The best kept secret in the disaster business

Believe it or not, I’m now going to draw a comparison between a wedding and a disaster (because, after all, some disasters are just big fat Greek weddings on steroids).

“Five frogs are sitting on a log.
Four decide to jump off.
How many are left?
Answer: five.
Why? Because there’s a difference between deciding and doing.”

I recently attended the wedding of a friend in a private social club in the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan. And what a wedding it was. Beautiful and elegant, the guests were led seamlessly, almost effortlessly, through all of its various pieces-ceremony, after-ceremony and reception. When I mentioned to my wife how “it all seemed to come together” she gave me that I should be rolling my eyes right now look and said, “Yeah……no”

People who don’t know think that complex events just kind of “come together”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

People who don’t know think that complex events just kind of “come together”. Nothing could be further from the truth.And the only people who really understand this are the unsung heroes who actually bring these complex events together. These are those unique people who plan, organize and execute; who “own” the events. They who take the headaches, herd the cats, deal with the thousands of little crises and do whatever it takes before, during and after the big day. Other than the bride (and a few wedding planners) few know these headaches, the long hours over late nights and just gritty hard work it takes to execute a seamless complex event.

People who don’t know think that complex events just kind of “come together”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now stick with me because, believe it or not, I’m now going to draw a comparison between a wedding and a disaster (because, after all, some disasters are just big fat Greek weddings on steroids).

Awareness

Lets start with the EOC. The biggest tool in the emergency managers toolbox, the emergency operations center is a multi-agency coordination center, or MACC, that is established at the operational, or agency, level of the response and provides situational awareness to decision-makers at the strategic level as well as information and logistics support to tactical assets in the field. It is an extraordinarily powerful tool that can manage every type of disaster.

But people who don’t know think that all you need to do when a disaster happens is turn it on.But people who don’t know think that all you need to do when a disaster happens is turn it on. Simply activate the EOC (the thinking goes) and get the right people in the right seats. And good things will happen... organically, like magic. Sadly, with EOCs - as with weddings - nothing could be further from the truth.

And the only people who really understand this are those unique people who plan, organize and execute; who “own” the EOC.  These are the people who herd the cats, deal with the thousands of little crises and do the gritty hard work over the long hours and late nights of the disaster to get it done. These people are the Emergency Managers. Emergency managers have one job: to coordinate. But that’s ok because that one job is everything.

The source of all failure during disasters is either lack of situational awareness or failure to act.

Boring...

If you got all the way through the wedding story to this point you are probably ready to quit this article. Why? Because of that word. It’s one of those words like insurance or paradigm or variable annuity that is just… boring.

It is our job to make sure everybody knows what is happening along with the piece of the job that they own so that they have no excuse for failure to act.The word, of course, is coordination. Now, we emergency managers know about coordination and we know that it’s kind of a big deal but at the same time it’s so boring that we don’t like to talk about it. So we don’t. When emergency managers talk they sit around carpeted conference rooms talking about what we do. But rarely do we talk about how we do it. Instead we tell ourselves: “Why spend a lot of time talking about it? We know how to do it.

Now, I work in healthcare, and where I work the doctors spend a lot of time sitting around carpeted conference rooms talking about how they do what they do. Why? Because they know that the how is the key. To performance, to proficiency, to professionalism. How they do what they do is everything.

Even though we don’t talk about it, emergency managers, like wedding planners, know through hard experience that groups of people only accomplish things when we put energy into a chaotic system. It is our job to create a path forward in everybody’s head. It is our job to make sure everybody knows what is happening along with the piece of the job that they own so that they have no excuse for failure to act.

That is coordination. Coordination is the ‘how’ of emergency management. But because it is so boring we don’t talk about it. As if it was a secret. The emergency manager’s secret is that we make magic happen through coordination.

The emergency manager’s secret is that we make magic happen through coordination.

Coordination is everything

During disasters thousands, even millions, of people are impacted in the same way at the same time. Their feelings of comfort and sense of order are destroyed. They have so many questions to which nobody has any answers. Fear seeps in to replace the destroyed rhythm of daily life. They get a strange sensation that feels like the fabric of society unraveling. Many will do what they always do when faced with big decisions: they will freeze. They will hunker down and try to distract themselves until help comes along and someone tells them what to do, trapped in a parallel universe of suboptimal outcomes.

During disasters, coordination means putting the right people in the right conversations to answer every question. To do this, we create a real-time decision infrastructure – an instant bureaucracy - across the range of operations. That this the incident organization, and it is centered in the EOC.

The incident organization is a team of teams. It is composed of people and resources coming together to work a process—fast, flat, and flexible, combining transparent communication with decentralized decision-making.

Different aspects of the disaster

Some disasters require dozens of teams focused on different aspects of the disaster—search and rescue, damage assessment, evacuation, sheltering, logistics, debris removal, disaster assistance, fatality management, feeding, and on and on.

For new problems for which there is no plan, it gets more people in and creates new teamsEven though every team is empowered to feed and care for itself, for the days and weeks of a big response, the job of coordination is to get them whatever they can’t get for themselves. If a team needs leadership, it assigns it. It solves the problems they can’t solve and moves the obstacles they can’t overcome. It gets them the stuff—from industry experts to specialized vehicles or equipment—they need to do their job. If there is information or orders or approvals they can’t get, it will get them. For new problems for which there is no plan, it gets more people in and creates new teams.

Coordination creates trust—trust in the plan and confidence that we will not fail.

It doesn’t wait; it anticipates. It creates a collective dynamic that empowers teams to run at, not away from, problems. Coordination force them to think: “What is happening? What are we doing? What do we intend to do? What can we do now to get ahead of the curve?” Finally, coordination tells everybody what is going on: field teams to agency headquarters to city hall to the children and families trapped within the parallel universe. It tells them what life is like within the parallel universe, what we are doing about it, what we are not yet doing, and why.

Coordination tells everybody what is going on: field teams to agency headquarters to city hall to the children and families trapped within the parallel universe.

People think that government has some innate ability to respond to disasters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Governments are slow-moving creatures of habit, ill-suited to the demands of the parallel universe. Coordination is the secret sauce, an instant bureaucracy that supercharges the government-led response.

During a disaster, coordination communicates a list of clear objectives for every operational period. At OEM we called those objectives Commander’s Intent. Everyone, at every level of the organization, is empowered to say yes to everything as long as it falls within the boundaries of Commander’s Intent. The message is, “Do what is right, not what you have a right to do”.

Everything that can go wrong

Coordination connects everything at all levels of the response. First, it connects agencies together in the EOC. Then these same agencies connect down to the boots on the ground and up to the Bosses. This last part is critical because in the parallel universe, everything that can go wrong will go wrong all at the same time. We need the Bosses to quickly make the decisions that only they can make and to resolve the issues that only they can resolve; otherwise, we cannot act in the moment. Mistakes and blunders are pervasive in the parallel universe.

Fortunately, we have an organizing system. ICS is the toolbox that disaster professionals bring into the parallel universe, and coordination, the best kept secret in the disaster business, is the most important tool in that toolbox.
  1. Having worked these issues with colleagues around the world, I am always struck by how difficult they are to penetrate.

    Thus the risky wedding analogy

    The intention is not to (in any way) trivialize the negative impacts of disasters, but merely to illustrate an unfamiliar concept using a familiar event

    Would be interested in the reader’s thoughts…

    Reply

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