Crisis resilience arises from principles, not tactics

A note from the co-authors: This blog arises from partnership between Joffe Emergency Services and Experiential Consulting, LLC. It’s a pleasure to combine forces and share crisis response principles that overlap between our areas of expertise (school security and outdoor / experiential risk management). This blog does not constitute specific legal, medical, or operational advice, and provides general principles only for educational purposes, consistent with our terms of use.

(Photo: Luke O'Neill)

Shouldn’t we always follow our emergency response plan?


It’s tempting to build (or worse, borrow) elaborate, step-by-step emergency response plans that dictate a prescriptive plan to follow in almost every likely situation. These are often nicely bound, color-coded documents with tabs labelled “earthquake,” “active shooter,” “lockdown,” “power outage,” etc. We understand the value and the comfort which these documents may provide. However, all too often such a tool may end up being more about appearances than genuine preparation, and may end up focusing more on tactics (e.g. steps to follow) rather than principles. Blindly following steps locks us into a linear response that may not allow for dynamic hazard assessment and real-time critical thinking. It has been said in crisis response circles that “The plan always works, but it’s not necessarily the plan we drew up at the beginning.” We recommend following principles rather than predetermined steps.

What makes an organization resilient?

Safety researcher/author Dr. Erik Hollnagel tells us that resilient organizations are characterized by four elements:

  • Potential to anticipate the possible - being able to imagine possible future challenges or opportunities. For example, the pandemic we are currently experiencing was predicted by many people focused on global health, including Bill Gates.

  • Potential to respond to the actual - being able to understand the uniqueness of the given situation and follow steps that match the circumstances. For example, in our response to California Wildfires, we’ve had to counsel schools not just to consider whether or not their school may sustain damage, but also whether or not they could reasonably/safely evacuate in the event that a nearby fire worsened. That became more vital to the reopening process than schools ever knew possible.

  • Potential to monitor the critical - knowing what to monitor, and having a system to monitor relevant and critical information. For example, a resilient organization knows to focus on what’s happening in a given event rather than strictly focusing on appearances, conflicting opinions on social media, etc. Our most successful schools label this “system” a “Command Center.”

  • Potential to learn from the factual - while it’s easy to focus on the big events or critical incidents, resilient organizations are equally attuned to “weak signals” that less resilient organizations may ignore. For example, learning from near-misses can be a trait of a resilient organization. For an added layer, watch this video where Chris Joffe and Lorena Sanabria, a student who endured the Parkland Shooting discuss the importance of “paying attention.”

Principles to follow in a crisis

To achieve resilience as described above, we recommend that organizations clarify and follow crisis response principles tailored to their organization, such as:

- Remember that crisis response is a human endeavor, and opportunity to provide service, support, and values-driven leadership at a time when people are at risk or in a traumatized state; we believe that taking the best care of people is a way to take care of your organization as well. Find our learnings from Amy Cuddy, Social Psychologist, who breaks down the cycle of wide-spread trauma;

- Establish role clarity using clearly agreed upon roles, and strive for agility in decision-making and resource allocation. If your system is preventing people from being timely in critical decision-making, recognize and address that issue. Consider adopting a mechanism like this to help you pre-determine your “Command Center”;

- Assign someone to be the direct liaison between impacted persons’ family and the organization, and provide them with the autonomy and authority they need to communicate and allocate resources as needed to provide the best support;

- Understand the concept of triage - allocating resources and attention according to where it is most needed and likely to be most effective;

- Pay attention to mental health as well as physical health in crises, including the well-being of the crisis responders and others not directly in harm’s way, but affected by the trauma of the incident itself or its effect on their loved ones;

- Focus on the Platinum Rule (not the Golden Rule): the Platinum Rule reminds us to treat people how THEY want to be treated, not how WE want to be treated by others;

- Remember that crises are learning opportunities and should be carefully documented and debriefed afterwards to create more resilience for future events. Effective post-incident investigations should be aimed at learning and prevention, not just liability avoidance or simple solutions centered around assigning blame. If you are quick to arrive at a “root cause,” you may be missing the larger learning that comes from hearing multiple perspectives on what happened, and how to prevent it from recurring;

- Empathize in the now, next and later. Recovery is a long game. Recognize that schools are cyclical organizations and each ‘new year’, ‘anniversary of the event’, etc. will bring more reminders, potentially difficult memories and a new opportunity to heal together. Whatever works best for your community is the right step to take. As Brene Brown would say, “We’re not here to ‘be right’, but we are here to ‘get it right’.”

To be best prepared

Whether you are focusing on crisis management for your school, business, or an experiential education / outdoor program, we recommend that you strive for resilience by following principles rather than tactics. We recommend that organizations practice crisis response, at least once a year, in realistic and challenging ways, with a representative sample of leadership from different departments and roles; contact Joffe for a school security crisis response exercise, or Experiential Consulting to schedule an outdoor / experiential program crisis response scenario.

Chris Joffe, MS

Chris got his professional start saving lives in EMS (Emergency Medical Services), but if you know Chris, you know that it wasn’t on a large enough scale to satisfy him. Chris has helped protect millions of lives since 2007 based on the simple belief that people have the power to save lives through education and training. Through his commitment to that mission and his leadership, Joffe Emergency Services has become the leader in school safety programs, event safety, and disaster preparedness. Chris is also the Founder of Get CPR Done, a Co-Founder of Swimguard.life, and the President of the Los Angeles Association of Contingency Professionals.


Steve Smith, MA

Steve is the founder of Experiential Consulting, LLC, specializing in risk management services for outdoor programs. He has written emergency response plans, training manuals, field manuals, designed crisis response scenarios, conducted risk management audits, presented at dozens of conferences, and published articles in outdoor magazines, podcasts, and journals.


He volunteers in support of risk management for the outdoor industry in a variety of ways, including serving on the steering committee for the Washington Recreate Responsibly Coalition; the Standards and Accreditation Committee for the Gap Year Association; and the Safety Committee for the Northwest Outward Bound School.

Steve lives in Seattle and loves to explore and photograph the wildlife, mountains, and coastlines of the Pacific Northwest.

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