In yesterday’s post, Mark Chubb offered a conceptual perspective about managing the nation’s affairs, especially with respect to disaster response.
The author of today’s post, Daniel W. O’Connor, comments on a similar theme.
Dan has spent 25 years doing and thinking about response. The views in this post are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency.
What must emergency planners and disaster consultants learn from tragedies like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti? What happens if a 7.0 earthquake hits San Francisco, a 5.0 hurricane rolls up through the East Coast, or a nuclear weapon is detonated in New York or Washington?
Response and recovery will always lag if it’s linear and single-purpose. That only leads to delayed response, logistical crises, and more death and chaos. Unfortunately, the response and recovery abilities of many Homeland Security functions are rarely tested outside of ‘gamed’ and/or artificial exercises.
There has to be a more efficient way, and perhaps there is.
In planning parlance, the more efficient way is called a networked or multiple node strategy. We see it in everything from computers, to the placement of cellular phone towers, to fast-food restaurants. That is why I call it the “McDonald’s Solution.”
Simply put, each of McDonald’s 47,000+ restaurants in the U.S. has 95% of the same offerings, menus, capabilities, and so on. But they also have a built-in surge capacity. So if one outlet runs out of hamburger patties, there’s no need to go back to the long logistic chain for more. The local McDonald’s network simply flexes to meet the new need, and then adjusts its logistics later. Yes, the company’s highly sophisticated user data tells the store what its expected volume will be. But planning is never reality, and if there’s a disruption, a leak, a parade marching by, the node reaches out to another node and voila: a networked response.
What happens in a real disaster is more consequential than missing two-all-beef-patties. But the strategy offers valuable lessons, particularly for shapers of disaster planning plans and procedures.
The conventional response in the face of natural or man-made disaster is to try and establish command and control as the first critical node of action. This way of responding is both trained and, over time, instinctive.
However, I believe we should move to offering multiple and near simultaneous small nodes of support built initially on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, moving from physiological (food and shelter and safety) to social needs. So rather than having the entire Haitian emergency response run out of the Port Au Prince Airport, creating huge bottlenecks and deadly delays in getting to the 9 million dispossessed Haitians in life-saving time, we might consider a different and much more effective approach.
Imagine dropping in a security team to secure an area, then establish a secure site for other teams to quickly follow. These teams would be made up of people who can provide a menu of needs: Security, doctors, nurses, engineers, food, and water specialists, aid workers and a host of other providers, shaped by the secondary assessment — a crisis triage team. The teams would be inserted by OSPREYS, followed by other forms of air transport getting aid packages on the ground quickly.
Like McDonald’s and for that matter any commercial service with analogous logistic needs, these teams would have a pre-packaged ‘product.’ They would be linked in a non-linear way and have the capacity to help each other without diminishing the team or the network. The result, I believe, would not just be a much faster and more effective response in saving lives, but would also begin creating social order and reconstructing buildings, communities and families. The threat of mob dynamics would be considerably diminished as well.
What’s more, by letting each node with its own decentralized leadership get help to affected areas simultaneously, the need for a morass of linear logistics also dissipates. Then, as each node stands up, the command element of the response can adjust and shape its command and control function based on the nodes and not on geography.
Conceptually, it would be like combining a capability like the Marine Expeditionary Unit or a Special Forces Unit with a team of aid workers and communicators. Indeed, in the past century, these smaller units have played a growing role as governments discovered their objectives can sometimes be achieved faster and better by a small team of highly-trained specialists than a larger and more politically controversial conventional deployment.
Watching Haiti, it’s clear that the traditional command-and-control approach is almost exclusively linear and doomed to built-in inefficiencies that will cost billions in terms of lives, time, and opportunities. Having a single node of operation implies that if that node fails, the entire operation is doomed. In other words, rigid plans and onerous hierarchy can lead to worsening the initial crisis, which we saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
The best way to avoid an extended crisis is to move from it; vacate the crisis. The response to the earthquake in Haiti failed to make its primary consideration the essence of all triaging: getting help immediately to the neediest.