Disaster Planning Like A SWAT Team – Part I

Bank Disaster Preparedness - Continuity Planning

A confluence of events recently has come together that has given us a master’s level course in bank disaster management and continuity planning.  We observed a forty team law enforcement special weapons and tactics (SWAT) competition, was able to debrief several Texas banks after Hurricane Harvey and was at ground zero for Hurricane Irma. Banks are great at contingency planning in general with Florida and Texas banks usually among of the best. However, given new technologies, more focus on process and better information, all banks might be able to upgrade their plan given our recent lessons. What follows is some notes and insight on how banks might be able to improve your disaster management process.


SWAT Operations


We will start with SWAT operations before going into more specifics about bank planning specifically. The basic tenants of SWAT planning lay the foundation nicely.  In the world of law enforcement, the nation’s SWAT teams are the best of the best. As the old saying goes, when citizens get in trouble they call the police, when the police get in trouble, they call SWAT. SWAT teams operate in dynamic environments with imperfect information – very similar to banks trying to manage a disaster. The most recent SWAT competition had 40 teams going through 40 back-to-back scenarios over a 45-hour period. That is more than two days without sleep in one high-pressure situation after another each testing the physical, intellectual and emotional members both individually and as a team. The teams that did the best, had these following traits that can be applied to any bank team effort, but particularly to disaster management:


The Preplanning and Training Correlation: Hands down, the SWAT teams that did the best in the competition were the teams that had the best planning cycle. This is to say, HOW teams prepared for the scenario made a difference. Teams were given a scenario and then had 20 minutes to lay out a plan. Those teams that did the best had the best planning sessions (see tips below). No surprise, those teams that had the best planning sessions are the ones that put in the most training beforehand. In disaster management, those teams that faired the best are the ones that had detailed preplans that were then pulled off the shelf and updated once disaster management was enacted.

 Bank Continuity Planning - Disaster Management


Information Transfer: Each team received an operational briefing where every member took notes. This is similar to operational briefings that take place before, during and after a disaster. SWAT team members learn from experience what information is important and what the quality of that information was. Top performing SWAT team often asked the question “How do we know this to be true?” Further, top performing teams highlighted information that they would like to have and then devoted resources to trying to get that information. Knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know tends to be equally important for both SWAT and disaster management.


Ask Good Questions: Of course, information doesn’t transfer freely. During the briefing and the planning sessions, SWAT team members asked questions, particularly within their area of expertise, to pull out information. After all the pertinent information was on the table, every member confirmed their understanding of what certain pieces of information mean. This is one area where experience matters. Younger members often didn’t know what they didn’t know and relied on the more experienced members to guide them.


Create a Plan: After the information was out, the team lead did a “work up.” They presented a plan to the group, and all members took responsibility to devil’s advocate the position. Holes were poked in the plan and disagreements to the plan were quickly ironed out. Sometimes, not all members agreed with the plan, and the team lead had to make executive decisions. At the end of the work up a primary plan of action emerged.


Create a Set of Back Up Plans: After a primary planned was devised, a secondary, tertiary and contingency planned were arrived at based on weaknesses in the primary plan or missing information. Questions like what happens if there were 20 bad guys instead of the reported two are similar to what happens if the storm track shifts west instead of east? Back up plans create a pre-planned waterfall of actions to take place if certain new information is learned or new events emerge.


Rehearsal: SWAT teams that did a walkthrough of their primary and secondary plans tended to do better. By stepping back and objectively running through the scenario, holes often emerged, and the plan was revised. In addition, walking through the plan served to help reinforce the planned actions.


Bank Disaster Planning 

 Areas of Responsibilities: SWAT members, like other high-performance teams, believe in accountability. During the planning phase, each member was assigned a clear role and often a backup role. They allowed for more dynamic and more fluid action. If a certain member had logistical responsibilities, for example, and they were incapacitated or involved with another action, then another member’s assumed the role.


Echo Back: Top performing SWAT teams tended to force each member to “echo back” or repeat the plan. Each member had to recite the mission’s objectives, the plan and their area of responsibilities. While it seems ridiculous to be forced to repeat back what you just heard five minutes ago, that part of the process emerged as critical once teams started to fatigue or if there was an element of noise. Requiring an echo back procedure not only forced attention to detail and instituted a level of accountability but also let the other team members know what team members were not paying attention or were starting to get fatigued.


Checklists: The top performing SWAT teams made ample use of checklists. Many teams had quarterback-style arm bands that expanded and allowed members to look up their checklists for various situations. Checklists ensured a level of standardization to allow members to function at a high level.


Muscle Memory: Top performing teams conducted the planning process the same way each time no matter how simple or complex the operation was. They executed like they trained and they trained the same way each time. The order of their planning process, the equipment checks, the start of their execution was standardized and repeatable.


After Action Review (AAR): After every training, every mission and every evolution of the competition, SWAT teams get together to objectively criticize each other and their process. They specifically look at what they could have done better, what they did well and how to improve. Their high level of trust in each other allows non-judgmental critiques with the only goal of improving the whole team. Egos are in check, and SWAT team members have learned the skill of both giving and receiving criticism. Those that can’t do both washes out early. Another important trait was the art of tracing back a bad decision or poor action. Questions were often asked, “Why did you make that decision?” Or, “Why were you in that position?” Team failure was usually not the result of one bad action but a series of bad decisions. It is important to get to the root cause and figure out where the process, from training to planning to execution, could be improved. That all said, good teams were quick to ascertain when good decisions were made in bad situations. Good luck and bad luck both have a role to play and sometimes there is no overcoming a tough position.


Write It Down: The teams that did well in the past did well in this year’s competition and will likely do well in the future. After every evolution, they not only conducted an AAR but committed their notes for future review, memorialized and assigned their action items, updated their checklists and incorporated the deficiencies into a training plan.


Team Composition: It is an unspoken rule that you have to earn your spot on a SWAT team with every training and with every mission. There is no permanent membership and becoming a SWAT member today is no guarantee that you will be on the team tomorrow. One screw-up can have you packing. That mentality not only serves to push each member to operate at their highest level but creates an atmosphere where members are rotated out often. SWAT team managers are cognizant of how teams are constructed and make sure that each team has a mix of experience, of youth, of different skills and different personalities.


Putting This Into Action


Managing a disaster for a bank starts with a good planning process. The lessons above from the world’s best SWAT teams can be incorporated into any team environment, but become critical when lives and major assets are on the line. In Part II, we will delve into specifics on the lessons learned from Harvey and Irma.


Like a SWAT competition, planning and executing against a disaster can be time critical and resource intensive over a long period. Bank teams fatigue and resources grow thin just like in a high-speed SWAT mission. Creating the right process for your teams will give your bank the highest probability of operating at its optimal level.