Thursday, March 26, 2015

PTSD in Emergency Preparedness Planners–Why It Matters

When we feel weak, we drop our heads on the shoulders of others. Don't get mad when someone does that. Be honored. For that person trusted you enough to, even if subtly, ask you for help. - Lori Goodwin

It is as though some old part of yourself wakes up in you, terrified, useless in the life you have, its skills and habits destructive but intact, and what is left of the present you, the person you have become, wilts and shrivels in sadness or despair: the person you have become is only a thin shell over this other, more electric and endangered self. The strongest, the least digested parts of your experience can rise up and put you back where you were when they occurred; all the rest of you stands back and weeps. - Peter Straub – “The Throat”

In my role as a long-time strategy advisor, one of the exercises I have participated in on a significant level is emergency readiness / preparedness on corporate, city, province / state, national and international levels.

Over the 25+ years of my involvement in this arena, I have always been struck by the high levels of passion, knowledge, skills and intelligence that exist amongst the men and women who work around the clock, either in emergency preparedness planning or in the execution of a plan during times of disaster.

Now I am starting to notice something else in these same great people – exhaustion and the symptoms of a PTSD-like illness that is starting to spread through their ranks.

Imagine if this were your job description:

Emergency Response Planner

  • You will be responsible for figuring out how to save millions of lives in the event of a disaster.  The scenario may be one event or a combination of any number of events, either unrelated or triggered in a cascade-like series of events.
  • You will not be provided with enough resources to prepare people adequately for one event let alone for a number of events.
  • You will not be told which event is most likely to occur so you will spend much of your time assigning inadequate resources across so many scenarios that your solutions are likely to have little if any value for any scenario. 
  • You will learn that making things up after a disaster occurs is cheaper and easier than trying to solve all problems in advance.  It has always worked in the past as demonstrated by PR people and politicians who have successfully spun “we can overcome anything” messages after the event has passed.  Such messages make people confident of our solutions and cause them to overlook the reality that it was our lack of oversight that contributed to the issue or put them at risk in the first place, proving that this strategy is an effective one in emergency preparedness.
  • You will be rewarded for creating plans that are unproven and untested but look great in presentations.
  • You will be sheltered from people who poke so many holes in your plans that it will become clear that the plans are inadequate or totally worthless.
  • You will not be permitted to speak to family and friends about your work for fear of making them afraid.
  • If asked by the press, a politician, etc., to describe your work, you will explain how your plans and procedures are robust and effective but they cannot be explained for reasons of tipping your hand to a terrorist.
  • Your role will have some covert elements to it, appealing to the excitement of working on something that is “secret from the masses” while helping you feel that you are making a difference.
  • In the event of an emergency, you may be safe within our Emergency Operations Center.  There will be insufficient time to get your family onsite but you will be able to function as if they are not suffering so don’t worry about it.
  • You will be consumed by challenges night and day and will find it difficult to get them out of your mind during times when you should be focused on more mundane tasks such as relaxing with your family.
  • When you go home at night, you will pretend that Life is normal.
  • An optimistic outlook is critical for applicants.

Would you want such a job?

Would you be able to deal with the stress of such a job?

I doubt it.

What is the world of emergency planning really like?

I once led a meeting in New York where we were listening to actuaries and other experts project acceptable losses for different scenarios.  It was one of those meetings where one goes for a long walk afterwards and then calls a lot of people just to tell them that you love them.  They ask if you are ok and you reply yes but you are not really sure.

During the ensuing arguments over how accurate the numbers were, I noticed one actuary, Chris K., rapidly calculating something.  I interrupted the meeting and asked Chris why he wasn’t participating and he indicated that he had become fascinated with predicting the likelihood that our series of meetings was going to cause a heart attack, stroke or suicide in one of the participants.

We paused for a moment before resuming our argument.

At a leadership conference that I presented at a few years back, I had the opportunity and honor to meet a man who is a leader in this field and serves as an advisor to Presidents, Prime Ministers and such.  As someone who had been in the field much longer than I have, I felt that he would have some great advice for how to deal with the difficult information that flows across one’s desk and so I asked him how he keeps his sanity.

His answer was revealing.

“I try not to say sober”, was his reply.

Another time, a colleague of mine and long time participant in emergency preparedness planning in NY had to be repeatedly talked out of committing suicide because he couldn’t deal with the information that he saw.

The last time he reached out for help, none of us got to him in time.

Meanwhile the rewards, the compensation and the accolades are significant for those who rise to the top of the emergency planning pyramid and that keeps many people participating despite their concerns about what they are working on, the effectiveness of what they are creating and whether they are making a real difference at all.

And for some, ignorance is bliss.

Now it’s not like that for everyone

Some people see emergency preparedness planning as entertaining and challenging, like a three dimensional chess game.  They get excited when they breathlessly describe this process or that process, confident that they have created something amazing and useful as they amaze themselves with some cool algorithm, a pretty presentation or the like.

When people like me ask them difficult questions like “Why?” and “How do you know?” regarding specific elements, they get angry and comment that pointing out such things is not “part of the game”.

After that, people like me become their enemy because our “obvious pessimism” gets in the way of the solutions they believe they are creating.

They forget that pessimists are people who see no hope.

People like me are optimistic realists (or realistic optimists) – people who believe that an amazing future can only be created when we acknowledge the realities of our present, when we communicate those realities and when we invite everyone affected by those realities to co-create solutions together.

The difficulty in co-creating solutions is that politicians believe that most people couldn’t deal with the truth and so it is better to treat them like mushrooms (keeping them in the dark and shovelling you-know-what in their direction). 

Most politicians are in the PR game and not the leadership game anyway and so this suits their inability to lead people to a better world in any measurable form.

Sorry … I have always called it the way I see it.

Meanwhile, a lot of very smart, very passionate, very well-intentioned people slowly melt as they create ineffective solutions within the unrealistic constraints defined for them and they deal with issues that the average human brain could not wrap itself around.

The Bottom Line

Those of us in emergency preparedness sometimes get overwhelmed with frustration when we are hamstrung by inadequate resources to tackle the issues before us while at the same time, we overhear stuff like someone complaining about things that don’t matter, like finding a pair of $200 thongs to match the bra they bought.

Despite our frustration, we do what we do because we passionately believe in the potential of the human race.

We do it because, as we watch our kids play in earnest or as they sleep after a busy day, we know that there has to be a way to create a better world for them – that it is our responsibly and obligation to do so.

We do what we do so that you can do what you do without worry of the future.

While many of us have heard adages such as “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” or “history teaches us that history teaches us nothing”, disaster doesn’t have to be our reality moving forward.

But in order for disaster to not be our reality in the future, we have to do something that humans are not traditionally or historically known for.

We need to be realistic optimists, acknowledging what needs to be done (or overcome) in order to create the potential we are capable of producing.  Maybe if more of us chose to participate in such creation, we could force those who deny such participation to acquiesce and allow / encourage such participation.

Maybe then, the great people working in this arena would finally receive the support they need to actually produce solutions that will make a difference.

If you would prefer to ignore what is happening in the world, I would refer you to more feel-good, mushy posts such as:

I hope they make you feel better.

In the meantime, a lot of people you will never meet will continue to work tirelessly and selflessly to ensure (or at least try to ensure) a safe, bright, optimistic future for you and your loved ones.

These people need our support, our cooperation and our collaboration in order for their efforts to be successful otherwise our future has the potential for some very grim realities.

This is not conspiracy – this is reality but it doesn’t have to be our reality.

Can we do better for them and for us?

Why or why not?

What happens if we don’t do better?

How do you know?

In service and servanthood,


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