Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When Emergency Preparedness Meets Reality

The moral values, ethical codes and laws that guide our choices in normal times are, if anything, even more important to help us navigate the confusing and disorienting time of a disaster. - Sheri Fink

Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster. - Jim Wallis

The #1206 “fiction” series continues …

Three men stood around a table in an impromptu command center in a remote part of the province.  All were silent as they surveyed the plans before them for Operation Ice Storm, a highly complex, expensive emergency preparedness simulation that was the culmination of two years of planning.

The first reports of results were beginning to flow back and they eagerly assessed them.

“This is impressive”, noted the older of the three men.  “We should have some excellent results to report back to the Premier when this is complete”, he continued.

“Isn’t that the nature of the game?”, laughed one of his colleagues, “When we have two years to plan the event we can also use the time to plan our response.”

“And you think this is a good thing?”, a gruff voice asked from behind them.

The three men turned around to see a figure that none of them recognized.  Tall and dressed sharply in a military uniform that was unknown to them, he stepped forward and held out a letter to the oldest of the men.  “Phase 2 of our emergency preparedness evaluation is about to begin”, he said sharply, “Here is my authorization.”

The leader of the three men accepted the letter, opened it and frowned as he examined the contents.  “This is preposterous”, he expostulated, “I wasn’t informed of this.  Who authorized this?”

“If you had been informed of it, then you would have prepared for it”, replied the military figure.  “It is precisely for this reason that you were not informed.”

A private stepped into the command center, walked up to the military figure and saluted sharply.  “Everything is in place, sir”, he said quickly.

“Thank you, private”, the military official said before dismissing him.

Turning to the three men, he smiled through tight lips.  “Care to see a real simulation, gentlemen?”  With that, he walked out of the command center as the three men looked at each other nervously, shrugged and followed him.

They caught up to him observing the simulation field before him.

“Step one”, he said to them without taking his eye off the field, “is to disable communications.”

He turned to an officer next to him and said, “Proceed”.

The officer issued an order to a private next to him who manipulated a device in his hand.

“You see, gentlemen”, continued the military official, “things become complicated when communication becomes difficult or impossible.  We have just disabled all radios and cell phones in the area.  Observe.”

The men observed chaos begin to develop in the simulation field as the first responders realized that their radios were not working.

“Why are you doing this?”, protested one of the emergency simulation planners.

The military figure held up his hand and quietly said, “Wait.”

A few men approached the planners and excitedly began to explain that their simulation efforts were being hampered because their communication devices had suddenly stopped working.

As the leader opened his mouth to respond, the officer accompanying the military official stepped in front of the leader and answered quickly.

“They are not working because a catastrophe has occurred across the province.  We are doing our best to figure out what has happened and how many people have been hurt.”

“What?”, responded the first responder, “What kind of event?  What has happened?”

“We don’t know”, replied the officer, “But it looks bad everywhere.  Like I said, we are trying to figure out what has happened.”

The first responder looked at him in disbelief before pulling out his cell phone.  He realized in frustration that it wasn’t working.

He looked at his fellow first responder and said “To hell with this.  I need to see if my family is safe.”

He turned and ran towards the field, yelling to his colleagues.

The leader of the simulation yelled at him to return but heard an “F this” in response, yelled back over a shoulder.

“What the hell was that all about?”, asked the leader of the three men as he faced the military figure, “There is no disaster occurring across the province.”

“Very true”, said the military figure, “But they don’t know this and without communication equipment, they can’t discover the truth.”

As the planners watched in dismay, two years of simulation preparedness fell into chaos as first responders tried in vain to call loved ones, gave up and began fleeing the scene in an effort to reach their families.  Within minutes, the chaos at the scene subsided as most of the participants had already fled the scene.

“I asked you what the hell is going on here”, demanded the leader of the simulation, “You have just undone two years of work with this little stunt.”

“Really?”, asked the military official, turning to face his accuser.

“I think you had better rethink what you believe to be emergency preparedness”, he said coldly. “Preparing for or fixing a simulation so that you always win is not what preparedness is all about.  For these men and women to be focused on a disaster when everyone is safe at home is not a real test.  It’s like courage under fire.  You never know you have it until you or someone that matters to you face being killed by the enemy.  Then you understand what your true level of preparedness is.”

He nodded to his subordinates and they left.

The three planners stared at the field in silence.

To be continued.

© 2015 – Harry Tucker – All Rights Reserved


The idea for this post popped into my head when I observed this announcement by the Alberta government as it prepared to hold a 3-day emergency preparedness exercise.

There are a few interesting things in play here.

  1. Such preparedness is only effective when the first responders have a safe base to operate from, have not been wiped out themselves (or had their communication and transportation systems paralyzed) and have no distractions regarding the safety of their own family “back home”.
  2. The scale of worst-case scenarios is so large and complicated that one couldn’t really practice for them anyway, leaving any plans for such events to be untested until they are needed.  If one examines our track record for implementing unproven plans, then one should be worried unless one realizes that worry solves nothing.  So while simulations like the one being prepared for are important to conduct, we are still mostly unprepared for large events. Many of us in the IT sector know horror stories of clients who never tested their data backup procedures, only to discover they were ineffective when a disaster prompted them to restore a backup that was incomplete or totally useless.
  3. If one requests information for the response plans for larger scenarios such as a terror event, one is told that such preparedness is classified.  It makes sense to classify such things to prevent terrorists from creating plans to circumvent the response plans.  However, the idea that some have that such plans can be communicated in times of emergency is poorly thought out given that it is likely that the communication mechanisms necessary are likely to be inoperative or impaired in functionality and that mass panic at the moment will “shout louder” than any plans being communicated.
  4. Typical government response plans informing citizens to maintain essential supplies for 3 days at all times are woefully insufficient and create a false sense of confidence and security.
  5. No matter how dedicated a human is to serve the needs of others in an emergency, the need to take care of one’s family trumps all (for most people anyway).  Such realities can easily create a breakdown in the command and control structure of any first responder group, no matter how dedicated they are to serving others.

Emergency preparedness is an excellent discipline to have in order to protect ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation and should never be undertaken just because it makes for great PR or feel-good.

It should also be undertaken with the belief that no one is coming to help for a while …. if ever.

Preparing one’s self and one’s family against harm is a mix of art and science, bridging the gap between preparedness and paranoia, and is something that makes one stop and think as one observes the dynamics of our beautiful and complex world.

What happens after your thinking process is complete matters to you and your family.

What do you think?

Series Origin

This series, a departure from my usual musings, is inspired as a result of conversations with former senior advisors to multiple Presidents of the United States, senior officers in the US Military and other interesting folks as well as my own professional background as a Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy and large-scale technology architect.

While this musing is just “fiction” and a departure from my musings on technology, strategy, politics and society, as a strategy guy, I do everything for a reason and with a measurable outcome in mind. :-)

This “fictional” musing is a continuation of the #1206 series noted here.

1 comment:

  1. Simple: the bigger the systems the bigger the failures and the bigger numbers of those affected negatively!! Whether big govt, business, or big data, centralized control, etc. only hurts more people. A big chain is only as strong as its weakest link. However, a cable is made up of multiple strands, this stronger with the same resources. Decentralized and smaller always wins the fight.