Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Unthinkable--What EM pros need to think about

Perhaps I’m the only one in the crisis and emergency management industry that hadn’t yet read Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why. Now that I have read it I can only say one thing to those involved in any form of crisis or emergency management: read it.

I will tell you why. Those thinking hard and long about emergency management have a tendency to think very top down. We picture ourselves floating in above the chaos below like a helicopter to the rescue or like God or some gods come to save the wretched masses who are helpless and pitiable victims just waiting for us to come and clutch them from disaster. That approach seems inherent in most response plans. It is perhaps unavoidable but I think reading this book will provide a healthy antidote to pure top-down thinking about crisis and emergency management.

The truth is, and I never saw it so clearly as I did reading this book, resilience starts in all of our hearts and characters. Perhaps one image from the book can help communicate this more clearly. When an Air Florida flight crashed into the Fourteenth Street Bridge and then the frozen Potomac river in a snowstorm, only a handful of survivors made it out of the plane. They clung to the plane’s tail, waiting for rescue. They watched as spectators gathered on the bridge and the riverbank. When rescue vehicle arrived with red lights flashing their hopes were lifted even while they tried to stay alive in 34 degree water filled with floating ice. But none of the rescuers could help. There was not the equipment, resources, training, or anything else needed. Even the will. But one sheet metal worker jumped in the nearly frozen water before they even arrived. He never made it to the survivors. He was in the water nearly twenty minutes and only half way there when a brave helicopter pilot swooped in to pick up the five of 79 who survived the crash. The would be rescuer, Roger Olian, was one of two by-standers who jumped in to save them. And the victims credit him with keeping them alive by keeping their hopes up. Olian yelled at them as he struggled toward them. And seeing him do all he could to help them, while the rest stood by kept the hopes and the fighting spirit alive in those few clinging to the plane.

Emergency management planners need what this book has to tell us. We need to understand how people will react during a disaster, emergency or crisis. For example, I found much to my surprise while panic strikes some (and it can be deadly) the most common reaction in situations of extreme fear is paralysis. A kind of mindless lethargy sets in. Which is why flight attendants are trained to yell and scream at passengers and why Rick Lescora, security manager for Morgan Stanley in the Trade Center tower collapse absolutely knew what he was doing.

The truth about resilient people, organizations, and communities is that they do not really depend on us. That may sound disheartening but if so you are probably guilty of top down thinking. Our jobs are to increase that resilience, and we do it so much better if we understand that people have remarkable abilities to take care of themselves as they have remarkable tendencies to take care of each other. Our job is not to push this away in favor of “the professionals,” but our job is to build this, foster this, support and encourage it. One seaside community did a tsunami drill with no fire fighters, police officers or first responders involved. Why? Because disaster history will show that frequently they are not there to help—victims of the disaster itself. Creating and fostering that self-reliance and independence is the first step to building real resilience.

Since my focus is on public information I came away from this book with a far deeper understanding of the critical role that public information plays before, during and after bad things happening. What people know, what has been drilled into their heads, what they understand about an event will frequently save their lives and others around them. That’s how one school girl in the 2004 tsunami who knew the signs didn’t stand around and watch the water disappear, but got her family and others to safety while hundreds of others in the village died. It’s also why clear, concise, loud and repeated messages must get to the public before and during an event.

In Haiti we are witnessing right now the high costs of a non-resilient community. Yes, there are great stories of heroism, sacrifice, courage and incredible personal resilience. And community resilience begins here, in each individual’s mind, heart and personality. One thing is clear regarding Haiti, a brave and resilient people deserve much more from their government and the rest of the world.

It is to the credit of our national emergency planners that citizen preparedness is one of the eight national priorities. I certainly have seen efforts from the local, state and national level to try to help people prepare. But I understand better than ever why most of these efforts are doomed to fail—or at least not meet expectations or the great need for citizen-based preparedness. I see efforts at Citizen Corp and CERT—all laudable and important. But there still is a great gap and Ripley’s story telling will help make that gap clear to almost anyone who reads it.

One thing that this book will do for you if you have not read it is make you understand that you are fortunate to be involved in so important a field as emergency management. The challenges are as great as the stakes are high. But you won’t feel that what you are doing doesn’t really matter.

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