What can annoying kids teach emergency planners?

What can annoying kids teach emergency planners?

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If you were following my tweets last week you’d have noticed a constant stream from the Emergency Planning College ‘The Art of Really Learning Lessons’ seminar. An issue I blogged about two years ago!


Whilst this sounds like the sort of event that would be organised by the W1A Way Ahead Taskforce it was actually the most engaging and thought provoking event I have attended at the EPC. A special shout-out to Dr Lucy Easthope who was magnificent as Master of Ceremonies!

Reflecting on the past couple of days, I think we need to be more like children. Whilst there can be few things more exasperating than a child that persists in asking “Why?”, it’s actually a pretty great strategy for learning.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.

Well yes, Bismark was probably onto something that lessons are often transferrable, but as several speakers pointed out; they are also highly contextualised and are viewed with the benefit of hindsight. There’s probably some deep psychology at play here about why we learn from our own experience more, and why ‘stories’ are more persuasive than ‘facts’. This linked in to comments made during the seminar about the balance between tacit and explicit knowledge.

Dr Kevin Pollock’s comments on Mock Bureaucracy really seemed to resonate with the audience – organisations with a front designed to impress key stakeholders with principles and well ordered practices whilst hiding internal fragmentation and ad hoc operation’

It’s undoubtedly positive that there’s such interest in really learning lessons. However, I had two frustrations

  1. That we’re often overly critical of actually how much progress we have made. Although people might moan about it, the reason that the UK is so highly regulated (building codes, health and safety, child protection, care quality etc) is as a direct consequence of learning from past incidents and implementing procedures which reduce recurrence.
  2. That we don’t make the most of existing knowledge. Safety critical industries such as aviation and nuclear have been grappling with these issues for decades. It was therefore fantastic to hear from Paul Sledzik of NTSB on learning from the transport industry in the United States.

Are we really learning anything?

Many of the speakers asserted the need for a ‘safe space’ to share information, the trust and candour to be able to share lessons without fear of repercussions. There are already examples; for example the ‘Chicago’ meetings of the NTSB and the CISP structure for cyber incident recording. Will JESIP Joint Organisational Learning or the forthcoming Lessons Emergency and Exercises Platform provide the same level of safety? I worry that they could add to the ‘mock bureaucracy’ if not simultaneously accompanied with cultural change to embrace lessons.

Identification of a lesson is easy. Where that relates to a system or a process the fix is also relatively straightforward. However, double loop learning, where the root cause of the issue relates to the culture, values of beliefs of an organisation is much harder.

The overriding message of the NTSB keynote was not to forget who we’re doing all this emergency planning for. It is impossible to plan for (or even to concieve of) every eventuality. All emergencies are different, and all people are affected by them differently. However, we should not loose sight that at the end of the processes that we use are people, families and communities.

Emergency Planning is typically based on risk. As Lucy Easthope was speaking today, and reflecting on Paul Sledzik’s comments on expectation vs reality, I wondered about an alternative approach:

So in addition to developing capability to respond to flooding/zombies/whatever we could build public narratives…for instance…

  • When a building collapses and kills my loved one
  • I want to get their personal possessions returned to me quickly
  • So I can process grief in the least traumatic way

Now that’s just an experiment, and I’m sure it could be further developed, but would that sort of approach help refocus on ‘why’ we’re doing what we’re doing rather than ‘how’ we’re doing it?  

And…just like that annoying kid at the start of the article…we come back to why.

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