Stress makes even the most well-trained emergency managers stupidBotterell's Law #1: "Stress Makes You Stupid"
By Art C. Botterell
Quarter till four. Sleeping, gently dreaming. Suddenly: lights flashing, bells ringing, pagers beeping, a metallic voice barks instructions. Must respond. Duty. Comrades. Boots. Suspenders. Rollup door. Engine start, all aboard, lights, release the brakes …
To some folks, it might sound like a dream gone bad. To a firefighter, of course, it's routine. And what you learn, when you think about it later, is that for those first few minutes you were operating at about a quarter of your normal mental capacity.
It's not just waking up suddenly; it's the spike of adrenalin and the surge of uncertainty. What's the emergency? Where? What's the best route? We know the town pretty well, but for right now thank God we have map books.
Or again: Evening at home. Reading on the sofa. A funny nudge and a creak in the wall. Car alarms outside … a crime wave? A vertical shudder begins, intensifies. Pictures rattle against the wall. Something crashes in the kitchen. A window cracks, then shatters. Lights go out. Dog in my lap, shaking, whining. Where are my shoes? Where's our daughter?
At times like that, we aren't entirely in our right minds. We're startled, frightened, stressed. Not just for those first few moments, but over the coming hours as we discover the effects and implications of what's happened.
And our being professional emergency managers doesn't make us immune. In fact it makes things worse, because we don't get to focus just on our personal responsibilities. It's also time to go to work.
Under acute stress, our minds naturally tighten down; we achieve a level of enhanced focus that can also induce a kind of tunnel vision. We become impatient with distractions. This isn't the time to ask us to experiment with unfamiliar behaviors. Right now we're going to go with what we know.
Which is the point of the First Law. It's easy to sit around a table with coffee and napkins and people we know and dream up sophisticated emergency plans. We can specify activation thresholds and devise codewords and flowchart the alternatives.
We can document them all in three-ring binders with professional graphics on the cover. We can construct a PowerPoint briefing for elected officials and a YouTube video for the public. We can satisfy all the grant requirements and assemble the full paraphernalia of emergency planning.
But when things get dark and broken and our kid is missing, are we really going to follow a plan like that?
Now the standard response to the stress of emergencies is training, and that has plenty of merit. As Amanda Ripley, author of the essential book "The Unthinkable," says, "You don't ever want to have to think in a disaster."
Again, people under stress are much more likely to rely on familiar behaviors than they are to add to their anxiety by trying something novel. So to the extent that we can make appropriate emergency responses second nature through training, that's a big win. Certainly that sort of training is a lot of what being a professional responder is about.
The problem is that training isn't as simple as just imparting some information that will change people's behavior forever. Training requires constant repetition or else the skills and information fade rapidly.
In one study researcher, Andrew Booth at the University of Sheffield found that "four months after taking an introductory course, students knew only 8 percent more than a control group who had never taken the course." A survey by Charlotte, N.C. consultants Sales Performance International found that participants in sales training forget half of what they learn within five weeks.
Training, in other words, has a short half-life.
And consistent emergency training is hard to maintain because, a) it tends to interfere with day-to-day operations, while b) it doesn't pay off until an actual emergency, which for most folks, fortunately, isn't all that often.
As a result, we tend to concentrate our training investment on a relatively small core of response professionals. But that approach doesn't "scale well," to use technology lingo; in a disaster the vast majority of response tasks inevitably fall to non-professionals.
So we do the best we can with training, but is there anything else we can do? Yes. We can remember to "Keep it simple, sweetheart." That's not just a matter of keeping plans from getting over-elaborate, although that's really important.
Any reference document that takes up more than a single page of paper (preferably laminated) is likely to be ignored in a real emergency. If the essential information can fit on a wallet-sized card, that's even better.
But KISS also means incorporating familiar day-to-day tools and techniques wherever we can.
In the days following the 1989 earthquake near San Francisco, folks in the state's regional EOC kept complaining that they didn't have reliable communications with the hard-hit community of Santa Cruz.
In fact, there was a perfectly functional two-way radio link to the county going almost entirely unused. After a day or so, one of the communications volunteers had a brainstorm: He replaced the radio's microphone and loudspeaker with a telephone-style handset. Suddenly that radio link was in constant demand.
Nothing had changed except that the telephone-style "human interface" was more familiar to the civilian staff of the EOC than the traditional radio microphone, which apparently suggested that it was something for public safety officers only.
"Stress makes you stupid" is a reminder of several important considerations for emergency planning and facility design.
First, that stress does limit human performance.
Second, that it happens to everyone, whether they're a designated hero or "just" a civilian.
Third, that one key to resilience is making our day-to-day processes robust enough to work in emergencies, too.
And finally, that we need to design emergency systems for people who aren't as smart as we are, because on the day we need to use those systems, those people will include us.