Lyft’s guide to the transportation revolution
Under The Hood

How Lyft's crisis experts responded when their own office got bombed

Sean Satterthwaite - Apr 10, 2023
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On Christmas Day 2020, Ellyn Echols’ buzzing phone woke her up at her parents’ house. As senior manager of safety at Lyft, Echols led a crisis-response team for riders or drivers who reported a safety incident. Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, her team of safety agents had worked in a historic building in downtown Nashville among Slinky sculptures, shelves of cowboy boots, and a wall of Dolly Parton wigs. But now, texts were rolling in from friends and co-workers. There had been an explosion at the office.

Echols ran into the living room and urged her father to turn on the news, where the same eerie scenes were playing out on TVs across the country: Early in the morning, an RV had parked on a quiet street and started broadcasting evacuation notices over a loudspeaker. Half an hour after the broadcast started, the RV exploded. The bombing resulted in internet and communication outages throughout Tennessee, plus extensive damage to buildings and homes on Second Avenue North — including the Lyft office.

This wasn’t Echols’ first bombing. Soon after graduating from the University of Georgia in 2010 with a degree in international relations, Echols landed a job with a government contractor developing community projects in Afghanistan. She was in charge of protecting the company’s employees — expats and Afghan workers who, by nationality or association, were potential targets for the Taliban. She analyzed intelligence, approved movements through Kabul, and wrote policy on how to travel safely in Afghanistan’s provinces. When the house where she worked was bombed by terrorists, she moved to a camp for international development companies and their staffs.

That security background made her an unorthodox but valuable addition to Lyft’s safety team. The company has invested significant resources to develop tools to help prevent, address, and intervene in safety incidents. And serious safety incidents are in fact rare, reported in only 0.0002% of rides. Still, when they were reported, it was the safety team’s job to reach out and do what they could to make things right.

The company has invested significant resources to develop tools to help prevent, address, and intervene in safety incidents.

Echols' team investigated reports, figuring out how to best support the rider or driver. She brought the rigor of her security work to this process, developing strict guidelines for how the team reviews and responds to reported incidents. And in weeks of trauma-informed training, her team studied the warm, empathetic language of crisis intervention. This is the sort of active listening — with techniques like mirroring and reflecting — that first responders and victim advocates use to talk to people at the scene of an accident, or when something awful has happened. 

Now, something awful had happened to the Lyft office itself. Echols scrambled to get in touch with her team. “We didn’t really know anything about how badly our building was damaged,” Echols says. “We didn’t understand what the motive was.” After confirming that the building was empty and no one was hurt, Echols turned her attention back to her family. But when she logged back into Slack a few days later, she realized that her Christmas Day check-in was just the beginning of a long healing process for the Nashville team. Echols’ team had developed tools to help Lyft users cope with trauma. Now they would have to use those tools themselves.

Bombing wreckage image
MNPD officers stand next to an incinerated vehicle on Second Avenue in Nashville's Historic District. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Ryan Kocher, a program lead on the safety team, lived two blocks away from the office. The bomb blew out windows in his residential building, and he woke up to dust, sirens, and broken glass in the streets, scenes suggestive of the September 11 attacks two decades earlier. “There were so many sirens,” says Kocher. “I got a rental car and don’t even remember driving from downtown Nashville to Gallatin. I guess I was running on adrenaline. Because when I got there and finally sat down, that’s when it all sunk in.”  

Kocher describes the bombing as the third and final blow of 2020. First, in March, a deadly outbreak of tornadoes tore through Nashville, destroying neighborhoods and businesses. Then came the pandemic, which sent the safety team home from the office. Finally, the bombing: “Everyone was just kind of in shock.”

In victim advocacy training courses designed for Lyft by the National Organization for Victim Assistance, a crisis is defined as a precipitating event where a person’s coping mechanisms fail. What qualifies as a crisis is subjective — what one person experiences as a crisis can simply be upsetting for someone else.

What qualifies as a crisis is subjective — what one person experiences as a crisis can simply be upsetting for someone else.

That proved a challenge for Echols. As someone who had already been through a workplace bombing, she could lean on and lead from her experience. But what about the other 400 people? “You can parse it out — we weren’t in a bombing. No one was there. So that’s great,” she says. “But there was trauma for people. I had to zoom out and say — ‘Oh, this is maybe the most insane thing that’s ever happened to a place that they know and have been in.’”

And it wasn’t just the fact of the bombing that made things so difficult, but also the counterfactuals: Before the pandemic, Lyft’s Nashville office had been a customer service center, running 24 hours a day, all year round — including Christmas. That meant that, but for COVID, many workers would have been in the building. “It can stew in people’s minds,” Echols says.

After a quick regroup, the team’s senior leaders set up a phone tree, calling and texting their direct reports, who texted their direct reports, and so on, until everyone was safe and accounted for. The next workday, leaders held meetings with their teams, offering space and roundtables to talk about people’s feelings and frustrations after the attack. Echols and others leaned on their victim assistance training, which is focused on letting survivors control the conversation — listening, validating people’s experiences, and suggesting they take time off if useful.   

Leadership leaned on a mix of empathy and relationship-building — something that’s typically the specialty of the “compassionate cares” team, a handful of agents with over 330 hours of training that handle the most egregious incidents, like fatal car accidents. “Some teams are judged by metrics,” Echols says. “Compassionate cares is the opposite. They have all the time and space they need to build an ongoing relationship with people who need ongoing support, because we’re trying to regain someone’s trust and help them in the best way that we can.”

That team has helped families plan and hold memorials, and installed benches in parks that were meaningful to their loved ones. Their work focuses on care, not resolution. After the bombing, Lyft’s safety team relied on similar gestures — which could be as simple as reaching out to meet for a beer. (That was a particularly meaningful gesture, since two of the Lyft safety team’s favorite bars had been destroyed in the bombing.)

Even so, it took time for the team in Nashville to get back to baseline. As the pandemic waned in the summer of 2021, Lyft employees in San Francisco, New York, and Seattle were welcomed back to their offices. But the Nashville team couldn’t go back, a particularly bitter pill for a team of highly social people. 

Rebuilding the Lyft office took more than a year. For months, the destroyed blocks of Second Avenue North were closed off, and many of the buildings are still decimated. The city hung a giant American flag from the roof of Lyft’s building in the days after the bombing. “That was a Nashville thing,” says Echols. “There’s a bit of pride. People from the office were sharing photos of the flag — they were proud that this was our office, that it was still standing, and that we could still be a part of Second Avenue.”

Flag Over 150 2nd Avenue Building
On left: blown-in windows and doors at the Lyft office on 2nd Avenue. On right: the Nashville Fire Department hangs a flag from the roof, honoring first responders and symbolizing the city's strength.

A central tenet of crisis theory holds that survivors of accidents and victims of crimes are often most upset by the loss of their sense of control. When the Nashville office officially reopened its doors in March of this year, Kocher described the team’s return as an opportunity to regain that control: “Closure is a good word for it,” he says. “It was just normal, like you couldn’t tell this tragic event had happened. It’s kind of cliché, but you don’t realize how attached you are to an office until it blows up.”