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Do Not Panic

June 23, 2009

Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable, made some very salient observations about yesterday’s Metrorail crash in Washington, DC.  She noted, as recounted in many other episodes described in her book, that the passengers involved responded well to the horrific circumstances in which they suddenly found themselves.

Investigators and researchers discovered long ago that panic rarely occurs, even in the most extraordinary situations.  People are hardwired to make sense of situations, and will try to find a way to adapt even when confronted with horrible much less unforeseen circumstances.  As a consequence of their inherently social nature, people often become more not less cooperative when they confront complex challenges.

Ripley notes that most of what passes for preparedness focuses on delivering external help rather than encouraging or facilitating these innate adaptive instincts.  This has the perverse effect of either making people more dependent on the response when it arrives or more apt to find it unsatisfactory because it tends to discount and displace their efforts.  The typical approach to response also makes it more likely that people will consider it inadequate if not inappropriate to the scope and scale of the tasks that emerge due to expectations inflated by misplaced pre-disaster planning and public relations efforts.

Moving from a notion of government as service provider toward one of that emphasizes community governance requires us to reconceive the relationship between emergency services and the public.  Helping people help themselves is the first and most important mission of an emergency service, and one that always begins before the 911 call.

Rather than working to expand the scope of emergency services out of fear (panic?) that we won’t be needed if people do not call 911 in ever-increasing numbers, we should focus on reducing the scale of our interventions so they are more representative of and responsive to the human condition.

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