Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 13, 2010


Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Mark Chubb on October 13, 2010

As I sit here writing this post, the first of the Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months is being lifted to the surface in a specially-designed rescue capsule lowered down a 28-inch diameter shaft drilled for the purpose of extracting the men. The preparations for this moment have been painstakingly detailed.

Since receiving news that the miners survived the collapse that entrapped them, people around the world have watched developments and many have tried to imagine what it would be like if they themselves were subject to the same fate. I am not among them.

My attention has been focused on the way in which those responsible for the rescue and those watching their efforts in rapt attention shifted as rescuers adapted to what was clearly an unforeseen circumstance. Like many disasters, this event did not conform to plans made beforehand. Rescuers clearly did not imagine they would have to attend to all of the details that arose when they realized how long it would take to reach those trapped.

When rescuers first made contact with the miners, they faced the dilemma of telling them it would take months of drilling or digging to reach them. As a result, rescuers shifted their attention to making the miners’ stay underground as predictable and bearable as possible. When drilling progressed faster than expected, they had to shift gears again to manage the expectations of families who waited on the surface for the return of their loved ones. All the while they had to deal with hundreds if not thousands of technical details and the expectations of millions of onlookers.

Indeed expectations were a big part of this story. When it was clear the miners had survived the collapse that prevented them from escaping the mine, their families expected officials would spare no expense or effort to rescue and return them safely. The miners themselves undoubtedly endured their fate with hope and good humor in large part because they expected to be rescued after it became clear to those on the surface that they were still alive. No one questioned whether these expectations were reasonable, just as no one seemed to doubt the ultimate outcome we are now witnessing on live television.

This stands in stark contrast to the dashed expectations of Gene Cranick whose house in Obion County, Tennessee caught fire and burned to the ground before his eyes on October 4. When he called 911 to report the fire, dispatchers for the fire department in nearby South Fulton checked to see whether he had paid his $75 annual subscription fee to receive rural rural fire service. Sadly, he had not.

When told firefighters would not be attending his fire, Mr. Cranick offered to pay the fee or whatever costs the fire service would incur in responding to fight his blaze. They demurred.

Public, political and media outrage came fast and furious from every quarter. It seems there is something the left and right of the political spectrum can agree on after all. While some commentators acknowledged that Cranick bore some responsibility for failing to pay his subscription (in fairness, he claims he simply forgot), no one seems to consider it reasonable that firefighters decided not to respond even if they accept the political decision to deny fire cover to rural residents who fail to pay for their maintenance.

Arguments that firefighters had a duty to respond hinge on two assumptions: one moral and one material. The moral argument would have us believe that firefighters cannot or should not reasonably withhold their services from those in peril or need nor should they be instructed or expected to do so by those for whom they work. The material argument holds that the response of firefighters makes a difference in the outcome, which reinforces the moral imperative that indicates they should respond when called upon to do so.

Here’s where expectations come into play. Is the moral argument dependent upon the material one or truly independent of it? Do we believe firefighters have a duty to respond because we believe their actions make a difference? If so, are these expectations absolute or simply reasonable?

Firefighters attend many fires like Mr. Cranick’s with little appreciable effect on the outcome. In other words, they achieve a result not too much different — at least materially — from the effect that would have occurred had they not responded. When the fire has grown bigger than firefighters can control, whether because of delays calling for help, the length of time it takes to reach the fire, or the conditions that allowed the fire to start and grow big enough for someone to detect, firefighters simply busy themselves getting things in place while the fire consumes enough of whatever is burning to decay to a size the attending firefighters can suppress.

All of this activity, like that we have witnessed in the Chilean desert, has the purpose, in part, of reassuring us that everything will be alright in the end even if the damage cannot be stopped immediately much less undone. This is rarely the case though. Fires cause damage, which in many instances simply cannot be repaired. The firefighters’ attendance reassures us though that someone–more importantly someone in officialdom–cares about our fate, and somehow this makes it possible to carry on and get our lives back together or something close enough to it.

No one is known to have survived 69 days trapped more than 2000-ft underground before. Preparations to treat the miners for the myriad problems they may experience as a result of their exposure have been made ready. But we don’t yet know how the story will end. Even if rescuers have made adequate preparations to treat the physical effects of their confinement, the miners will have to make psychological adjustments to accommodate their newfound fame and the problems left on the surface that have not gone away during their absence.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether our expectations have been raised beyond reason by watching the spectacle of the miners’ rescue. Does this raise the bar or does it simply help us appreciate what it means to be human?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 13, 2010 @ 5:50 am

Well until empathy and sympathy are ended by drugs or evolution as possible human emotions expectations will always be there to impact expectations and hopes. Definitely an amazing story that even one was rescued.

As to the Tennessee fire what if it turned out that clerical error had been made and he (GENE) was not around to correct it and the fire burned down the house! Liability? Probably not. But that puts the policy in perspective for me. Even though Dr.Franklin’s (BEN)development of paid fire service in colonial Philadelphia acted much as the Tennessee firefighters seems we have moved away from such crass sentiment and allowing the structure to burn and not sending a bill after putting it out is incorrect public policy.

As to the spectrum of political commentators agreeing that there was a problem with the actions of the firefighters, perhaps a spark of hope in the eternal night of failed public policies.

Thanks Marks for your thoughts.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

October 13, 2010 @ 6:44 am

What bothers me about the Chilean mining incident is that the initial problem was caused by human failure to utilized the necessary and known mine safety techniques.

The heroic response is indeed admirable, but once again attention to prevention probably could have averted much of the suffering,duration, and cost of the rescues.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 13, 2010 @ 6:46 am

Expect the worst, plan for the best possible given the worst?

A few weeks ago I was on a teleconference considering regional catastrophic preparedness.

In an effort to adjust the group’s expectations of scope and scale, a participant offered that a catastrophe is like a fire that gets beyond the local jurisdiction’s ability to handle on its own. The resources of others (regional resources) are needed.

To which another participant offered, “Well, if with the help of others you can still manage the fire, it’s not really a catastrophe. A catastrophe is when its my house that’s on fire, the house burns to the ground, and I died in the flames. That’s an event from which there will never be a full recovery. That’s a catastrophe.”

Another participant offered, “Expect what is unacceptable and outside our ability to fix and then we will be getting serious about this.”

None were suggesting being passive or fatalistic, but they were suggesting that envisioning the worst helps avoid it.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 13, 2010 @ 9:34 am

Bill, Franklin’s innovation was not the provision of professional, paid fire service, but rather a system of fire insurance that would raise sufficient capital to cover the high cost of acquiring the imported fire engines volunteers demanded for the control of fires. (And it is not at all clear that he did not get this idea from similar interventions abroad.) Bucket brigades, fire safety bylaws and organized efforts to detect and suppress incipient fires all clearly predate Franklin as well as the American colonies.

That said, we have, in America, uniquely contributed to the commoditization of public safety. By the time paid fire suppression services came into being in Cincinnati in the early 19th century, population densities in our cities had exploded, fueled by immigration and the boom, bust economic cycles endemic to that period in our history. These developments outpaced regulatory interventions by the state, which led to massive urban conflagrations that plagued many of the nation’s largest cities throughout the remainder of that century and into the next. Municipal fire departments became one of many tools instituted by municipal leaders to curb the risk to entire cities as opposed to individual properties. In the end, effective building regulation and advances in construction techniques that enabled improvements in the quality of urban life arguably made a bigger difference than firefighters to the improvements in safety we now enjoy (see Tebeau 2003).

I agree that empathy and sympathy play a big role in setting expectations. But of the two, sympathy plays perhaps too big a role. If empathy rather than sympathy drove our response, would we not see a greater drive to lend assistance to one another ourselves rather than through surrogates paid by the state from tax revenues we grudgingly provide? If the efforts of firefighters are arguably less effective in controlling fires than demonstrating concern for the plight of those afflicted by loss would we not show concern for one another directly and immediately ourselves?

It is convenient to assume that firefighters make a difference. It relieves us of the feeling that we should somehow share someone else’s suffering, especially when that someone is a person with whom we share only the tenuous bond of living in the same geographic locale.

The national and international outpouring of hope and celebration at the rescue of 33 trapped miners in Chile imposes no real psychic burden on us. To the extent we are willing to put our minds in the place of imaging what it might have been like being trapped underground or waiting anxiously above for news of their fate, we do so in large measure to give ourselves the pleasure of imagining the great joy they and they families must share at their reunion on the surface. How many of us would willingly trade places with any of them?

As for Claire’s point, Franklin is often quoted as having written under the nom de plume of Poor Richard, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Americans love to laud Franklin for his commonsense and fancy themselves the heir to his practical wisdom, but few practice the virtues he espoused, least of all the firefighters who claim to live in the shadow of his legacy. Fire prevention activities are among their most loathed and least valued functions, which explains why we have had to rely so heavily on others’ efforts to bring down fire incidence and death rates in this country.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 13, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

Thanks Mark. Great comment and also for correction of my Franklin remark.

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