Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 22, 2010

Do Nothing

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Mark Chubb on December 22, 2010

Last week I noted in response to Arnold Bogis’s post on nuclear attack readiness and recent research on the effectiveness of different response strategies that research coming out of New Zealand, like the studies he cited, was raising uncomfortable questions about our conventional notions of what it means to be prepared or to respond effectively. The New Zealand research suggested that the people of Canterbury and Christchurch who experienced a M7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010, were not very prepared but had proven quite resilient.

This raises some obvious questions. For starters, what do we mean by “prepared.” And for that matter how did the researcher define resilience. The research to which the New Zealand news source remains as yet unpublished, but as I am familiar with the territory I think it’s worth taking a stab at answering these questions for the sake furthering our ongoing discussions about resilience and its application to homeland security threats.

As it turns out, the people in Christchurch were not much better prepared than those in most communities we might survey here in the United States, which is to say that the great majority of them had taken no concrete steps to prepare themselves, their households or their businesses for an earthquake or other major emergency. Few people had stockpiled supplies, and only a few more had given any thought to how they might communicate with others or what actions they might take in the moments after the event.

That said, they did pretty much what you might expected someone to do when the actual event occurred: They waited for the ground to stop moving, picked themselves up, looked around and started asking themselves just what the hell had happened. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that there had been an earthquake, and quite a substantial one at that. As they surveyed their homes in the pre-dawn darkness and went outside they began interacting with their neighbors who were doing the same thing. Those in areas that experienced liquefaction, especially those in areas close to the coast, began questioning the wisdom of staying put and some started to head inland to higher and drier ground together.

Others who found themselves less convinced that further peril was imminent attempted to check on loved ones. Those who could get a cellphone signal usually couldn’t get through. So they tried texting. In most cases that worked fine, and they quickly established confidence that they could rely on others to help them and vice versa.

As dawn broke and the damage to commercial buildings and public facilities became evident, people started looking for opportunities to help out. Those who were already part of some organized group, like the university students association or the local rugby club for instance, relied on these social networks to assemble others and organize them to lend a hand in whatever way they could be most useful. In most cases, these working parties participated in activities completely unrelated to the organization’s customary function and, as such, had to invent some of the rules governing how they would work together as they went along.

From these descriptions we can discern a couple of things: First, preparedness is not about stuff or plans. It is a mindset. People were not surprised that an earthquake occurred. Although they were not materially prepared, they understood that the event was a call for them to do something, anything even, as long as it was reasonable and useful. This leads to the second observation: resilience is characterized in such situations by three elements:

  1. Spontaneous, often unplanned and usually ad hoc efforts to employ available resources,
  2. In ways that either attain or help maintain the stability of existing networks,
  3. In a dynamic or hostile environment characterized by unusual levels of uncertainty, ambiguity or both.

The resulting responses encourage further adaptive efforts, often out of scale to their material effects on the situation, by mobilizing or encouraging complementary or cooperative efforts by others. The resulting shared experience yields benefits to participants and the society as a whole by forging new, often more efficient pathways for the allocation of resources and effort.

Why is it important to clarify these definitions? For starters, we still struggle mightily with questions about what steps we should be taking now to ensure resilience emerges at some point in the future. If the Canterbury experience is indicative, maybe we need do nothing or at least nothing peculiar or particular to homeland security and emergency management.

In the current fiscal climate we might do well to consider whether we can do anything more effective than simply staying out of the way. We may just discoverĀ all that’s required to improve community resilience is for us to do nothing that impedes or discourages people from doing what they will anyway. If we’re lucky a can-do culture just might emerge.

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

December 22, 2010 @ 7:52 am

I still am wondering about the role of insurance. Since earthquake insurance is mandatory, I wonder if that plays a role in somehow reassuring people that they will be made whole financially after a major earthquake. In the U.S. relative few people are insured, and recovery drags on for many years with most property owners far worse off during recovery.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 22, 2010 @ 8:21 am

Mark this is a very very important post. I like the notion that preparedness equals mindset and not something else. But as always I have a slightly different take. The mindset I would argue for is not that something cannot happen or may not but that all [meaning as many as possible] understand who can do what in any crisis or emergency. I focus on governmental preparedness, not citizen preparedness, but the two are related. First, however, the lack of transparency and honesty in governmental preparedness leads to lack of citizen preparedness. As many as possible inside or outside the governmental structure must know who will show up, how they have been trained, what their equipment and logistics are, and how exactly will they respond. Beyond this knowledge the governmental authorities must make clear in advance what the crisis chain of command and response and recovery system will be and how if the planning basis of that effort is exceeded how will additional assets be surged or mobilized to the extent possible. Right now NO nation-state, including the US, has made that basic element of preparedness available to its citizens and residents with the consequence that citizens are unprepared in two ways. First, they count on the governmental structure to be able to respond to a wide spectrum of emergenices. Second, that they themselves don’t have to be prepared.\\
In other words “Knowledge” is the basis of preparedness. And without that “knowledge” their is little likelyhood of resilience. Ad Hoc response goes only so far even where their is a “theraputic” community. A specific example. The Soviet Union collapsed in part over failures of many kinds in both the reactor core-melt accident at Chenyobl and the Armenian Earthquake. In the latter the fact that citizens and even the ARMY did not even have shovels to help find the dead in the rubble persisted long after the normal 3 weeks beyond which survival of victims is even possible.

So it might be interesting to find out exactly how many shovels the US could mobilize when the “big one” hits. Not being completely facetious. FEMA’s Director in 1980 promised a Washington state US Senator 900,000 shovels and then found it had no way to procure and ship that number and ended up shipping none to the Mt. St. Helens response. And they were needed. So perhaps a shovel should be in all families preparedness kits?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 22, 2010 @ 8:36 am


Over the last several days I have been part of a discussion closely related to the theme of your post.

At some point a party to the discussion suggested homeland security needs more “Yentas” (the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof). As the discussion proceeded a consensus emerged that, instead, we need more “Tevyes”(the father).

The difference? Yenta tried to broker relationships through the exercise of traditional authority. Tevye, in contrast, facilitated relationships (and effectively adapted to change)through principled engagement and getting out of the way. Yenta was non-resilient. Tevye set the stage for significant resilience.

You can probably see the early elements of a future post (and a new Broadway play?).

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 22, 2010 @ 10:00 am

Phil, as usual you have eloquently summarized the subtle essence of why I believe the country yearns for the return of a moderate conservative agenda. Although I myself tend toward the liberal persuasion, I too appreciate the principled engagement of moderate Republicans even when I disagree with them.

Bill, your insight into the importance of a positive yet pragmatic mindset is completely congruent with my argument. Negative mindsets and excessively or unrealistically optimistic mindsets present challenges to any resilience strategy whether passive or active in its orientation. Someone who knows bad things can happen and accepts responsibility for making something positive of their circumstances is golden.

I am not sure how important it is to improve citizens’ understanding of government’s role or capabilities. Their impressions have been formed by past response, and often are not too far off the mark. That said, we should be working to improve both their impressions and our own performance.

Claire’s observations about insurance haven’t eluded me. As a liberal, I see an important role for government in an area where market failures seem the rule rather than the exception. We can facilitate markets and positive mindset by alleviating extreme insecurity. This alone should not inhibit effective expressions of personal or collective responsibility in the face of disaster.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

December 22, 2010 @ 10:58 am

To add to the Yiddish words that describe things better than English does, I highly recommend the book Bowling Alone (2000), by Robert Putnam,who is a sociologist at Harvard. It provides an excellent background for a discussion of social capital.

He discussed two types of community activists: “machers” who invest lots of time in formal organizations; people who make things happen in community; and “schmoozers” those who spend many hours in information conversation and communion. (p.93). As you might imagine, the former are engaged in activities more organized and purposeful, while the latter are more spontaneous and flexible.

My qeustion is: how do we achieve more directed, purposeful community action and less conversation with no useful outcome?

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 22, 2010 @ 11:28 am

Mark thanks for comment. Clearly citizens and residents are somewhere between expecting everything of government in a crisis or disaster or expecting nothing. That dichotomy is a dangerous indication of mindset so bridging it needs a solution. Perhaps Yentas and Tevyes needed as well as Machers and Schmoozers.

Hoping the full spectrum of the above will post comments on this posting.

Comment by Jon (Mitch) Mitchell

December 22, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

Its great to see our research being referred to internationally!

The Canterbury Regional Emergency Management Office has been concerned for some years about the reliance on organisationally imposed measures of preparedness as a proxy measure of resilinece. Even surveys that tried to dig deeper tended to indicate a low level of awareness and prepadedness – and “resilience”.

We decided in 2008 to take a more engaged approach to gathering information of readiness and resilience, introducing a focus group approach in 2009. This proved to be extremenly revealing in relation to actual perceptions of hazards, risks, preparedness and, most interestingly, intentions to assists friends, family, neighbours, other communities, etc, in the event of emergencies.

Perhaps the most thought provoking was the view expressed by many of the 18 to 25 year olds, particularly the more highly educated, that they were extremely unlikely to “prepare”* but would be out on the streets helping if and when the need arose – on the expectation that their efforts would be reciprocated by others who would feed and water them.


In the days immediately following 4 September 2010 earthquake a group of University of Canterbury students staretd a Facebook page calling for volunteers to help clean up. Within 36 hours there were thousands of young New Zealanders (yes, Y-generation) were out there making a difference.


(* It was said by at least one participant that they were lucky if they had beer and tonight’s meal in the fridge. The more they were told by officialdom to prepare the less likely they would do so.”)

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 23, 2010 @ 10:13 am

In response to Claire Rubin’s second comment above:


I do not know the subtleties of macher and schmoozer. I do know plenty of talkers who never seem to get around to doing anything substantive. I also know some action-oriented folks who can make a mess even worse by how they choose to intervene.

As Bill Cumming has implied, I wonder if effectiveness is not more likely when a blending of macher and schmoozer can be achieved… in the individual, the organization, and the community?

One of the most brilliant people with whom I ever worked — ivy league graduate, trilingual, extraordinary cross-cultural background, articulate, insightful… could never seem to actually do anything. I did, though, find him to be a helpful source of counsel.

In my experience the most troublesome and strategically counter-productive of my colleagues have — paradoxically? — been the most effective “managers.” These individuals have tended to dismiss what just a bit of schmoozing might have told them and move full speed in the wrong direction. They were inclined to mis-hear and mis-apply direct instruction in their passion for practical and efficient implementation… now!… with little appreciation for secondary and tertiary impacts.

There is a former client — and current friend — whom I perceive is a wonderful balance of macher and schmoozer. She is fantastic at shaping the conversation, learning from the conversation, and directing the conversation toward action. She is, I think, the personification of a catalytic leader.

At the core of every important — and successful — strategic shift I have encountered a crucial someone who balances these skills. But even after all these years I have not discovered how to replicate these skills in a predictable way.

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 23, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

Mitch, thanks for dialing into our discussion and sharing more information about the response and recovery in Canterbury. Would you be interested in sharing more with the readers in a guest post to the front page?

Comment by Do Nothing or Act!

December 23, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

When my local town officials chose to “politcize” rather than to be responsible as “entrusted” to serve the public, not their self-agenda, I decided as a citizen to stand up and challenge what was an appalling, intentional and informed decision to close a local fire station despite a direct jeopardy to myself, family and neighbor, to the communiyt-at-large!

On the morning of the closing of the local fire station, as officials hammered a “station closed” sign, I went to my trunk and pulled out a hand made sign, “Open Engine 4” and as they got in their cars and prepared to leave, they asked what I was doing. I turned my back to the green fire station and Pumper 4 now locked inside, unable to respond to the next 911 call and faced the “politicians” and with disgust for them, gladly presented ny sign, “Open Engine 4” – as they left, they smiled and even laughed….I saw nothing amusing about this dispicable action which would put first responders in jeopardy and citizen.

Well, I thought maybe I would have to make this – one man campaign – a week or so effort, however the station remained closed and I stood and stood, from early morning and late into the night for as many hours as I could daily, standing against not only those who openly stated that a human Life could very well be jeoparidized by such action, but supposedly budget would not pwermit this station to remain open as it neared its 100th birthday.

As I make note of this event any years later, I look at my hand, arthritic from holding a 30 pd sign in freezing rain, cold, snow, three winters, standing silently on top of snow mounds with the resilience and fortitude necessary to challenge such – criminal -local political decision-making.

26,000 fellow residents. Not one stood even tjough over 6,000 fellow residents signed a “citizen’s petition” demanding the station’s reopening.

No one other resident stood with me even though they knew this action placed Life in jeopardy.

There is much to this story, however yes, these hoodlums who did their utmost to mock me, to make every attempt to attack my character, to even advise local DPW workers that if anyone was sen talking to me while I was standing with “Open Engine 4” sign in silent protest, they might lose their jobs….see: http://www.bigdiglifevest.com

1,491 hours standing for three years in blinding nor’easters, in below zero temperatures, in the hot sun, in the midst of thunderstorm and lightning, today this station and Engine 4, which was reopened by my willingness to stand and others at least willing to sign a petition forcing the reopening, continues as I write this brief account of a long silent one man protest.

I feel so Blessed to have had the resilience, the character, the willingness to stand agains all that was wrong and despite the harrassment and direct abuse, hoever I learned much about fellow man and local and other governing officials….

One cannot rely on government and maybe not even neighbor or for that matter family. Reality is that we can only rely on our self and we must be prepared. Whether it is the dyfunction of another or their skeletons in the closet fearing that they may be exposed…

This is not an isolated event. Neither can we underestimate what atrocities mankind can do to one another. As we are near Christmas 2010, recall what the local communities in the Ukraine faced in 1940 when the local authorities – the perpetrators did in much more than placing citizens at peril, they killed them in the back! Women, children, one after another!

As a professional in international bsuiness development focusing in prerequisite and substantial wastewater and water purification development projects and promoting practical, permanent, “earthquake resistant” housing….whether it is in Haiti where I am very focused in making every attempt to address the many such requirements or in Ghana, Rwanda, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and other localities, I see rampant corruption, indifference, governments even if capable, slow at best (Katrina and Haiti) to help those in tatterted tent with so many “water issues” in this 21st Century global environment where nearly 1 billion fellow humans have little or no access to even a clean glass of water….

Churchill knew it was about – minds – and he questioned whether the British would be broken. He saw the devastation of the blitz, the 55 pound SC 50’s and the SC500’s and even SC100’s dropped and he wondered whether his fellow people had the resilience….the mind set and determination not to be defeated not matter the horror. In the next second, one did not know if they would be alive as the German SC500’s carried only by special German bombers would cause devastation with the Brits who survived – “shaken with fear” –

Whther it be earthquake or bio attack or whatever “action” even by the local politician, I have stressed to the local communities that beds, food, water and other be stored at local high schools as any such devastation brings complete chaos, loss of Life, homes, property….it is the local high schools in this country which should be the local shelter where in any such event, people can be kept warm in winter, comfortable, have the basics..this is responsible governing to the community. We know how to bail out the bankers led by my good pal, “Mr. Barney” whose district may cease to exist and they have no accounting of $750 billion dollars… well, if we can afford losing all this money, then let’s start getting cots and MRE’s and other relief supplies into our local community high school where people would be safe and police could keep fellow citizens safe….

It may be 70 years ago, however Coventry was ablaze from end to end. For those of us who understand the importance of history and how quickly a community whether the center of a tornado strike or other….can see total destruction and despair…it is time to do something about better preparing ourselves and demanding federal, state and local authorities that while we are building schools so that the Taliban being trained next door in Pakistan will tear the classrooms down the next day, it is time to appropriate federal monies for better preparedness by first responder and those of us locals who know in any such event, our 911 calls may never get through or no one available to respond.

Working night and day since the devastating earthquake of 12th January in Haiti, despite the majority of wonderful and good, resilent Haitians, a million still live in tents and the story continues to the extent that seeing the poor global response nearly one year later, despite those in the intel community stating for months and months that we should go into the northwetern sector of Pakistan seeking to expose cowardly terrorists, it is time to get out, pack our bags and come home and and stock up our community centers and use monies to federally support the budgets of first responders and to build a civil defense strength where we could employ the 10+% unemployed….

We need to do nothing further and if in fact the upcoming Pakistani Air Force in its escalation over these next weeks prove very little effectiveness in putting pressure on these coild blooded murders, not Mulsims and fundamentalists as the Quran has no such message of carrying out murder….

Do nothing shoudl be adopted for if we do go into the northwasters sector of Pakistan, we will not only see continued AQ growth in willing recruiters in Yemen, but throughout the Middle East where people may distrust and even hate us, however many, many do not support terrorism and ardent in their insistence that Bin laden and others like him are not theocrats having really little religious training, but secular and using the Quran themselves in manipulative manner which many in the Middle East feel the necessity that Bin Laden and others like him, should be arrested and placed in jail iof not worse….

We are a very unprepared people who have a short memory in the history of mankind and so much dysfunction and every manmade government since babylon, failing!

This is the 21st century. The innovation and scientific promise whether it be algae and oil, shortly, computers so fast that even you will be a Wizard, yet we frown and turn our cheeks to the “Brutes of Tehran” the North Koreans and others who choose threaten the survival of mankind….

We allow these despicable and mass murders to threaten our salad bars? It is time to carry a big stick and use it or stop imposing our civility and our choice on others in far distant lands and assure the sanctity of our borders, strengthen immigration and citizenship requirements and rebuild our beloved Republic, however from what I am seeing in Haiti and the time it took to address Katrina, we are indecisive and unwilling to stand at the plate and give those opposing us clarity in understanding our intent, instead of these mixed messaages.

“We have only ourselves to rely on!”

Christopher Tingus

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January 1, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

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