Worst Case Disasters Eliminate Ambiguity, Decision-Making

Law #5: "The Worst Case is the Easiest"

The worst-case scenario. It has it all. Drama, multiple hazards, multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional. Something for everyone. Did I mention drama? Yep, the worst-case scenario has it all.

Except that actually it doesn't.

Out here in California the standard worst-case scenario is a major earthquake, which can be accessorized with tsunamis, fires, hazmat releases, oil spills, looting, lost pets and anything else we need to make sure everyone who wants to play gets a part.

Back East, I hear, hurricane scenarios are popular. Pandemics had their time in the sun recently and may soon again. And of course we have a broad assortment of terrorist scenarios to choose from as well. Any one of them fully adjustable from Severe to Catastrophic. And isn't that what emergency management is all about?

Um … well, no. Not entirely.

What's missing from the worst-case scenario, but present in 99 and 44/100 percent of real-world emergencies and disasters? In a word: Ambiguity.

Why Worst is Simplest

The worst case is actually the simplest, by virtue of its very worst-ness. The simulated danger is clear, present and general. There's no question of anyone continuing with business as usual. Personal, agency, public and media agendas all align. It's all hands to the pumps.

It would be nice if most of the situations emergency managers and public safety folks actually have to deal with were so unquestionable, so all-inclusive. But that's rarely the case. Most of the emergencies we'll deal with in our careers won't be Big Ones, they'll be Mid-range Ones and Tedious Little Ones.

Different partners, resource owners and other stakeholders may have wildly varying levels of concern about them. Some folks may be eager to respond, while others have pressing deadlines and will resist being bothered. Media interest is spotty and erratic.

Elected officials may question why we even bother with some of these things, except when we don't, of course, in which case they'll question why we didn't.

Even our understanding of the basic facts surrounding those annoying mid-range incidents can be deeply ambiguous. When a gas pipeline exploded recently in San Bruno, near San Francisco, it wasn't immediately obvious what the heck had happened. A plane crash, maybe? Terrorists? A meth lab?

Even now the investigation continues into what exactly caused that lethal blow-out. The clarity of a worst-case scenario isn't something we get to take for granted in real life.

Why Worst is Popular

So why do we plan and train for such artificially simplified situations? A lot of it has to do with resources, of course. It's more cost-effective to do fewer exercises involving more players. (Emphasis on "cost" there, maybe not so much on "effective.")

And once we have a lot of players involved, the cost of providing anything like an adequate simulation can only be controlled by keeping things simple. Big, but simple.

Also, worst-case scenarios make better TV. In media lingo, they're "high concept." Even with a 24/7 news cycle, it seems there's never enough airtime for subtlety or detail. And since good press is often an important measure of an exercise's success, there's strong, if sometimes subliminal, pressure to embrace "made for TV" scenarios.

We also have the culture of the "no fault" exercise. Few emergency managers have the clout to require participation in the exercises they're tasked to conduct, so they strive to minimize any risk of anyone being embarrassed. And since a lot of the ambiguity we face in those not-quite-so-bad cases has to do with folks not always being as cooperative as we might wish, isn't it simply prudent to forestall any possible unpleasantness by making the scenario irresistibly dire?

Ultimately, though, I wonder whether it might chiefly be because ambiguity itself is our deepest fear and our most dread opponent. Not knowing which way to jump is the stuff of our worst dreams.

We don't have a good vocabulary for talking about uncertainty, and it seems like nobody wants to hear us sounding uncertain anyway. Especially in the post-9/11 world of homeland security, we like strong upbeat voices speaking in tones of simple certainty. So why play dice with our scenarios?

The answer, of course, is because events play dice with us. There's always a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in an emergency. Disaster response isn't a symphony, it's a jazz performance. And the best emergency managers are skilled in the art of improvisation.

In a 1987 University of Colorado monograph titled, "The Professional Emergency Manager: Structures and Strategies for Success," disaster researcher Thomas Drabek observed that the emergency program manager needs "a high tolerance for ambiguity and conflict."

In a preface to that report, FEMA trainer Bruce Marshall wrote, "Drabek infers that emergency management is a misnomer. We don't manage emergencies; at best, we prepare for them and/or respond to them. Successful emergency managers are actually successful problem-solvers…."

Worst-case scenarios can rob us of the opportunity to problem-solve, either by artificially removing some of the most challenging ambiguities from the exercise or, worse, by driving participants out of their real coping behaviors and into extraordinary hypothetical expedients that they may never actually use.

Is it possible that we'd be wise to invest more time in planning and training to solve the routine complications of apartment-complex fires, flash floods, heat waves, cold snaps and the other middling crises that make up so much of real-world emergency practice?

Certainly there's a place for worst-case planning and worst-case scenarios. But the Fifth Law is there to remind us that most of our careers will be spent on much less dramatic events, and that those mundane situations can be complicated in ways the worst case serves only to obscure.

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