Guest Columnist

In a crisis, we need resourcefulness, not delay

Workers tarp the roof of one of the apartment units at Westdale Court Apartments, 2155 Westdale Dr SW, in Cedar Rapids,
Workers tarp the roof of one of the apartment units at Westdale Court Apartments, 2155 Westdale Dr SW, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. People are still cleaning up and without power after the Aug. 10 derecho storm. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

To borrow from an esteemed crisis management expert, the response to the Aug. 10 derecho could be likened to trying to fix a 2020 crisis with a 1995 tool kit. Two responsibilities for leaders during a crisis are looking after the safety, security, and well-being of their people, and managing the rapid deployment of resources where they need to be. With that in mind, let’s look at some aspects of the storm response from a crisis management perspective.

Communications

In a crisis, the objective of communications management is to gather information; make sense of it; create a Common Operational Picture (more on that later); and support decision-making. Melissa Agnes, in her book, “Crisis Ready,” highlights what the public expects from leaders during a crisis. This includes transparency; answers to the most pertinent questions; and that the organization holds itself accountable.

A prevailing theme in comments from local officials regarding communications during the storm is that, with normal means of communication unavailable, no options were left. But in crisis management, resourcefulness is a necessity. Leaders and organizations must have the ability to develop innovative solutions.

I spent 2002 working at an American Embassy in Asia. I went there specifically to transport a satellite radio and a satellite telephone to provide direct communications between the Ambassador and the Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces in Hawaii. In those confusing days with 9/11 still fresh in everyone’s minds, two leaders identified the need for reliable communications in case of an emergency where standard communications methods were lost.

That isn’t even particularly innovative thinking. I participated in multiple crisis simulation exercises, both as a trainer and in the group being trained. A standard practice is to inform those being evaluated that they just lost all communications, usually followed by, “What are you going to do now?”

Crisis planning, which needs to be done in the “normal” times before a crisis, should include redundant forms of communication (the military uses the acronym “PACE,” for Primary — Alternate — Contingency — Emergency). Some officials said that communicating during and immediately after the derecho was very hard. Crises, by nature, are complex. But complexity is not an excuse for failure or inaction.

A common refrain following a crisis is, “We didn’t expect this; it never happened before.” As Scott Sagan says in his book, “The Limits of Safety,” “things that have never happened before happen all the time.” We can’t use failure of the imagination as a defense (and losing communications, as noted, isn’t that imaginary).

In the response to Hurricane Andrew, which hit south Florida in August 1992, causing $48.2 billion in damage (in current dollars) and 65 deaths, Army Reserve units attached loudspeakers to tactical vehicles. With all other communications down, they drove into hard-to-reach areas in Miami to broadcast information to the public on where to find shelters, water, and aid stations. That was on-the-spot adaptation to an unforeseen situation. Is similar adaptation not possible in Iowa, 28 years after Hurricane Andrew?

Situational Awareness / Common Operational Picture (COP)

I mentioned the need for a Common Operational Picture, or COP. A lack of incoming real-time communications makes it difficult to maintain a COP. But that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility as leaders to develop as much situational awareness as possible.

As with the loss of standard communications, losing the ability to digitally view maps, images, and PowerPoint slides should not bring everything to a halt. Hard copy maps of the city/county are more than adequate for tracking what areas have reported damage assessments, which areas still need to be assessed, and so on.

If real-time information cannot be obtained from stricken areas, the National Guard provides a capable and ready resource. I participated in a disaster response exercise in the late 1990s. National Guard squads were given sectors of a city in which to conduct welfare checks. Platoons of young men and women threw on small backpacks containing radios and basic first aid equipment and set out on foot to walk through their designated zones, gathering and sharing information as they went. Professional, motivated individuals are rarely inhibited by having to walk around and over debris and rubble in order to safeguard fellow citizens.

When an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people, debris prevented first responders from accessing many areas. Government offices, aid agencies, and private citizens used unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to provide damage assessment and even 3-dimensional mapping of areas that could not be accessed. This is another example of motivated individuals finding creative solutions that allowed them to overcome challenges others considered insurmountable.

We often become so attached to our existing plan that we cannot adapt, even as the plan falls apart. We fail to see that, as Laurence Gonzales notes in his book, “Deep Survival,” “Adaptation is important; the plan is not. We must plan. But we must be able to let go of the plan, too.”

Likewise, understanding we don’t know all the answers and a willingness to listen are equally important. As Gonzales explains, a closed attitude that says “I already know” may cause us to miss important information.

Train, Train, Train

Crisis management does not begin when a crisis hits. Realistic training before a crisis is crucial for preparedness. Most organizations presume things will go according to plan. Experienced crisis managers focus on identifying things that can go wrong (like losing communications) and then training to mitigate those factors.

Training needs to be conducted regularly to avoid developing misplaced confidence in our abilities. Peter M. Leschak, a wildland firefighter, observes that if we acquire experience in dangerous environments without incident, we begin to believe it was our skill and savvy that got us through.

An equally false — and dangerous — notion is that, in times of crisis, we’ll rise to the occasion. We rarely do. Instead we regress to our lowest level of training and experience. If we haven’t been pushed in training, it’s folly to think we’ll perform better during the real thing.

As Gonzales notes, crises bring out our true, underlying personalities and capabilities. If those capabilities aren’t there before the crisis, they won’t magically appear when needed.

Closing Thoughts

The derecho on Aug. 10 was undeniably a challenge for responders. But as Norm Augustine noted in a 1995 essay on crisis management, the world is not interested in the challenges we encountered. It only cares whether we brought the ship in safely.

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Communications challenges, unprecedented winds, streets strewn with debris, and good intentions notwithstanding, it’s hard to see how an objective observer would say that the response to the derecho was successful. The real tragedy will be if officials fail to follow Agnes’ recommendation to hold themselves and their organizations accountable. This is the time to display humility, admit mistakes, and embrace lessons learned to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

Brett Mott is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer and a graduate of the University of Iowa. He led organizations performing crisis response and assessment in the Asia Pacific region. He is currently the U.S. chapter chairman for the Institute of Strategic Risk Management.

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