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A People-Powered Early Warning System: Developing Your Organization’s Situation Spotters

By Polly Ligon Sullivan and Dr. Rebecca Domzalski (DSL):

The threats working against today’s organizations are continually evolving, and it is nearly impossible to predict what the next threats will look like or where they will strike. Organizations must be creative in building continuity plans that keep unpredictability in mind. Flexible defenses can be created by developing assets already in your arsenal – a group of people we refer to as “Situation Spotters.”

We derived this concept from the history books. In World War II, motivated citizens known as “spotters” scanned the horizon for enemy aircraft. Armed with training and tip sheets, they watched the skies from rooftops and fields and reported aircraft sightings back to the Allied Command.

“Situation Spotters” are people within an organization or involved in its business who have a unique vantage point for witnessing, hearing about and responding to potential threats. With proper training to “Spot-Act-Report,” they can become an early warning system and the first line of defense to improve your chances of averting a crisis, keeping people safe, mitigating business impacts and protecting your brand.

Spotting Your Spotters
Who are these people and how do you identify them? Your Situation Spotters are unique to your organization but typically include employees, vendors, distributors, customers, community members or other stakeholders. We recommend two different approaches to identify spotters; undertaking either or both can help you initiate a spotter program:

  1. Determine the highest impact/highest likelihood threats your organization faces. For each threat, think about who is most likely to notice possible warning signs or have a front-row seat for the situation’s opening act. For example, if an active shooter scenario is of concern, your spotters could include human resources personnel, the employee or service responsible for monitoring your organization’s integrity hotline, and your building’s greeter.
  2. Walk through your organization’s product or service chain, identifying specific groups of people involved at every point. For example, if your organization is a manufacturing company, your spotters could include vendors, delivery truck drivers, line employees, maintenance workers, shift managers, distributors, customers, and local homeowners and businesses.

Train to SPOT – ACT – REPORT
Once you’ve developed your list of spotters, consider how best to engage them and encourage them to notify you of threats.  For employees and others who have a daily, contractual connection to your organization, we recommend the SPOT – ACT – REPORT approach.

SPOT: Train your spotters to recognize an incident or that something “different” is happening.  “Different” can mean anything from something that’s out of place (i.e., unattended backpack in a public area) or changes in established patterns (a long-time, respected employee whose behavior becomes more erratic or aggressive over time). It can be any situation that makes the spotter go, “Hmm, that’s odd/weird/upsetting.” Your basis for “different” is ultimately determined by the nature of your organization’s business or mission and your threats of greatest concern.

In addition to training spotters to recognize “different,” consider developing a list of specific situations or events you want people to report regardless; for example, a consumer complaint that indicates a public safety concern, specific maintenance issues, a threatening phone call or a suspicious package.

ACT: Specify what you want your Situation Spotter to do immediately when a triggering event occurs. For example a list of appropriate information to gather if a customer calls with a complaint.

REPORT: Who do you want your Situation Spotters to notify? Provide contact information and how soon to contact them. For example: If you see the signs of a security breach, contact the onsite Security Manager by phone xxx-xxx-xxxx immediately.

Establish a reporting process that has multiple avenues of notification. Make it simple and allow at least one method of anonymous reporting to increase the chances of the system being used. Employees may not report known issues openly when friends are involved or for fear of supervisor retribution. Organizations with cultures that encourage threat recognition and reporting will be the most successful in preventing major incidents, protecting your brand.

Equip Them for the Job
Like WWII spotters, your spotters will need a quick reference guide for potential threats. While it is not likely that you will ever be able to identify every potential risk, encouraging reports on specific triggering events identified as likely risks will help in decision making and aid in mitigating unknown threats. Putting expectations on paper can act as a reminder to spotters of what to do when the time comes. Keep this reference in an easily accessible area or consider making posters that reference desired actions.

For spotters not directly connected to your organization – neighboring businesses, customers, vendors, and others – consider arranging a formal meeting to discuss the types of situation you want them to watch for and when, how and to whom to report it. In addition to supporting your early warning system, these meetings can strengthen your relationships with these important stakeholders.

When a spotter follows through with SPOT- ACT-REPORT, be sure to:

  • Recognize their effort with praise or a small reward.
  • Communicate what happened as a result of their report and the benefits to them and the organization. Reinforcement increases confidence in the organization’s response system and emphasizes the importance of their role.
  • Coach them as to how they can improve their performance moving forward.

Power from the People
Maintaining the security and safety of our work environment relies on many assets working in concert to thwart threats that are constantly evolving. We must presume that those measures currently in place are known to would-be malicious actors who are developing ways to circumvent existing security measures. Situation Spotters are one of the most valuable and inexpensive assets in this existing infrastructure, and they should not be overlooked. Properly trained to Spot-Act-Report when something “different” occurs, spotters can help to mitigate the risk associated with unforeseen threats.  Your stakeholders have a vested interest in your success. Let them help you.

About the Authors: Polly Ligon Sullivan is the owner of Ready Inc., a consultancy that creates dynamic crisis plans and responder trainings and Dr. Rebecca Domzalski, a Ready Inc. consultant, is a 25 -year veteran of the US Navy. She holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership and Foresight.

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