In the last week or so:
One month after 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan water, electrical power, and gasoline supplies continue to be seriously disrupted. More than 150,000 continue to depend on the support of emergency shelters.
I am sure you can list several more headlines that have nothing to do with each other and, yet somehow, have everything to do with each other.
This is the homeland security domain. These are our challenges, our risks, our wicked problems, and our recurring events.
Earlier this week I was on a webinar. I was probably the only “civilian” (non-government employee) on the call. I am volunteering and had been asked by my sponsor to just listen. The webinar’s purpose was to re-start a regional planning process. The webinar had been rescheduled several times, trying to achieve a reasonable quorum.
This particular region is especially concerned about an abundance of toxic agrochemicals very close to schools and residential areas. There is a significant flood threat. Earthquake is infrequent, but possible. There are no doubt other vulnerabilities and threats, but this is a re-start and risks still need to be identified.
Organizers did a reasonable job setting out the issues. Japan was vaguely referenced. A law enforcement participant shared some startling stats on a surge in drug violence. A state environmental protection official distributed a scary map and photographs.
There was not much discussion. The only questions were about the budget and how it could be used. Whatever energy was present at the start of the call seemed to seep away about 20 minutes in. The low point — about 30 minutes in — was when someone thought they had hit mute (but had not) and we all heard someone being chewed out for taking 10 minutes more for lunch than allowed.
It’s difficult to recover from that sort of interruption.
I think most readers of this blog might agree I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of guy. After the webinar ended I needed a drink.
This work — homeland security, emergency management, public safety and related — has not been my life’s work. I am a parvenu, an outsider, an interloper. In any substantive way I have been at this barely ten years.
But perhaps it takes an outsider perspective to feel how privileged we are to have the opportunity to do this work.
Especially when we are asked to reach beyond our typical boundaries: jurisdictional, professional, intellectual, and otherwise.
Consider again the list at the top of this post. For most of us at least two-thirds of the headlines have local implications. We are tasked to work on behalf of our neighbors, friends, families and others to prevent, protect, mitigate, respond, and recover from these and other prospective threats. Don’t we need all the help we can get?
For the modest regional effort re-started with the webinar, funding and other resources are provided to bring together neighbors who will depend on each other in a crisis, but most of whom have never met. What a simply great idea. What an opportunity, what a privilege, what a practical step in regional risk readiness. (My principal recommendation after the call was to not have another webinar or teleconference, but to first get people together face-to-face.)
The results of this unfortunate webinar seemed to me an especially dramatic example of a persistent pattern in homeland security. There is a tendency to undervalue the opportunities presented. There are several sources of this tendency: over-work, under-appreciation, budget-reductions, urgent demands, political stupidity, media idiocy, jurisdictional and professional parochialism, and the list could continue.
But I will offer at least one other impediment to meaningful regional risk readiness. In the midst of complexity and chaos we encounter a paradoxical threat: our own expertise.
As a species – and as professionals – we depend on experience to predict the future. We craft plans and procedures to ensure our future, reflecting what reality has taught us. We take pride in our practicality.
The more accurate our predictions, the more successful our course, the more assured we become of our future. Until… reality steps beyond our experience, undoes our predictions, and we stand vulnerable and uncertain before the truly New.
Catastrophe — such as we have seen in Japan — is beyond predicting. But catastrophe can be anticipated. To predict is to precisely foretell. To anticipate is but a foretaste, something much less suited to specific definition.
When you encounter the New, it is unlikely to come in the form of a 9.0 earthquake, thirty foot tsunami, and a six-core nuclear emergency. But when it arrives it is quite likely to cascade across your capabilities and challenge your essential capacities in a way that may just now leave a sour taste along each side of your tongue.
Even as we taste the bitterness, we are inclined to avert our eyes and remain fixated on what our experience has taught us. Experience is an effective teacher. The School of Hard Knocks is a good school. But there are other teachers also worth our time and attention.