Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 18, 2010

The Seven-fold Path to Enlightened Emergency Management

Filed under: Strategy — by Mark Chubb on 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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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 18, 2010 @ 6:41 am

This list is a useful reminder of the basic humanity necessary for all responders in any disasters.
But in the way I was and am will pick on the first:
“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.”

There is a basic deficiency is most plans specifically that those who will use them often don’t prepare them. But there is an even greater problem with most planning! That is the failure to address in each plan its assumptions including demographics and systems and processes. Some would say this should be left to SOP’s and CONPLANS. But the planning basis meaning the actual capability reflected and basis in law needs to be documented in each plan. Why? Even today under no circumstances can you figure out exactly how many rendered homeless in a US disaster are planned for? My reading of FEMA/HUD capability is less than 20,000 and that largely to be tended to by tacking existing stockpiles of manufactured housing and RVs to house. In fact just for the homeless the US planning basis should at the very minimum be 500,000. You say this is ridiculouse but even as far back as Hurricane Andrew there were over 300K rendered homeless by that event. If it had moved 1 degree north, most of Miami would have been devastated and we might have experienced our first ever event were well over 2M were rendered homeless. Hurricane Katrina also rendered many homeless but not sure of the number. Some indicators that over 800,000 evacutated Mississippi delta and along the GOM. We do know that almost 250K still have not returned to their pre-Katrina homes. And of course how many dead should be planned for?

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 18, 2010 @ 9:46 am

Bill, I think we’re basically of the same mind on this one, at least to a point. It was interesting in thinking about this point how many people become mired in their assessments and never get around to doing anything about them.

I am also interested in what this point suggests about pursuing planning as a positive activity focused on our aspirations as well as expectations. Of course, the Buddha would probably tell us that we should cleave to neither our expectations nor our aspirations but approach both mindful that suffering is the permanent state of human existence.

At the same time, planning is something we can do now, in the present, that neither depends on the past nor presupposes the future. A Buddhist approach to planning would probably take the view that we are preparing ourselves and those who will be affected by the suffering of disaster to act in a moment of need with compassion and humility.

This probably does not address your concern about the extent to which our plans fail to strive for an adequate response to the need. But a devout Buddhist would probably accept this state of affairs for what it is and seek to change it through compassion (feeling engagement) rather than planning (intellectual engagement).

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 18, 2010 @ 11:25 am

Curious as to what is known of Pakistani crisis response?

Comment by LOGGER

August 19, 2010 @ 5:33 am

The romantics are the first to fail in the line of duty. I did a rescue. Car flipped on highway, woman in shock, no time to think and out came the power tools. Never even knew her name. EMS took her to the hospital.

Comment by chris saeger

August 19, 2010 @ 6:55 am

I think this is a great piece. I do agree with several of the comments about plans here. I googled what looked to be the original post mentioned in the article.

In the o tinybuddha version it reads
“Instead of expecting the future to give you something specific, focus on what you’ll do to create what you want to experience” This might be plans but to me it would be more like planning.

Thanks for a thought provoking morning wake up.

Comment by Emergency Management and Goldman Sachs and the White House

August 19, 2010 @ 7:11 am

Those of us who do plan and clearly see numerous local emergency response not even offering the minimum in first response crews point to the necessary federal support of first responders as communities are certain to fail even more so in their budgetary obligations as the economy worsens.

These Goldman Sachs fools who think that they are duping us and have cast this Republic in a state of great crisis, a nation at much peril and whose lack in courageous leadership as well as far too much citizen indifference in allowing America to be attacked from within, not AQ, the Taliban, but Goldman Sachs et al, sponsored by those who have sworn allegiance to the country and who I think should be held accountable and you at the polls must vote the long standing, professional poilticians at local, state and national level, “oust” the present government officials on both sides of the aisle who have allowed and supported such….

First, here in Massachsuetts, Barney Frank…Next, Nancy Pelosi and then you Mr. President and your wet behind the ears White House staffers in your relection bid must be voted out of office.

We have no confidence in government. You Mr. President have no idea how to create jobs. You do know how to give us lessons in Black history and slavery and saw you right from the moment of election fly to Cairo to have a “beer” with your Muslim brothers and to beak bread at the Ramaden White House feast the other night and to weigh in on the ill-conceived notion of a mosque at Ground Zero, a deliberate attempt by Muslim to erect a marker as has been done throughout Islamic history, where the infidel has been defeated….How dare you?

Inevitably and shortly as a result of your inability, your lack of experience, your obsession and that of the First Lady of the United States in conveying to all what her college thesis spoke about, well, enough is enough!

Planning and first response are probably second on the list other than cybersecurity which is foremost as we must stay ahead in technology and in space for laser and more sophisticated weapons are at the agenda of those who understand the necessity to rule the skies and oceans. Chinese and Russian submarines, equivalent to our deterrent and dedicated crews and ship as qualified.

We talk to the people on Main Street USA and the frown lines, the worry, the heightened anxieties, the government imposing itself stripping the worker from his change, never mind raping pensions and social security with much indifference…all pointing to the necessity to support the first responder as m uch anguish prevails and will affect many more as all worsens.

The reality is that jobs are not being created, people are filled with saddness in their inability to work, to be productive, to care for family – and with 1 in 5 American children and growing cited as having malnutrition and pooor diets leading to all sorts of issues including carbs and an overweight populace, the obvious need to assure federal funding for all municipalities in emergency response.

Enlightened emergency management begins from the top down and as we are raped by Hank Paulson et al and our failure to teach our young, never mind where Madagascar is on the map, but where their local town is located, yet we can spend billions and billions of dollars on others…well, Sir, it is not the great calamity of 2 m or more homeless for I bet there are such numbers and even greater among our population presently and growing daily for foreclosures are up despite the Obama modification plans which have also failed and a healthcare policy which was enacted and which will fail as well, coupled with a $5 billion daily and growing deficit now exceeding trillions and trillions as wasteful and misappropriated policies are supported by both Republican and Democrat.

Those of us who know and keep a watchful eye on our first responders and are willing to stand at any cost on behalf of our “911 heros” well, we know there is no one to plan for an inevitable calamity because we have seen Katrina, we have seen Haiti and we see the corruption, the special interest groups, the elitist attitude of your pal up in Cambridge and your vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, the First Lady and daughter vactioning in Spain instead of spending dollars here seeing the Grand Canyon..Who did she visit in Spain..and who did she “hang” with…how much money was spent and what’s the matter with visiting our wonderful historic Concord and Lexington emphasizing what strength and conviction it took on the Lexington Green to fight the King’s oppression….

Emergency Response. A subject many of us know well and a daily 25×7 essential Life saving commitment to our family, to neighbor and to anyone, Black, White, Muslim or other, all God’s children….

Thank you to our first responders and their professional and dedicated service!

Prov 22:7 –

The rich rule over the poor. and the borrower is slave to the lender….

Vote! Vote!

Christopher Tingus
Citizen Joe
Main Street USA
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645

Comment by Hank Christen

August 19, 2010 @ 8:40 am

I would add a step called “Confront uncertainty with resilience.” Changing expectations into to plans is effective as long as reality meets expectations. When reality does not meet expectations (or predictions) we confront uncertainty. Then plans become fantasy documents (Clarke). We all suffer from the illusion that since we haven’t seen something or haven’t heard of something, it cannot happen. Reality brings us kicking and screaming into Taleb’s world of Black Swans or Rumsfeld’s unknown-unknowns. Resilience is a possible answer because it utilizes the principles of Rapidity, Resourcefulness, Robustness, and Redundancy to perhaps help us stumble through a Black Swan maze (maybe).
Hank Christen

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 19, 2010 @ 10:07 am

Hank, I think the point of the original piece at TinyBuddha.com is partially consistent with your point. Changing expectations into plans is about how we use our time in the present, which implies the action phase of planning rather than the end product, which presumably lies in the future — plans.

I would disagree, however, that a Buddhist would insist upon aligning expectations with reality or agree that this is a necessary precondition of achieving enlightenment (resilience in that worldview). Buddhism accepts suffering as a permanent condition of the world and as such acknowledges that falling short is endemic to the human condition.

Buddhism’s solution to this problem is to stop cleaving to our own notions of the ideal or consciously striving for perfection. Instead, Buddhism teaches us to release ourselves from the expectation that we must change the world outside ourselves and the narcissistic tendency to think it is our responsibility alone to do so. Opening ourselves to experiences beyond our expectations and shifting our focus to aligning ourselves with universal truths that transcend observable reality allows us to connect with that part of us all that is fully compassionate and truly transcendant.

As for swans, black or otherwise, a Buddhist would probably tell you that sometimes a swan is just a swan. Appreciate it for its beauty, even if that beauty represents nothing more than the opportunity to practice genuine humility and boundless compassion.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 19, 2010 @ 10:29 am


Your seven fold path is attractive to me. This is especially because my own tendency — despite all my fancy talk to the contrary — is very Greco-Roman. I can be driven to understand (or think I understand) the situation and motivated to (try to) impose my will on the situation.

I would be a better husband, father, and friend if I could more consistently embrace the seven fold path. In most professional situations it would also enhance my effectiveness.

But is it possible that when the truly chaotic breaks out some of this ancient willfulness can be helpful in acting/sensing/responding? (Back to Cynefin)

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 19, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

Phil, I like to think we can learn from both eastern and western traditions, and should avoid the tendency to prefer either or assume one works better in some situations than others. That said, I think the author of the original post at TinyBuddha.com was more concerned about the stresses we impose on ourselves than those that reasonably arise when we are exposed to suffering.

In those situations where we are suffering or can alleviate the suffering of others by engaging the situation directly, I think any Buddhist would agree that the compassionate thing to do is to act with decisiveness and dispatch rather than denial or detachment. Our western tendencies to think in these terms are not inconsistent with eastern ways of looking at the world so long as we neither assume they have to work or that their failure is both unfortunate and unacceptable. These assumptions are the sources of much of the anxiety and stress we confront when promoting preparedness. (Perhaps this is why we find the notion of resilience so attractive and compelling?)

Comment by Deejay

February 15, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

Brilliance for free; your parents must be a sweteearht and a certified genius.

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