Triage Your Issues During a Crisis

82nd CAB trains with new medevac helicopter

Emergency room triage is an established practice to do the most good, with the resources available, based on the workload. It is based on the rate of incoming patients, the urgency of each patient’s needs and how complex each individual patient’s situation is.

Medical triage changes a bit on the battlefield. The concepts of rate, urgency and complexity still exist, but treatment is also weighed against achieving the fighting force’s strategic and tactical objectives – i.e., winning. When the rate of patients overwhelms resources, urgency and complexity prompt caregivers to place patients in three categories – those who will live no matter how long treatment is delayed, those who will live based on how quickly they receive treatment and those who aren’t going to make it no matter what treatment they receive.

There can be more complicating factors to medical triage, but that’s the gist of it. Now, keep in mind those guiding concepts of rate, urgency and complexity of triage, and add in the crisis response concepts of resources, capacity and mobility.

In the realm of crisis communications, is there a crosswalk between these two groups of concepts? Sure is! (or, uh, I wouldn’t be writing this) FYI, I am in no way trying to draw a comparison between human casualties in war and crisis issues – just the concepts of triage and crisis response.

Resources, capacity and mobility could also be defined as “what you have, to what level you can use it and what the limitations are for the use of it.”

Here’s the common scenario for the start of a crisis for those who are responsible for conducting communication: not enough resources, limited capacity for the resources one actually has and the full spectrum of mobility issues, good and bad. It can be as simple as not having enough people to answer incoming media calls, those people you do have not being fully trained to provide perfect interviews and not having an adequate communications system to handle volume.

So, what do you do when you’re communicating crisis with limited resources, capacity and mobility? Triage your issues. Your goal during a crisis is to help your organization achieve strategic and tactical objectives – to win.

If you’ve worked in crisis communications, you’ve probably already done this. Scratch that – if you are human, you’ve already done this. We prioritize every day. In a crisis, it’s just a hyper-version of prioritization.

Your rate of issues will usually be high, you just need to critically look at the urgency and complexity of each issue – which will “make it” given the least amount of attention, which won’t make it, no matter how much attention you give them, and which are in the middle of those two extremes. First, focus on the middle issues – these will be the ones that are manageable and, when completed, give you the best strategic and tactical edge, given the circumstances. Next, those issues that need the least attention and last, if you actually still have resources and capability (and, really, motivation) those issues on the extreme of “not going to make it no matter what.” The last is probably in the “due diligence” category.

How do you learn to do this? Practice. Paul and I have written about identifying issues and planning for worst-case scenarios – now it’s time to plan for how you’ll prioritize your issues when rate, urgency and complexity come head to head with resources, capacity and mobility. Paul recently wrote about planning for your “bad day” scenario – work into that scenario your “worst time to have a bad day.” I.e., when need is high and ability is low.

Here’s the really tough part: those issues during crisis that “aren’t going to make it, no matter what you do?” They may ultimately negatively affect your organization, but if you’re in an issue triage situation, you’re trying to do the most good with what you have. Wasting time on something you can’t “fix” at the expense of those issues you can means you’ll meet none of your strategic and tactical goals.

The common factor between medical triage and crisis communication triage? People are the main resource, and they get “used up” quickly. We need to eat and sleep. There are never enough of us in a crisis. When we get to a crisis, there are never enough people who are “expert” in whatever job they have. Triage. When more help arrives, and/or the rate, urgency and complexity of issues starts to decrease, you can start transitioning back to operations as normal.

Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Derek Kuhn. Public Domain image via Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System. Original image at http://goo.gl/YTztIy . The image has not been altered from the original.

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