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Red Teaming for Emergency Management

Red Teaming for Emergency Management

How do we know that decisions taken in an emergency are appropriate? Ensuring appropriate checks and balances can help reduce the influence of groupthink or any other of these decision making biases.

In high stress situations, when the stakes are high, like in an emergency, could emergency managers could do to support those making the strategic decisions? Do they understand the complexity of the issues? Have they considered all of the options? Have they thought through all of the ramifications of their decisions? Are their decisions  justifiable and defensible?

Back in 2014 I binge-watched a TV series called The Newsroom, which shows what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ to make a fictional American news programme.

In the second season, the group of journalists close in on a story relating to the use of chemical weapons by the US army in Pakistan. Whilst the team are confident in the authenticity of the material, they don’t want to run with the story until they are absolutely sure.

Enter the Red Team. A group of researchers and producers deliberately isolated from the investigation so they can later examine the facts and determine whether to air the story.

Here’s the trailer for Season 1 of The Newsroom

What if we did something similar in emergency management? This is how it could work:

  • There would be no change to the nominated individuals who are already ‘on-call’ to provide strategic decision making (for simplicity, let’s call them the Blue Team)
  • Another set of individuals would be identified as the Red Team
  • Both teams require the same level of training, briefing and access to information
  • In addition, the Red Team needs an awareness of the psychological factors which influence decision making
  • The Red Team can only be summoned at the request of the Blue Team – this avoids interference or overstepping their role of critical friend

Should the Blue Team come up against a problem, or not reach agreement on a course of action, the Red Team could be called to offer a view, or to mediate between differing perspectives. Having maintained a distance, the Red Team would poke holes and identify the risks and bugs that insiders might have missed.

There are a number of drawbacks to implementing a Red Team approach. These include the increased resource required to staff dual roles. Culturally, it’s new, and there would undoubtedly be some reticence to decisions being challenged where they previously haven’t been.

I recognise these practicalities may make Red Teaming impossible to achieve in reality. However, the process could be useful in exercises or in thinking about strategic decision making processes.

As noted in my last post, this might not yet be a fully formed idea, and I’d be interested in any thoughts that colleagues might have about whether they have seen this approach used, or could see any reasons that it would not be something to experiment with.

Thinking about starting a business or getting a tattoo? Maybe that’s another area where a Red Team could help ‘avert disaster’?

What did an Emergency Manager think of San Andreas?

What did an Emergency Manager think of San Andreas?

It’s a running theme for me to blog about disaster movies, so here’s my latest installment, after watching San Andreas yesterday evening. CAUTION: contains spoilers!

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San Andreas (not the most inspired title) see’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a helicopter rescue pilot go rogue to save his family from the largest earthquake ever recorded.

As disaster films go, it borrows fairly heavily from Emmerich’s standard formula:

  1. Heroic estranged father
  2. Scientist with a grave theory
  3. Early destruction of a landmark (in this case, the ‘bursting’ of the Hoover Dam). This is also the point that the scientist will say something like “we haven’t seen the worst of it yet”
  4. Separate a family
  5. Turn up the destruction to 11
  6. Reunite said family
  7. God Bless America

So although it was forumulaic, how did it rate from the presepctive of an emergency manager?

Earthquake and Tsunami Risk

First up, many of the situations presented in the film could not happen. The San Andreas fault is a strike-slip fault (or more accurately, a transform fault). This means the earth’s tectonic plates are sliding past each other. If they get stuck, pressure is built up, which is released as an earthquake. However, this wouldn’t be the sort of earthquake to open up massive canyons. It would still be destructive, but not in the same way as presented.

Further, the film depicts a tsunami engulfing San Fransisco.

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Yes, San Fran has a real tsunami risk and has a warning system in place. However, this wouldn’t be caused by an earthquake with an epicentre on the San Andreas fault as large volumes of water are not vertically displaced when plates slide against each other.

The map below shows, in red, the official ‘tsunami risk zone’, and in blue my illustration of the extent affected in the movie (based on what landmarks were underwater and my very limited geographical knowledge of SF!). As you can see, the film uses more than a pinch of dramatic license!

SFTsunami

Drop, Cover and Hold On

This phrase is actually used, and demonstrated, on a number of occasions by the trusty scientist and his sidekick journalist (who is none other than The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi).

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Later, The Rock explains what you should do if you can’t find cover. I’ve gotta give them some serious credit for including this, it really is the best thing to do.

CDH

If Kylie Minogue’s character had followed that advice maybe her blink-and-you’ll-miss-her-falling-out-of-a-building cameo would have been avoided.

Casualties and Fatalities

In the film we see Blake (The Rock’s on screen daughter) construct a rudimentary tourniquet to stop bleeding and see The Rock performing CPR. Knowing some very basic first aid can be life saving.

However, one stange thing is that given the scale of the disaster, the movie is notably free of the (presumably) hundreds of thousands of dead bodies. My only explanation for this? That the call to evacuate came just in the nick of time!

Mass Evacuation and Shelter

The usual scenes of highways packed full of cars (and debris) abound, but fortunately our protagonist has access to helicopters, planes and boats to get around such inconvieniences.

This brings me to my main issue with the film, The Rock’s self-deployment. As a Search and Rescue specialist he would have been much more useful assisting the official response, than focusing on his own family. that might sound cold-hearted but, to me, the ethics of emergency management hinge on doing ‘the most for the most’.

But back to evacuation and shelter, when nature runs out of things to throw at the Bay Area, there are some perfunctory scenes of tented villages, and mentions of support from FEMA and the UN. Fact – these tents were supplied by genuine emergency response organisation ShelterBox!

Command and Control

Clearly the producers had been reading up on the UK Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Principles. Whilst the film isn’t about emergency management (for shame!) there were some subtle mentions of emergency services protocols.

Most notably, when Blake steals (yes, it’s resourceful, but it is still stealing!) the fire radio to listen to the “multi agency Tactical Command channel that all areas have for emergencies” which sounds a lot like the multi agency talkgroups on Airwave.

Communications

Whilst the idea of using a landline phone was good, there is an inherent assumption that the physical infrastructure remains intact. Phone lines could have been damaged. I forget what actually happened to her mobile phone, but if possible Blake would have been better sending a text first (less bandwidth so more chance of the message getting through).

Community

Bar the occasional scene of people looking disheveled the film has very little focus on anyone that isn’t The Rock, his ex wife or his daughter.

Certainly in America, we’ve seen communities   come together under their national or local identity (e.g. see post 9/11 response and Boston Strong). However, none of that really featured in this movie.

On the other hand though, there is the ‘classic’ scene of looting, which flies in the face of most evidence from real disasters which suggests pro-social behaviour.

The display of patriotism at the end (where three military helicopters drape a star spangled banner on (what is left of) the Golden Gate Bridge was a touch over the top!

Overall

For all it’s flaws, I enjoyed San Andreas.

It left a slightly bitter aftertaste that most of California had to be destroyed in order to reunite one family, but I appreciate the need for ‘narrative’. However, maybe a better balance could be struck between widespread disaster and micro-level drama?

If you’re a fan of disaster movies head over to Buzzfeed to see if you can match the screengrab to the film!

Mix’n’match Emergency Management

Mix’n’match Emergency Management

In 2007 I did some work on Hospital Evacuation, which is a throughly complex problem. I won’t go into the detail here, suffice to say that it brings some real ethical issues and logistical challenges. I mention this, because way back in 2007 someone that I spoke to described their Hospital Evacuation Plan as “planned improvisation”.

mixnmatchI remember recoiling at this. Here I was trying to document every last detail of how wards should work together with central hospital functions to expedite a swift evacuation, yet over here was someone essentially saying “we make it up on the day”.

Today I was having an unrelated conversation with a colleague about Command and Control (for non experts, that’s the systems and structures by which an emergency is managed). We were talking about the need to planned arrangements to have sufficient felxibility as to be applicable to a variety of circumstances. Without the ability to accurately predict the future this felxibility is vitally important.

However, you also need to balance that flexibility, with having coherence and structure, to try to bring the emergency under control as quickly as possible. I was reminded of one of those mix’n’match childrens books.

I wonder if there might be something in this approach for emergency management? Could you have a variety of planned components which all fit togther ininfinite complementary combinations?

I’m a big fan of recognising the emergent behaviour of systems and communities when under stress, but do I bring that do the formal responder organisatiopns I work with? Probably not as much as I could. There is definately a degree of creativity involved in sucessful emergency response – how can we create an environment which nurtures this without abandoning the important act of planning?

I’m going to give this some more thought over the weekend and come back with some more well rounded thoughts and suggestions – until then, I’m off to read an article about Collaborative Adhocracies….fun!

Image source: Edward Gorey via goreyana.blogspot.co.uk