The Paradox in Disaster Preparedness

2 Jan

The horrors wrought by disasters such as 9/11, hurricane Katrina, and Virginia Tech unfortunately come as no surprise to many people, emergency planners included. Those with responsibility for emergency planning and preparedness – those whose job it is to seek and anticipate the worst – have long known that catastrophes like these can and do happen. It is the inherent job of the emergency planner to gaze into a crystal ball and make informed predictions and decisions about all the bad things that can potentially happen; and to then devise strategies to prevent or at least mitigate the most serious and likely of those bad things. But unfortunately, there the job of the emergency planner frequently ends, even though the preparedness process has not been completed.

The issues related to any specific incident are applicable to all types of disasters, both natural and man-made, occurring in both the government and private sectors. And these issues are dealt with every day by those responsible for emergency planning: the primary issues of foreseeability and preparedness.

Foreseeability – whether predicting catastrophic weather, mass murder, terrorist attack, or any cause of asset loss – refers to a pre-event identification of potential problems; the likelihood of problem occurrence; the extent of impact if the problem occurs; identification of prevention and mitigation countermeasures; and the anticipated cost and success of mitigation strategies versus the cost of the problem itself. This is the crystal-ball aspect of emergency planning. It is the part where a laundry list of all the bad things imaginable is created, analyzed and prioritized.

Preparedness really has 2 distinct components: planning and “readiness.” We PLAN for all kinds of things – we examine scenarios from the smallest, least likely problem to the proverbial worst-case scenario. If we plan properly, we know the extent of catastrophic results that might occur. But then comes “readiness.” And readiness refers to having the strategies and resources in place to deal with the problems that we know will occur, when they occur. And, almost always, it is in the readiness phase where preparedness always breaks down.

If we have adequately done our assessments, and have adequately done our planning, why are we almost never totally ready when the catastrophe occurs? If we are honest, there are 2 fundamental reasons:

First, as a nation and in the business sector, we tend to be more reactionary than proactive. We believe that bad things can happen, but only somewhere else or to somebody else. We fail to recognize that the law of averages will ultimately affect everybody. And even when we recognize that something bad may happen, we rarely expect the worst-case scenario to occur.

We rely on our God or Lady Luck or whatever to keep us safe from “the big one.” The assessors and the planners are always viewed as the naysayers – the ones who bring negativism to the table because, while everybody else is talking about the glorious benefits of the new idea, the person charged with looking for the bad things will raise his hand and ask “…But what if…?” And all the shaking heads will turn in that person’s direction and his views will be looked on as the ramblings of someone who isn’t really with the team or on the bandwagon because “…those things just won’t happen to us.” But they can…and they will…and they do happen.

Second, the people who do the assessments and create the plans (in other words, the people who are the most likely to know what to expect) are never the ones in complete control of readiness. Responsible and accountable, yes. In control, no. Why? Because someone else always controls the decision to implement the plans, the money and the resources. Someone else always has to look at what the readiness plan will cost and determine – usually in a completely uninformed way – if the imposition of inconvenience and the expenditure of funds is really worthwhile, and if the funds are really most wisely spent on something that may never happen.

So with this fiscal attitude, bolstered by our naive and erroneous belief that it can’t happen to us, the will and the money and the resources we need for readiness are never in place when we need them most – preferably before, but at least at the beginning of the disaster.

Look at Katrina as an example: the problems with the slow initial response did not lie with the assessors and planners. They knew the hurricane was coming, and that it was going to be bad. They knew that the levees could break, with catastrophic results. But as has been graphically demonstrated, the levees had not been reinforced (“it costs too much”) and the resources were not ready (“it costs too much”) and there was no comprehensive, unified organizational structure to deal with the catastrophe (“we’ll never have to do it”). So when the time came, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth and a mad scramble to get the things done that the assessors and planners knew should have already been done and knew would have to be done immediately – but by then it was already too late. And because they were not totally in charge, they could only shake their heads, silently say “I told you so,” and cry with the rest of us for the victims.

Question: Do those responsible for security and emergency planning functions regularly have the authority and resources that have been legitimately needed and requested to prevent or mitigate the most likely problems that have reasonably been foreseen? The answer is almost always “No.”

When a significant crisis finally occurs, it is a safe bet that the after-event review will do the same thing that was done when reviewing (read “second-guessing”) virtually all other tragic events – asking “…wouldn’t it have been easier and cheaper to have prevented this problem in the first place, rather than to now have to clean up this mess?”

The need for adequate readiness planning, including appropriate authority and resources, can be likened to the need for insurance – you know that you will be paying for something that may never be needed; but which proves to be indispensable if and when it actually is needed. The purse string-holders would give a look of incredulity if it were suggested that insurance be canceled since it had heretofore not been needed. But after a thorough explanation of why emergency planning and readiness is based on the same concept, the next look would be one containing a glimmer of understanding. And when that seed of understanding is finally sowed with the people who control the funds, the emergency planning process becomes easier, and can progress to where it should be.

I have long held that resolving a problem reactively is at least 3 times more expensive than resolving it proactively: After the fact, a loss has been suffered (cost 1); that which has been loss must then be replaced (cost 2); and then will come the realization that something must be done to protect that which has been replaced so it doesn’t happen again (cost 3). And since these 3 phases occur long after the prevention efforts should have initially been implemented, the costs are proportionately increased.

Lessons to be learned…



Source by Jon C. Paul

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