October 1, 2014

Leadership and Management in Action | Focus on Leadership and Management

ErnieDimattia Leadership and Management in Action | Focus on Leadership and ManagementAll of the advanced warnings were precise and dire; a mega storm was about to batter the City of Wishmere with torrential rains and gale force winds. The community’s Emergency Preparedness Task Force met earlier in the day to review and revamp its community disaster strategy, in light of the unusually severe weather forecast, and to plan for recovery and relief, once the storm passed.

Wishmere is a mid-sized municipality of 55,000 inhabitants, located on the East coast, and has a positive balance of residential and commercial property. It is an economically stable community, as well as boasting of a highly educated and culturally diverse populace. Although everyone expected that Wishmere would survive the pending weather, there was apprehension that there would be dwindling food and water supplies, major power outages, and significant tree and infrastructure damage. A less heralded weather event several months earlier resulted in extensive destruction, and took weeks to fully recover.

Jack Davies, the director of the Wishmere Public Library, was in his office, getting his own emergency team together to consider the possible damage his building could sustain and the problems that could ensue. The Library is one of the most popular public buildings in the City. Having been recently renovated, it has increasingly become a community meeting place and computer center. The space includes three floors of 20,000 square feet each for user services, and a fourth level for back-office functions. The Library staff was known for its exceptionally attentive approach to public service and user interaction. Consequently, it is of no surprise to find that the Library staff is anxious to do its part to help the people of Wishmere through the emergency.

Director Davies knew that the Library was well respected for its integration as a key community partner. He was also aware that his building was well protected and had never lost power in bad weather. Davies was concerned that, despite having previously offered the Library’s help to the City’s emergency efforts, he was not asked to be involved in the current situation. Not knowing if or when the Library might be called upon as a participant, he decided to proceed with his own disaster planning for the anticipated emergency.

He met with his senior and middle managers, and discussed such issues as staff notification of any closings or delayed openings of the building during the storm, and the forms of telecommunication and online alerts that would be needed. The team also considered what hours of service would be offered to the community once the emergency was lifted. Several staff asked about considering opening the Library as a shelter before, during, and after the storm. Following discussion of this matter, it was agreed that there were other community facilities, such as schools and social service centers, which would be better equipped to handle sleeping, feeding, and showering needs.

The group mapped out a plan for that service which they thought the Library could best handle. It included the availability of WIFI throughout the building, energy outlets on all floors, a concierge desk in the lobby to direct users to open seating and plugs, and extended hours of operation. The purchase of extra power strips, rental of additional seating, and impromptu story hours and film showings were also considered, as was the provision of water and other basic refreshments. The need for a more formal library preparedness policy was broached, with the resolve that it would be developed shortly after the current dilemma was past.

The Wishmere Public Library did everything it could to respond to its community’s fate. The storm came, raised havoc, and slowly passed through; power was out for almost a week for most residents, and the Library answered with hours, electricity, and connectivity, which in many cases is almost as important as food, shelter, and sleep. Davies’ management training and leadership skills both come into play, as he focused on his operation, as well as his people, in order to keep the library alive and thriving in an otherwise trying time. The Library received high praise from both the City Government and its users for its concern and prompt action.  Davies determined to use this evidence of value to achieve more connectivity to ongoing community-wide planning.

A few important concerns surface here as public libraries continue to work extremely hard to relate to their communities and, more directly, to their users, especially in a threatening environment: how far should the library go to be a part of a community’s emergency preparedness response team; should library personnel make extra special efforts to staff the building as quickly after a storm as feasible; to what extent should budgetary implications factor in the action that is taken?

It is very evident that circumstances will vary in each situation. What is also clear is that the library has a vital part to play in the life of its community. How far that role should go is less clear. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Ernie DiMattia About Ernie DiMattia

Ernest A. DiMattia, Jr. (dimattia@fergusonlibrary.org) is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Ferguson Library, the public library in Stamford, Connecticut. He holds an MBA (University of Connecticut) and a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science (Simmons College), as well as a Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics (Boston College).

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