Who is your Designated Survivor?

The Daily Telegraph recently (Sun 5/4/20) reported the NSW Police Force were implementing a ‘Designated Survivor’ plan to ensure continuity of policing during this time of uncertainty and challenge in the response to COVID-19.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Designated Survivor theory, it is based on isolating a person, or persons, for a period of time, protecting them in case the leaders of an organisation are incapacitated. The ‘Designated Survivor’ would then step up and ensure the continuity of the business.

Kiefer Sutherland and Netflix have an intriguing drama series based on the principle. But the principle has been in play for quite some time…

Kings and Queens have long avoided travelling with their direct heirs to ensure, if something happens to them, the monarchy will continue. You only have to look at how Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Prince William are all isolating in different parts of the United Kingdom right now.

The United States implements a Designated Survivor plan during the State of the Union, inaugurations, and presidential speeches to joint sessions of Congress. With all members of Congress in one location for the President’s speech, a member who is identified to be in direct line of succession to the presidency by both Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, and the Presidential Succession Act, is secluded away and protected. The procedure was thought to have originated in 1950’s in relation to the Cold War, but it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1981 that the name of the Designated Survivor was announced, confirming the practice.

When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson succumbed to the effects of COVID-19 last month and was hospitalised, there was a mad rush to determine who would lead the country. With many ministers and members of parliament having worked closely on the COVID-19 response with Mr Johnson, it was difficult to identify a safe option for ongoing leadership. One of the reasons Mr Johnson self-isolated on site for so long was to ensure a consistency of leadership even though he was ill.

It’s not just politics either. In 2010, the entire board of the Sundance Resources Mining Company perished in a plane crash in Cameroon. In the days afterwards, a former Chairman of the company confirmed having all members of the board on one plane went against organisational policy, but there was only one plane able to land in the remote area and so the fateful decision was made.

So , how can Designated Survivor theory influence us in managing complex incidents?

When a disaster hits, or we have notice of an imminent impact, its usually all hands on deck. The first IMT is likely filled with those who have the knowledge, experience and skills to lead a catastrophic situation. It’s also highly likely that this first wave of IMT members were those who were already at work, or rostered to be on shift. Very rarely, if ever, do we pre-plan our day-to-day rosters with consideration to a non-existent long duration event in mind. So rosters are filled with the people needed to do the job today.

The challenge then becomes apparent when we begin to determine longer term resource planning requirements. Time after time, the ‘cream of the crop’ are already embedded in the first wave IMTs and it is left to our emerging officers to staff the second and third rotations. This is challenging on many different levels. First, the experience and leadership skills may sit heavily in the first group and lightly in the second, making ongoing decision making harder. Secondly, shared knowledge and experience is the key to developing strong leaders. The second group need to learn from the first group, best done with on-the-job mentoring and leadership. If the experienced leaders are all in the first wave of rosters, we are wasting a quality development opportunity. Without shared knowledge and experience, it will take longer for the emerging leaders to up-skill to the necessary levels. Thirdly, we are looking at one event. What happens if a second incident occurs during the response to the first?

During ongoing incidents, or campaign events, resource planning and the filling of rosters becomes harder and harder as fatigue management needs kick in, and the incident requirements shift. In order to make this situation easier, perhaps a Designated Survivor plan could be put into play? What if a group of individuals are marked as the Survivor group, isolated from the first wave of the incident? They could then be brought in to take over when they’re needed? Or they could possibly be used to manage any secondary incidents that pop up during the management of the first?

I’ve always subscribed to the belief that pre-formed IMTs are the best form of rostering for the management of an incident. Not only does it give you teams of personnel who have trained together, learned together and built strong working relationships. It also ensures you can share the knowledge, experience and skills across multiple teams, supporting leadership development, mentoring and coaching. Perhaps pre-formed IMTs are just Designated Survivor theory in rotation?

So the next time you look to stepping up an IMT to manage an incident, take a moment to consider your back up plan. Who will be your Designated Survivor group?

Image Source – Wikipedia

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