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The Seven-fold Path to Enlightened Emergency Management

August 18, 2010

If I hadn’t known better before I clicked on the link that led me to the following list on Monday morning, I would have wondered whether the author was a homeland security or emergency management practitioner:

  1. Replace expectations with plans.
  2. Prepare for different possibilities.
  3. Become a feeling observer.
  4. Get confident about your coping and adapting skills.
  5. Utilize stress reduction techniques preemptively.
  6. Focus on what you can control.
  7. Practice mindfulness.

These seven steps do not appear in the National Response Framework or National Incident Management System guidance. But maybe they should. No, these steps were written as a guide to stress-free living in an uncertain future for followers of a website that bases its advice on Buddhist philosophy.

So, how would this advice apply if we accepted it in our practice?

Replace expectations with plans. Our expectations tend to be rather pessimistic assessments of the future state of affairs. All this negativity makes it difficult for people to engage our message, much less respond creatively or enthusiastically to the challenge posed by some of the threats we face. We cannot do much about some of these hazards, but we can choose to reduce our vulnerability one step at a time. We can start by making a plan with those affected by hazards that outlines our shared understanding of the problems we face and the process that will get us to a better place.

Prepare for different possibilities. This advice goes beyond applying an all-hazards approach. For each hazard we should consider the full-range of possibilities from different perspectives. Sometimes the worst-case scenario involves less complex trade-offs or less intense competition for resources than less severe scenarios. Really overwhelming incidents can limit our options in ways less intense events do not. How much more difficult is it to manage a response when lots of resources are available before you really understand what’s happening? Developing scenarios that reflect the range of interactions between major drivers and major uncertainties allows us to consider a number of plausible scenarios without worrying which is more likely or most taxing. This approach also allows us to look more carefully at how each element of our capability affects outcomes by interacting with the identified drivers and uncertainties.

Become a feeling observer. To protect ourselves we often seek to adopt a detached perspective and often argue that the best options are those that pass some sort of technical, rational litmus test. But disasters are experienced by people in very personal ways. Why not recognize and respond to the personal suffering we’re witnessing with understanding and compassion? This is, after all, exactly how most people respond when confronted with disaster. When confronted with the ambiguity and anxiety arising from disaster, people often respond in very adaptive even altruistic ways. Explicitly acknowledging the tendency of people to engage one another to alleviate suffering allows us to look to survivors as resources to be engaged rather than obstacles to be pushed aside so the “professionals” can get in to do the job. This is less about allowing them to share the burden than it is about letting them own the solution. After all, it is their problem.

Get confident about your coping and adapting skills. Perhaps the most important but undervalued coping and adapting skills are a high tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to get started without knowing where you will end up. Disasters do not wait for decision-makers to gather all the information they think they need. People in need don’t wait for us to know what’s wrong or what to do about it. We don’t need detailed plans or stacks of standard operating procedures to tell us how to act with compassion, humility and integrity. We can alleviate a lot of suffering by doing something as simple as holding a dying man’s hand, and that never appears in our plans anyway.

Utilize stress reduction techniques preemptively. If effective homeland security and emergency management are more about doing than saying, then they are also as much about reflecting upon what we have done as what we said we would do. We can do everyone a lot more good if we take time to relax, reflect and renew ourselves at regular intervals. Removing ourselves from the distractions and preoccupations of the work environment frees our minds to see hidden connections between our work and the wider world in which we live. When we realize that life is not a race, we learn to make the most of the little time we do have.

Focus on what you can control. For a discipline preoccupied with command and control thinking, we often fail to recognize that most of the things that need to happen and many of those that matter the most to the outcome of a disaster are beyond our control. We cannot control the weather or the timing of an event. We cannot improve preparedness after an incident occurs. We cannot change the past. But we can use the people and resources we have wisely. This often means employing people in ways that add the most value to their experience of the event, which means engaging them in decisions and actions that give them the opportunity to develop a sense of shared purpose and commitment to the end result. The most powerful and profound form of control involves knowing when to let go. When we make others our partners, we can achieve much more.

Practice mindfulness. It would be nice if we could maintain the distinction between intention and action. So much of what we do in homeland security and emergency management is misunderstood by policy-makers and the general public. We don’t do ourselves any favors by assuming their inability to understand what we do reflects an unwillingness to put themselves in our shoes. They will judge us by what we do or fail to do no matter how carefully we might tread. Practicing mindfulness means making ourselves truly present to others and opening ourselves and our processes to their positive involvement. People are less liable to criticize decisions and actions in which they shared a part. And they often contribute new perspectives we miss when we treat our problems and process as if they were our personal property.

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