Nuts and Bolts: Perspectives on Training for Disasters

Over the years I’ve written a lot about the role of the instructional designer (ID) in negotiating expectations and demands of different stakeholders. Often these are things like cosmetics (company logo on every screen, everyone in photos wearing a purple sweater) or scope (“just add on this video….”). But the second week of September 2018 brought to mind the very real problem of stakeholders with starkly differing ideas about learning and performance needs when training for disasters.

My past job was in state government, which, contrary to images of pencil pushers at desks, employs myriad people across vastly different endeavors, many of which involve care of other humans. The state runs organizations such as prisons, hospitals, schools for blind children, care facilities for developmentally disabled adults, public schools, and university campuses with dormitories. Hurricane Florence caused the evacuation or closing of many of these facilities across nearly half the state, some of which will not reopen in the foreseeable future.

After the storm, a news report told of the remarkable efforts of NC prison staff in relocating 3,000 offenders to safety while keeping the public safe, work that involved an array of staff all the way from correction officers to safety workers, food service workers, logistics coordinators, and bus drivers.

The first comment on the news story was a sarcastic, “Well, I hope they made the staff sit down and do the mandatory ‘Adverse Weather Policy’ tutorial before they went off saving a bunch of lives.”

These tutorials typically cover issues like requirements for attendance, paid vs. unpaid leave, recording time worked, and any options for making up missed time. I worked on projects like that several times over the course of my ID career. Often the problem was viewed from a very narrow perspective: People in Raleigh understand the once-a-year two-inch snow that throws us all into a panic. They don’t give much thought to the flooding we see near the coast in most hurricanes. They offer sacred stories like “state government buildings never close” (they do if they’re flooded to the roof) or “you will be notified whether your position is considered ‘essential’” (true, but this can change when there’s a sudden need for bus drivers to transport 3,000 criminal offenders). There were unresolved contradictions: “If the governor has ordered people to stay off the roads, then do not try and venture out; let the road crews do their work and keep roads clear for emergency vehicles” (unless you are considered “essential,” in which case you might be disciplined for not venturing out). One of the “adverse weather” programs I worked on was built around the goal of teaching supervisors to explain to some employees why they weren’t considered “essential,” as they might take umbrage at that (even though no one had complained that this was a problem).

Keeping business operations running smoothly is critical, sure: Prisons can’t just close, and people need to know if they’re expected to report to work regardless of weather. Correct time reporting is important: it affects employee pay and other benefits, and mistakes can be hard to untangle. Knowing whether you must report regardless of weather conditions, or face serious trouble, is important. But other things are important, too. Calls to our departments revealed little concern about time recording but lots of concern about what to do if in fact a building closed: What were the lines of communication? Who would tell which employees to report where? Who should employees call if the roof had collapsed and no one would be answering business phones? How should people communicate if cell towers failed? At the local level, departments do have plans for this: kudos to the NC Department of Public Safety for having plans in place to mobilize and transport their charges quickly and efficiently.

There are also the needs of employees to keep in mind. They have lives and families to care about; here, during the storm, they were at work while watching the seemingly endless news about their own neighborhoods being damaged. Figuring out what would acknowledge their concerns and make it easier for them to get to—and stay at—work is a win for everyone. For example, here’s something from another government employer, one in my hometown (Figure 1):

Staff pets sheltered in hospital corridor

Figure 1: During Hurricane Florence, this hospital designated an area for staff pets

When we talk about working with SMEs and negotiating issues in products we’re developing, the conversation isn’t always just whether material is relevant or even whether it’s instructionally sound. It’s also a matter of credibility. Find out what worries managers and employees, and realize that employees may have a better view of risks and concerns than executive staff. Acknowledge reality. Find out what departments really need to help you reconcile the sacred story from the real story. Help them figure out where they can bend some rules, as with the hospital photo above. Work with those requesting your help as a designer in thinking about how to design for times of panic.

When training employees for disasters, while you may be “just” the ID, you can have influence over some decisions regarding course design. More time trying to determine the needs of the end users, identifying real-world pressing problems, and acknowledging the human side of the issues will help people stay safe, will support workers in their worst moments, will make learners more receptive, and will make information more memorable.

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