Integrating outside help into your emergency responseLaw #3: "No Matter Who You Train, Somebody Else is Going to Show Up"
By Art Botterell
There are two important things about a plan: The first is to have one. The second is to not take it too seriously.
Now please don't misunderstand me here. Planning is crucial. It's plans we need to view with a bit of healthy skepticism. We've had a lot of trouble over the years, and I fear especially lately, with the misconception that the plan itself is the important deliverable from planning.
Experienced emergency managers know that those documents are, at best, a side effect of the communication, collaboration and focused attention among stakeholders that is the planning process.
By the same token, training is vital, especially for folks who'll be called on to do complicated and specialized things under conditions of stress. Nobody wants a randomly selected passenger in the pilot seat when the Airbus hits the goose.
But a disaster, by definition, is a situation in which there aren't enough highly trained people to go around. (Note, of course, that there may be a lot of people around who are highly trained, but just not in the specialized skills and knowledge that our plans require.)
Further, and here I have to air an uncomfortable truth of our trade, very often the folks who get sent to training on our emergency plans are the ones their agencies felt they could afford to lose for a day. A coalition of the expendable, if you will.
Which isn't to minimize in any way their personal commitment, but when there's an actual emergency with real skin in the game, will they be the ones who'll show up, or will it be their bosses or more senior colleagues who were too busy to be trained?
Spontaneous volunteers: Truly a concern?
And then, of course, we come to the emergent volunteer "problem," a longtime concern among professionals that's being magnified by the explosion of social media.
People are going to help people. It's widely understood that in a disaster "bystander rescue" is going to save more lives than official efforts. But that can be seen as a challenge to the status of official responders whose professional pride is based largely on their possessing specialized training that the public doesn't and, for the most part, can't match.
There's a perception in some communities, I fear, that professional responders have been talking out both sides of their mouths on this.
On the one hand, we warn the public that they may be on their own for 72 hours or however long after a disaster. On the other, we want them to do what we say and not get in our way. An unkind (and almost always unfair) interpretation of that is that we want control without actually taking responsibility.
And let's confess that they're at least half right. We do want to keep things under control, or to reestablish control where it's been lost. And when we designated responders say "control" we mean "official control," or to put it more bluntly, "our control."
So when we come on scene and find that the local neighborhood has already begun building its own response, there's a natural bit of tension there. As with so many of life's least tractable problems, both sides are justified; it's the eternal battle between Good and Good.
Many jurisdictions try to minimize this tension by co-opting volunteers into Community Emergency Response Teams or similar programs. They teach the basics of emergency response (ICS, first aid, basic rescue) and give the graduates ID cards, vests or other credentials. The best programs require continual refresher training. Much emphasis is placed on subordinating their volunteer activities to official authority.
Such programs are good things, undoubtedly, but they're still fairly selective, and ultimately they just push the boundary of the problem outward a bit. I'm not aware of any evidence that non-credentialed volunteers will refrain from spontaneous "emergent" activity just because they know there are some "official" volunteers around somewhere.
What's worse, in a few communities there are actually multiple volunteer programs formed under different auspices, with some degree of competition between them. (For example, I've seen that in a number of communities between ARES and RACES organizations in the ham radio domain.)
So try as we may, as we must, we never can blot out the reality of the Third Law. No matter who we train in advance, somebody else is going to show up—and we're going to need their help. Which means we need to find ways to bring folks up to speed quickly. I call this "just-in-time training."
On California's central coastline stands the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and some miles inland is the plant's Emergency Operations Facility (EOF). There I was introduced to a feature I've seen only rarely elsewhere.
Even though the folks who work in the EOF are supposed to have received extensive training ahead of time, everyone who reports for duty there gets a personalized briefing in an anteroom before they're allowed onto the EOF floor. If there are any gaps in their knowledge, they get patched there and then.
More recently, I've heard stories about people using their smartphones to get just-in-time training on how to deliver a child in a car's back seat or survive being trapped in a collapsed hotel room in Port-au-Prince.
Then of course there are the classics. The fire service Field Operations Guide boiled every job in the Incident Command System down to a one-page checklist. No one ever claimed it wasn't better to have a trained individual running a helispot or managing logistics. But if you had to make do, you had a place to start.
And that, I think, is the essence of the Third Law. When we can, we should let experience and training lead.
But we shouldn't paint ourselves into the corner of making critical tasks so specialized or so complex that they can't be described using basic just-in-time training tools.
And we certainly shouldn't let our professional craving for control get in the way of making every citizen a responder when it's necessary.