Remembering 9.11.01 - Moving Forward

I was in Austin, Texas, about to deliver the risk management half-day of a 2 day meeting planning training for participants from around the US. Day 1 had been great. Day 2 started out as if it would be another day of learning after which many would leave for home, a few stay over, have dinner and continue the conversation.

It was a day of learning; it was not in the way the class had been designed.

What happened

My co-trainer, not “on” until the afternoon, called from his room to report what had happened with the first plane, then the second. We didn’t yet understand the magnitude of it all.

As the class arrived, some from their rooms on property, some from off-property or home, the information was being disseminated and, still, we didn’t know the implications of what had happened.

The discussion

Do we continue the class or do we suspend it; should people leave or stay; should those with friends or family or co-workers in New York try to reach them; should I, my husband, at home just blocks from the Capitol, try to reach him or help the class first. What should we do and how and when?

False start

At first, we thought the planes flying into the World Trade Center were an isolated incident and we’d continue the class. We tried. As more information came in, we knew we had to rethink what we were to do.

We agreed that those who were local would leave for home. Most of us were from elsewhere in the country and agreed we’d take a break, have lunch, and reconvene in the meeting room to figure out our next steps. I am forever grateful to one of the participants, my colleague (and another facilitator), David Johnson, who could have left and stayed to help me sort it out.

Truth? Much of that morning was a blur as I internally weighed all the options and focused on what to do for the participants.

What we did next

Had lunch, returned to figure out what we needed: meds, clean underwear, clothing, and for many, something that would just provide comfort. (That turned into Halloween costumes for kids, a giant bag of Doritos, some silly underwear.) We made a list of all we needed and ensured we had all contact information handy. We talked with the property about providing a van they would drive for errands. The facility contacted a local pharmacy about getting prescriptions refilled (although we had no idea how long we might need them) and off we went on a shopping trip. Not an ordinary trip - one where we ensured that no one would be left behind in the store by setting times to meet.

 And then

We met every day for breakfast which stretched into lunch which stretched into dinner. We tried to find out when we might get home. A few people were able to get a bus that would eventually get them to Wisconsin. We made them promise to call along the way and let us know when they were home.  We consoled each other about the anguish we felt about families left at home not knowing when we’d get home. We listened to each other because many “back in the office” were sure we were just lounging around poolside and doing nothing productive. There was a great lack of understanding about what it’s like to have no idea when you might get out and home and how, although you try to be productive, your brain is not focused.

(We were sitting – not poolside – so that we could talk and not be alone. I didn’t even watch coverage until 5 days later. I couldn’t – my concentration was on the people from the class and their well-being.)

Who helped

Ben Fredericks, then of United Airlines, a good friend and colleague, was my lifeline to getting home. He kept me apprised of what was being done and said he would let me know when I could get out. It was 5 days later.

The then MIMList was another lifeline.  The industry’s first virtual community, formed just 1.5 years before, that I moderated, averaged more than 400 posts each day for many days. Offers of making calls in DC and NYC if people couldn’t get through, of picking people up from airports and taking them home if their planes had put down in strange cities, of simply having a community in which to share and grieve and care made a huge difference. [Today, I moderate at meetingstodayforum where the community is growing and where, in another incident, I expect we can again help.]

The best offer was “driving Miss Joanie” – first the relay offer of who would drive me from Austin to Dallas to Nashville and on.  Then the most generous offer, partly a result of a magazine cover of me in the driver’s seat of a car to illustrate women in the driver’s seat, was from my friend, Vanessa Vlay’s twins: learning I didn’t in fact drive and wanting to help, the then young girls (now in their sophomore year of college) offered to pedal on their bikes from California to Texas and to take me to DC.  I am forever in their debt; they are forever in my hearts.   

I stayed. My responsibility was to those who attended the program.

What we observed

On September 12, at breakfast in the facility’s dining room, an alarm rang. We jumped from our seats and were out the door in a flash! We observed senior level facility staff stay in their seats and laugh as we ran out.  What we knew then was that we would forever be more cautious and would not rely only on facilities for emergency help.

After finally getting home

Planners all had stories to share of lessons learned and plans we could implement. We met over brownbag lunches and shared learning how hiring a bus and a driver to get people from, Colorado to the East Coast, may be a good plan that can’t be executed: not all buses and drivers are certified to go across state lines.

We made a commitment to consider every possible contingency for every meeting and event we did.

Now

As we commemorate the lives lost in the terrorist attacks of 9.11.01 and we hear and read all that has changed, I still wonder if our industry has yet to prepare for “paper cuts” and disasters. Certainly during Katrina and Rita we weren’t prepared. 

The news this past week of a major power outage in Southern California, Arizona, and Mexico made me wonder how hotels and meeting professionals were prepared with flashlights for themselves and participants, if hotels had the generators they needed, what their contingency plans were for a prolonged power outage.  What I saw was that we are still not prepared.

Actions

It’s simple really:

  1. Planners must select destinations and sites and vendors based more on the safety precautions they take for themselves and guests than on their amenities. It begins with selection and asking the right question and disclosing safety information.
  2. Written contingency plans must be in place and all personnel trained before arriving on site. It’s too late once a crisis begins to unfold.
  3. Every “what if” – from power outages to food poisoning to an allergic reaction to death; from a flood or hurricane or terrorist attack; from speaker no-shows to angry participants – must be considered and planned for. No more “we don’t have time” to do this. Put 9/11 and Katrina and the recent floods in the NE United States in your mind. Plan for every contingency.

 

Pass this blog along. Question everything. Take “it couldn’t happen here” and say “yes, it could and I’ll be as ready as I can be.”

Resources:
Risk Management for Meetings and Events by Julia Rutherford Silvers

Article: Storm Warnings

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