Evaluating Evacuations

An emergency communications director changes course as her ECC is forced to flee its home base again and again.

By Cynthia Fell

Whether you work at a school, office building or municipal building, deciding to evacuate your staff during an emergency is one of the hardest decisions that a manager must make. The nature of emergency services makes this decision more complicated — we all know that emergencies do not stop just because our center is having one. Few know this as well as Macomb County (Michigan) Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Director Angela Elsey. When you hear her speak about her experiences today, she is poised and empowered by the idea that sharing her story will help others learn, but during the incident she kept only two things in her focus: her people and the department’s duty to serve the county. Elsey described the incident that caused them to evacuate the emergency communications center (ECC).

“Roofing material that was still curing from a recent roof repair caught fire from the hot temperature that day. The fire caused smoke to enter the building through an exhaust pipe that exits through the roof. The fire alarm was triggered, the smell of smoke was strong and the building slowly started to fill with smoke,” Elsey said. “An immediate evacuation was the only option. This was the first of several evacuations in the summer of 2019. Only two days after resuming operations in the building post roof fire, we evacuated again. This time, there was a strong odor coming into the building causing many employees to experience a variety of concerning symptoms.

This was a tiered evacuation, rather than an immediate (evacuation) but was handled urgently. Over the course of three months, we moved back into our building three times and relocated again each time due to the strong chemical odor in the building and employees falling ill.”

Luckily, Elsey had options. Her backup center was complete and ready to go. “Our backup center has all of the resources we need, including a geo-diverse phone environment, CAD, LEIN/NCIC connectivity, MCC 7500 radios, EMD and additional third-party solutions used daily. In this environment, we are able to work and operate the same as we would in our primary center. We were fortunate to be able to relocate there each time. We worked at the backup center for the majority of the summer, weeks at a time.”

If an ECC did not have a continuity of operations plan (COOP) prior to 2020, most should have one now. The COVID-19 pandemic truly illuminated what a COOP was and what can happen when an ECC does not have one. Elsey’s incident occurred before the pandemic and while the agency had an evacuation plan, it did not have a “solid COOP.” It is one of her lessons learned from the experience.

Elsey described a fluid situation as disruptions multiplied.

“With each evacuation, the variety of symptoms our staff experienced was wide. Some were transported by ambulance to the emergency room, some by a supervisor to the ER or a clinic, others sought an evaluation from their own physician, etc. During the second evacuation, the first time with the odor, by the time I made it into work (30 minutes after being notified), seven of our 12 dispatchers on duty were at the hospital. Each time an employee became ill I responded to the hospital first to check on them and speak with their family then followed up after their release. But where I started to fail was that my primary focus was really on the administrative side of things. I focused more on managing meetings and checkpoints with the health department and the contracted environmental agency, working with emergency management and OSHA, and trying to keep a handle on the mass amount of employee incident/injury paperwork and HR’s needs.”

Elsey figured that her time would have been better spent with people than with paperwork. But the challenges were dynamic.

“While all of this is happening, normal operations don’t stop. I’m frequenting our backup center less and less at this point because I’m bogged down, exhausted and completely overwhelmed. My focus had shifted to a ‘this is happening to me’ mindset, which is dangerous. I started to lose sight and control of everything else. … Some of my employees started to turn on their peers because they thought they were taking advantage of the situation” she said. “My failure was focusing on the technical challenge in front of me rather than the adaptive. … Adaptive challenges are different. They are difficult to identify and easy to deny. So opposite of the technical challenge, the adaptive issue at hand was I had a team of people who I knew I cared about so much, but they had a different perspective. They were feeling upset, left in the dark about the status of the building, scared to return, worried about their peers and all things considered, they felt abandoned. So again, difficult to identify because I did not acknowledge the reasons for their fears, concerns and frustration. I was focusing on what I was doing right and denying the rest. I wasn’t making time in my day for the people.”

Elsey remembers what she called the “aha moment” that persuaded her to change to a “people first approach.”

“It was in a tearful and fearful conversation with one of the supervisors, and she said something like ‘You’ve got to get it together. You’ve got to let the rest fall into place and lean on us supervisors to help with the logistics and the planning. But you’ve got to get them back, and I don’t mean in the building. I mean you need their trust, and this is going to be a long road without it. You, and we, have worked too hard and have too much to lose. Get some sleep, meet me with a coffee in the morning, and let’s do this.’”

Elsey met with each employee individually to discuss their thoughts about the incident, how it was handled and their feelings. She remarked that some of the things that she was told were difficult to hear, but they needed to be heard. It is such a simple concept, listening. But it is one that often unintentionally gets put on the back burner in emergency services. She states that what her employees needed was clear. “Communication, presence and transparency.” It wasn’t all bad; she can’t say enough good about her employees. “Not a dropped call or missed radio transmission. I actually had one dispatcher answer a fire engine from the prep radio in his vehicle, while in route to our backup center — that’s dedication! So what went well is that our people, even with all of their worries and emotions, never once let their commitment to their work, the citizens or responders waiver.”

“From an administrative perspective, I encourage other directors to have a plan. Know your procedures, build an evacuation plan, have an interoperability plan with neighboring ECCs and make sure your people know the plan. Practice and train for the plan. But what I think is most important for us in the director role to realize is that leadership is not about us. It’s about the people we lead. Listen to your people, communicate better, be humble and know that you aren’t necessarily the smartest person in the room. Be transparent and authentic.”

Elsey’s lessons learned from this incident are applicable to all things that first responders do daily:

  • Don’t be embarrassed by your failures. Learn from them and start again. Failure presents the opportunity to be more courageous and productive if you can really focus on the teachable moments/events.
  • Never let your emotions dictate your thinking. Unpredictable situations are going to arise, but how we respond is critical to the outcome. You don’t have control over the situation, but you have complete control over your mindset, behavior and response.
  • Realize that self-awareness is key to growth. Be willing to self-evaluate and consider how aware you are of your presence, and put the work into making positive changes.

Cynthia Fell, ENP, RPL, is the Civilian Operations Director for the Plymouth Township (Michigan) Police Department. Fell has a master’s degree in employment and labor relations and a bachelor’s in criminal justice and a bachelor’s in psychology. Along with her 20 years in 9-1-1 telecommunications, she has been instructing in criminal justice for the past 10 years.