
A: What I noticed, particularly when I was with the fire service, is that you would all of a sudden be called out to a business where folks had absolutely no crisis experience.
Individuals cannot perform in crisis unless they somehow practice in advance and they’ve got some sort of a framework to fall back to. A crisis organization is very different than your regular operational organization on a day-to-day basis.
Q: Would a fire department be an example of a crisis organization?
A: Exactly. That’s all they do. That’s their regular operating mode and everybody is used to being in that mode, always preparing, always training for that next call. In businesses, on the other hand, they’re looking at all the headaches and problems that they have everyday and they may not see the iceberg that’s out there – that they may hit. I like to look at where those potential icebergs are for them and make sure that it doesn’t sink their ship if they hit it.
Q: What is the potential impact to an organization that is not prepared for a crisis?
A: The impact to brand is much more immediate when there is a failure in a system. A brand can go down the tubes in 24 hours without a plan.
Q:How high are the stakes?
A: According to our case studies, the personal liability of company directors is much higher now. The expectation of shareholders has also changed from the standpoint of how quickly leadership messages in a time of crisis and manages that crisis and works with stakeholders whether they be community stakeholders or response stakeholders.
Q: Can you give me an example of a crisis not handled well?
A: On the smaller end of the scale, West Fertilizer Company, in West Texas. There was poor community planning, so the community was not aware of the potentiality of the explosion in April 2013. The community was devastated. Not only did the company cease to exist, the community will be recovering for decades.
Q: Can you describe how you create a crisis for your client that mirrors a real-life experience?
A: We’ll meet with a designated company representative who is knowledgeable with their systems and processes. Our first step is to learn about the firm and look at their documents and vulnerabilities. Then we’ll create a crisis scenario, a reasonable worst-case scenario, which the firm may face and we’ll develop a one-day session that will have an educational component to warm folks up and get them ready. We give them some ideas about how they would create a crisis organization as opposed to their everyday organization. Those are two very different things. We create a learning experience.
The scenario will be created by using what we call ‘injects,’ which is information that comes into the company much like we would process everyday. Maybe there’s a storm coming. So you have an emerging threat. We’ll run through 15 or 20 different injects that are time-sensitive. We’ll form a crisis organization to discuss the injects and deal with them using their planning documents. Often what we’ll find is there are misconceptions within the business, gaps within the planning documents or gaps within the preparedness.
Q:What does the market look like for your service?
A: I believe that this is an absolutely huge market and I think that it is largely untapped. I don’t mind talking about it. I wish there were a hundred other people doing similar things. The gap itself is something that I really felt intuitively that was there. Quite frankly, as we’ve been working, it’s been much larger than what we believed in the beginning.
Q: How would you finish the following sentence,“A leader’s job is to . . .”
A: A leader needs to always maintain a strategic approach and be the person that is looking way out over the horizon for those icebergs.
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As published in the April 25, 2015 Telegraph-Journal