The only thing spreading more rapidly than COVID-19 is questionable advice on how to deal with it.
We’ve all been infected thanks to a rapid airborne dispersal of emails, social media posts, TV interviews and clickbait articles about “best practices” and “tips” and “recommendations” on how to manage through this emergency.
What’s real? What’s fake? Who has time to fact check all the things?
What worries me most? Outside of official government agencies, so many people telling you how to live your life or run your business in this emergency situation have little or no experience managing actual emergencies.
I figured, if you want reliable advice on how to deal with a crisis, shouldn’t you listen to the one person in your network most qualified to manage a crisis?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far.
‘I’m Walking In, Seeing Guys With M-16s’
Prior to Lextech, Aric spent more than 10 years with the City of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), rising in the ranks to become Director of Information Services.
Among other responsibilities, it was Aric’s job to make sure fire and police dispatch systems ran smoothly 24/7/365. If you were in Chicago and dialed 9-1-1, Aric’s department made sure your emergency call reached dispatch and got routed to first responders.
I asked Aric to share some of his experience with emergencies and help us sort through some of the craziness happening in the world today. Here are a few highlights from that chat:
Nelson: It’s funny that we’ve worked together for so long and yet I really didn’t know much about your background and your experience at the OEMC. How did you get into the “emergency” business in the first place?
Aric: I started at the OEMC as a contractor doing database work and map-based problem solving. My first real project with the city was doing fire engine routing through the street network to create an algorithm that would give better recommendations on which emergency vehicle could get to your location faster.
One of the things Chicago does is centralized dispatch, and that’s really unusual. In most cities, police and fire have their own dispatchers and they don’t really communicate. In Chicago, it’s the exact opposite where they literally sit in the same room and run under the same guidelines. That really makes for a much faster response.
Early on when I first started, the premier of China came for a tour. Chicago gets tons of high-profile visitors.
It was just my first week of work at the OEMC, and I’m walking in, seeing guys with M-16s, teams of armed guards, guys on rooftops, and I’m thinking, “What did I get myself into?”
For a fairly junior person like myself coming into that environment for the first time, it was terrifying.
Were you working at the OEMC when 9/11 happened?
I’m an early riser, so I liked to beat traffic to get to the office. I was there doing my stuff when the World Trade Center got hit. I was there to set up the emergency operations center and get things up and running. I just happened to be there doing my daily routine when disaster struck. It was crazy.
Although nothing happened in Chicago that day it was still a very scary situation. Do you remember how you dealt with it?
My girlfriend at the time—she’s now my wife—had just moved to Chicago. So here she is in this big city under siege, under the threat of terrorism, and she didn’t know anybody. I felt really responsible for her well-being, and so I really felt the emotions of that day personally.
I remember being at the OEMC until 10 p.m. or so, and I remember taking the CTA home from the office. I was literally the only person on the Brown Line. It was surreal.
Surreal is probably an apt description of the world we live in today.
After 9/11 I was in this meeting where this vendor was pitching anti-aircraft cannons to put up at O’Hare Airport, to shoot down planes after they think they’ve been hijacked. I remember thinking, “What world am I living in now where this is actually a possibility?”
In 2008, after Barack Obama won the presidency, there was a huge rally in Grant Park. I’m guessing you were involved with making sure things went smoothly.
That was a really big deal. We got to work with the Secret Service and learn how they protect the president. I was right in the thick of it, with all the planning ahead of time and setting up the command posts. I was in the main command post during the rally.
Of all the federal agencies I’ve ever seen in my entire life — because I’ve dealt with many of them—the Secret Service really has their stuff together. As one of them put it to me, “When it comes right down to it, all the gadgets, cameras, technology and security systems are great—but we stand in front of the president when the guns start firing.”
I was like, “Wow, that is a person who takes their job seriously.” The Secret Service is serious business.
At the OEMC, you rose to the highest position in the ranks that didn’t require a political appointment. Why did you leave?
Part of the reason was the toll on your health for needing to be “on” 24/7. I was responsible for the city’s entire dispatch system. People rely on that system at their greatest time of need, their biggest emergency. It is a lot of stress to know you’re accountable for every single call that goes through that system. That many years of stress was not good.
Another reason was that I had become the City of Chicago’s de facto “expert witness” related to 9–1–1 technology, so I spent almost as much time with lawyers doing depositions as I did doing my actual job. If I wanted to be a lawyer, I would have gone to law school!
That said, I still stay in touch with a lot of my former co-workers.
How have you applied your training and experience at the OEMC in terms of managing the people and work at Lextech today?
It’s planning in general for worst-case scenarios: “What is the worst possible outcome that can happen if a certain decision is made?” and then working backwards from that. Things like COVID-19 are just one of many factors to work through.
Other folks in the room with me will tell you that usually leaves me on the negative side of things, and that I tend to be a little bit more alarmist … but I’d rather prepare and plan for that and then not have to do it, rather than have to make hard decisions without enough preparation.
How do you manage a decision-making process when politics—either internal or external—come into play?
I keep things factual. What are the parameters I have to deal with? If I have to deal with people who might be affected by political influence, to try and see the situation from their perspective: What do they have to gain or lose? Whether it’s political cachet or something else.
Also, it helps to solicit additional opinions, because no one else is infallible enough to always make the right call. You may see two sides of a coin … but maybe you’re not dealing with a coin. Maybe there are more angles that haven’t been considered. That’s something I try and work out all the time.
‘Take Care of Your People’
Lextech is fortunate because we’ve been doing distributed work for years, so we’re familiar with how it’s done, but many companies are now just starting this journey due to circumstance. What advice do you have for ops/IT leaders and executives “going remote” for the first time?
Take care of your people. It’s the people that are feeling the burden and stress.
Technology may not work all the time, sometimes the internet will go out, and sometimes you won’t be able to complete work in a timely fashion—but recognize that during an emergency, while you’re working to service your business or project, there will be employees at work who won’t handle that stress and strain as well as you are able to.
Take care of those people first, as that is a lot harder thing to fix than a broken internet pipe.
Be intentional with communication. A technique I use personally is that my calendar is booked full of 15-minute increments that are reminders to myself that I need to reach out to a specific employee and check in with them. It may seem impromptu to them, just checking, “Hey, how are you feeling?” but for me it’s extremely intentional to make sure you’re maintaining those connections.
It’s by far and away the most important thing when working remotely. If I didn’t have those calendar reminders, I’d wind up focusing on something else and missing out on those important touchpoints.
What is the tone or substance of the message that companies should be sharing with employees during times of crisis or emergency?
“Other people are worrying about the things you’re worried about, and they’re doing their best to figure things out.”
Comfort isn’t the right word, because I don’t want to remove worry if people rightfully need to worry about something. It’s more making sure employees know these emergencies related to external events are being thought about and considered at the company level. The leadership team worries about stuff like this all the time, and that nothing is really being ignored or dismissed.
So, there you have it: A little advice for folks to manage through an emergency, from someone who walked the walk for more than a decade. I am grateful Aric is running Lextech’s “911 dispatch center” in these trying times.
I know not all of you will have an “emergency ops” person in your network, so I’m happy to try and get your questions answered by Aric, especially if it relates to handling IT/ops for agile teams and/or remote working—all of which are right in Aric’s wheelhouse of expertise. Just leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can ask Aric for an answer, or you can email me your questions.