A prescription for risk management
To the Editor:
The stories regarding hurricane Earl in last week's edition were illuminating. Based on the reports, various Island emergency management personnel, combined with other related entities, worked hard to develop sound planning during rehearsal, but when the curtain rose for real, it seems all the actors were reading from slightly different scripts, which a few had written for themselves. One can only hope all the players will congregate for a post-performance review and ask where they succeeded and where they failed.
Now, I'm no expert but perhaps a few observations are in order to spark both discussion and improvement.
1 - Among those involved with emergency management there seems to be an adequate level of interest, training, and perhaps even expertise. However, this event was all about the weather, and apparently abundant reliance was placed on a single employee of the National Weather Service. During 30 years of experience in commercial aviation, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time proactively considering the weather. If I've learned anything at all, it is to never, ever, rely on a single source of weather information when making operational, strategic, or tactical decisions and attendant risk assessments. Prudent critical healthcare decisions require seeking out the opinion of several physicians, and weather forecasting, like medicine, is as much art as science and is therefore "practiced." These principles should be applied to potentially hazardous weather events.
2 - Decision-making in dynamic environments begs one to be resourceful, flexible, nimble, and at times humble. It requires analysis at defined intervals based on the information and reasonable expectations known at the time. This process must be repeated until the event has ended. A line from "The Gambler" [song] applies well: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run."
3 - For emergency management teams something as basic as a lack of unity and coordination (let alone an absence of actual leadership and expertise) will surely create public skepticism if not outright animosity toward whatever guidance is offered, not only for the event at hand, but for future events as well until either the public memory has faded, or management has proven themselves competent.
4 - Nothing is safe or unsafe. There are only degrees of risk, which may be judged as low, reasonable, acceptable, or unmanageable. Furthermore, risks must be evaluated and separated between those that affect public safety, and those that are likely to affect only individuals. Limiting vehicles on a public bridge during high winds may be necessary to protect the bridge, which is a public asset. Requiring people to remain indoors to avoid flying debris is not only outside the realm of anyone's authority, but actually decreases public safety by eliminating the perceived responsibility for one's own actions. Damn few people appreciate having their judgement usurped by an authority, but almost all will respect information coming from a knowledgeable source.
5 - A major role of emergency management is to provide intellectual and physical resources to the public to assist them in ensuring their personal safety, comfort, and protection of property. Those resources must be intelligent, reasonable, effective, and carefully considered as being necessary. You may recall some years ago the nationwide duct tape shortage following the mass hysteria over the possibility of chemical attack, which didn't exactly meet those criteria.
6 - Handing down orders that limit private activities without being legally empowered to do so is an abuse of authority and a display of ignorance. Either is irresponsible and rapidly dissolves respect, which is essential to effecting proper emergency management, especially during times of crisis.