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5 factors present in every crisis (and how to deal with them)

Understanding and accepting the 5 components of a crisis will make you better able to deal with crises when they happen

St. Louis Justice Center riot February 6, 2021

Inmates set bedding materials on fire, dropping them from broken windows at the St. Louis Justice Center.

Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

It has been said that you really don’t know what is inside a tea bag until you put it in hot water. The same statement can be made about leaders in law enforcement. You may or may not like your boss on a day to day basis, but how is he or she in a crisis?

Do they even understand what a crisis is and fully comprehend the components always present that can help to both prepare for them and to navigate the treacherous waters that they churn up when they occur? If you’re the boss, can you name and explain the five factors present in every crisis and the spontaneous entity that emerges when a crisis occurs?

The Tactical Science definition of a crisis is “an emotionally stressful event or situation involving an impending, abrupt, and decisive change.” The important thing to note about crises is that they are not necessarily bad, but they may turn bad. How we respond to them is critical in determining which direction they go.

My current command is responsible for providing police services for several of our county hospitals. A few weeks ago I received a call from one of my sergeants telling me that a lab technician discovered two bottles of picric acid in a supply room that were crystallizing. Picric acid in its liquid state has a number of uses in a hospital, including the treatment of burns.

In its crystalline state, the military has another occupation for it. They use it to make explosives. When picric acid begins to crystallize, it’s akin to when dynamite begins to sweat. My sergeant informed me that an evacuation of the building housing the acid, as well as adjacent buildings, was already taking place; fire departments from the city where the hospital was located, as well as a hazardous material unit and other assets from county fire were responding; and they were debating whether or not to call the bomb squad.

Was this situation, as it was initially presented to me by my sergeant, a crisis? Let’s look at this more closely.

In law enforcement, we deal with three types of crises:

  • natural disasters, like earthquakes, fires and floods,
  • mechanical incidents such as train derailments, plane crashes and hazardous material spills,
  • and adversarial episodes such as jail disturbances, riots, barricades suspects, etc.

The unstable picric acid incident at my hospital seems to fit the mechanical incident definition, but couldn’t the argument be made that we are overreacting to call this a crisis? After all, who knows how long that crystallizing acid sat on the shelf before the hospital technician recognized it? What makes its sudden discovery a crisis? It’s not like someone tipped over a couple of bottles of chemicals and inadvertently created a toxic cloud. This acid was just sitting quietly on a shelf.

To explain why the discovery of these two bottles of acid meets the definition of a crisis, let’s look at the five factors that are always present at every crisis. They are: risk, uncertainty, time sensitivity, the human factor, and potential severe consequences.

1. Risk

This is unavoidable in every crisis and occurs on many levels. There is a risk to personnel, civilians, equipment, and property. And there is risk to the incident commander; and not just personal risk, but also career risk. Big decisions sometimes result in big successes, but they can also end in big failures. If you are in command and your decisions do not pan out, your career may be at stake. Some leaders delay making decisions out of this fear and some of the other factors in crises do not assist the timid commander when it comes to allaying their fears by employing procrastination as a strategy.

2. Uncertainty

The military refers to this as the fog of war. This element is as unavoidable as risk. There are always factors that will be unknown. In a mechanical crisis like the one involving the picric acid, the main points of uncertainty once everyone in harms way was safely evacuated were: just how unstable are these bottles, and how will moving them exacerbate this instability? In an adversarial crisis, the uncertainty increases exponentially because now you are dealing with a competing will.

You can attempt to reduce uncertainty through intelligence gathering, but you can never eliminate it. And as researchers like Gary Klein have shown, there is a point where too much information can paralyze decision makers. In his book Streetlights and Shadows he notes, “Uncertainty is not always reduced by gathering more and more information.” (2009, p.127) Sometimes, Klein observes, more information is actually less in order for an incident commander to make a critical decision in the face of uncertainty. Understanding is what an incident commander needs to make better decisions.

3. Time sensitivity

Time does not take sides. It’s neutral. There are competing factors that influence how we use time. In a natural disaster such as a tsunami like the one that hit Japan in 2011, time may have everything to do with how quickly you can get the word out to people to seek higher ground. In a mechanical incident such as a chemical spill resulting in the formation of a toxic cloud, it may be all about quickly identifying wind direction and then instructing people how best to evacuate or, probably better, to remain sheltered in place.

With an opponent, time is competitive. I will talk more about this when I write in subsequent articles about Boyd’s Cycle and maneuvering in time, but suffice it to say that if your strategy at the beginning of a jail disturbance is to sit around and wait because “time is on your side,” you may find you have just made a manageable problem worse by surrendering initiative to the inmates.

4. Human factor

The human factor is the most complicated and important one of the five factors for an incident commander to manage. Our main resource is our people, but in a crisis it’s not only them but victims, witnesses, bystanders and possible suspects who are part of the equation. All must be considered, but in a crisis how your people react and how you take care of them may mean the difference between success and failure. The time to start thinking about your people is long before you find yourself in a crisis.

What kind of training are you getting for them? What drills are you conducting? What assets and provisions do you have on hand? Is your equipment in good working order? Then when the crisis hits and is ongoing how are your people holding up? Are they tired? Are they hungry? Have they been able to reach their loved ones, or is their head no longer in the game because they are worrying about them?

All this will come into play when the crisis hits.

When I was told about the picric acid incident and the need to evacuate, one of my first questions was about the intended location of the command post. I was told they were placing it in a nearby parking lot. I immediately wanted to know if they needed easy ups and water. It was late afternoon in Southern California in early September. The temperature was near triple digits. I did not want the acid rendered inert and safe only to have my people collapsing face first into the parking lot. My sergeant assured me that there was ample shade and water.

Taking care of our people is critical. It’s not only crucial to the success of the operation, but also to the well-being of your command. Our people know if we care about them or not. We ask a lot of them and they often perform spectacularly. We owe it to them to have their backs. Failure to do this may cause a crisis all its own.

5. Potential severe consequences

Potentially severe consequences are inherent in crises. It’s impossible to have a decisive change without the threat of a catastrophic consequence.

The picric acid incident caused no injuries and only disrupted the operation of the hospital for approximately three hours until a unit from our bomb squad arrived, took custody of the acid and detonated it in an explosive bucket. But the potential for far worse consequences was ever present. That is all that is required in a crisis.

In many crises the severe consequences may have already occurred before your people take one step to deal with them, but the fact that none occur does not disqualify an incident from being a crisis. Did the picric acid incident disrupt normal operations? Yes. Did it require the response of several different entities to handle it? Yes. It was a crisis.

Crisis response

And what about that response? In order to bring our picric acid incident to a safe conclusion, a county fire hazardous materials team, county fire and local city fire engines, a Sheriff’s bomb squad truck, and Sheriff’s deputies and security officers along with hospital staff and support personnel all responded. The hasty assembly of this ad hoc group of agencies and personnel to deal with this crisis is known as an EMON: Emerging Multi-Organizational Network. Crises always result in the formation of EMONs to resolve them.

EMONs are crisis driven, task oriented entities that are self-evolving based on the nature of the incident and its location. They are a composite of various entities that may or may not normally work together. Their very existence is time sensitive and temporary. There are no memorandums of understanding written for EMONs. They come together to deal with a crisis and disband when it is over. Command and control issues are generally worked out on the fly although protocols have evolved over time which greatly simplify and facilitate the process.

In the picric acid incident, though it was brought to the attention of deputy personnel first, a joint command was formed when fire resources arrived. The initial focus of effort was to contain and isolate the acid and then evacuate the area. The main effort for this task was sheriff’s personnel assisted by hospital staff. After this was accomplished, the focus of effort shifted to the safe disposal of the picric acid. The main effort for this task shifted to fire assisted by the bomb squad. After the picric acid was disposed of, a debriefing took place and everyone went about their business, ending the EMON.

In a jail or prison, there is no excuse for being ill-prepared for a disturbance, riot, hostage situation or any problem that necessitates an evacuation. The opportunity to train is ever present. We control the terrain. And case studies exist from all over the country, and no doubt in your own agency’s history, to teach you what worked and did not work in the past. “Learn from the mistakes of others, because you will never live long enough to make them all yourself,” should be your maxim.

Understanding and accepting the five components of a crisis will make you better able to deal with crises when they happen. Preparing for them and being ready to make the tough decisions when they occur is up to you.

Lieutenant John J. Stanley, M.A., is a twenty-seven year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has worked a variety of assignments including, custody, patrol, training and administrative support. He is considered an expert on less lethal weapons and tactics. He provided corrections scenarios for the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University and contributed to its on-line Less Lethal Weapons class. John spent over a decade at LASD’s Custody Training Unit teaching classes such as Tactical Communications, Jail Intelligence Gathering, Tactical Weapons, Squad Tactics and Cell Extractions. John also was the lead instructor for LASD’s Custody Incident Command School (CICS) a class designed for sergeants and lieutenants and the Executive Incident Command School (EICS) for captains and above. He is a member of the California Tactical Officers Association and has published almost forty articles on law enforcement tactics and legal history.