Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 14, 2014

Resisting soccer-moms, embracing black swans, and expecting the unexpected

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2014

Last week a regular reader and thoughtful commentator observed:

Black Swans are better ignored until their arrival – cynically, it reduces expectations for preparedness, responsibility and accountability if you do not acknowledge the possible threat.

Given the context of this individual’s commentary over the years I do not take this as cynical. At least in the modern use of cynic: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

Rather, I hear irony: “the mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.” I hear an encouragement to greater preparedness, responsibility and accountability.

If I have misheard, s/he — probably he — will correct me.

By definition Black Swans cannot be accurately predicted.  As a result they are not well-suited to tactical planning.  At least not if plan-execution is your goal. But assiduously working through strategic scenarios with tactical details can be helpful to expose preparedness issues. This is especially the case if tactical planning is consistently framed and facilitated to achieve strategic purposes.

Too often organizations are tempted to treat planning documents as operational algorithms, something that — with enough resources and training  — will unfold per specifications and achieve each outcome.

In disaster preparedness, involving black or white swans, this is self-deluding.

Lee Clarke has famously and persuasively called such plans: “Fantasy Documents.” He writes, “When uncertainty about key aspects of a task is high, rationalistic plans and rational-looking planning processes become rationality badges, labels proclaiming that organizations and experts can control things that are, most likely, outside the range of their expertise.”

This is hubris: “an excess of ambition, pride, etc, ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.”

Bill, Claire, others: Are there longitudinal studies of the personality types attracted to Emergency Management?  Especially planning folks?  I am familiar with a study of the Clark County (Las Vegas, NV) Fire Department that I tend to project on the homeland security professions.  It found more than three-quarters of CCFD personnel testing with a strong SJ temperament on a Myers-Briggs type instrument.

Those with SJ temperaments are often called “Guardians” or “Protectors”.  According to Dr. David Keirsey: “Practical and down-to-earth, Guardians believe in following the rules and cooperating with others. They are not very comfortable winging it or blazing new trails; working steadily within the system is the Guardian way, for in the long run loyalty, discipline, and teamwork get the job done right. Guardians are meticulous about schedules and have a sharp eye for proper procedures. They are cautious about change, even though they know that change can be healthy for an institution. Better to go slowly, they say, and look before you leap.”

This personality type is especially well-suited for many aspects of public safety and disaster response.  But Black Swans are seldom tamed by following the rules and working steadily within the system.

Unless — I suggest — the rules and system are developed to anticipate Black Swans, to expect the unexpected and to develop the cognitive and organizational capabilities to critically and creatively engage the unexpected.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb drew on David Hume to popularize our current notion of Black Swans.  In his 2012 book Antifragile Taleb tells us:

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom… Soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds–that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning… Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.

Rigorous random near-traumatic episodes sound like the sort of “content” that many of the personality types drawn to public safety and emergency management would welcome.  This is the kind of learning that encourages us to expect the unexpected and develop the skills to engage the unexpected.

When was the last time you participated in a table-top or exercise that you would describe as rigorous random near-traumatic?  Have you ever participated in a planning process that could be described with these terms?  Too many planners and trainers and, increasingly, managers (self-styled leaders) are really just soccer-moms in disguise.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 14, 2014 @ 3:14 am

Well Phil an ENTJ here! But as the book PLEASE UNDERSTAND ME concludes Meyers=Briggs reveals tendencies not handcuffs as to personality. And in revealing Meyers=Briggs as supposedly valid a cross all human cultures the ENTJs are about 40% worldwide for humanity [the largest block]!

I would argue that detailed planning often fails to match the scenario even in exercises much less a BLACK SWAN. Butting having played exercises where aircraft became bombs before 9/11 and having read a Tom Clancy where an airliner threatens the Capitol during a State of the Union address also before 9/11 I think a different approach to planning is required.

First an plan must contain a planning basis meaning what is the resource base available including personnel, level of training, funding, equipment, organization, and how it can be mobilized and expanded [or not?] and therefore dependent on outside assistance such as mutual aid or EMAC.

NOLA threatened by flooding five ways, main stem Mississippi just one, yet the infamous HURRICANE PAM exercise played one year before HURRICANE KATRINA and foreshortened failed to include the structural protection work failures of the actual event. How many exercises utilize structural protective works failing because they did fail or their designs exceeded [not technically a failure]?
DR. Patrick S. Roberts, PhD, in his 2013 book discusses to some degree personalities and disaster management.

And the world of EMYs and HAZMATS responders and even Emergency Management spun off from a FIRE SERVICE largely technophobic and trying to be a-politico and wedded to their hoses and signing on late to household and even commercial sprinklers.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 14, 2014 @ 3:18 am

BTW only two states to my knowledge have mandated standardized hose couplings for fire trucks, N.Y. and Florida! Is this still accurate?

Comment by John Comiskey

August 14, 2014 @ 7:29 am

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in on a FEMA Region II Individual and Community Panel Preparedness Workshop. The panel, Strengthening Preparedness and Resilience in Higher Education Institutions discussed appropriate responses to active shooter scenarios.

The audience consisted of a cross section of educators and education security officials.
One theme that paralleled the soccer mom mentality in this blog post was educators who asked security officials:

Should an active shooter event happen what “exactly” should I do?

Our panel responded that their response should be principal based rather than tactical –the focus was the care and survival of all involved. Educators are en loco parentis (in place of parents). They are charged with attending to the needs of those that are entrusted to them. Do what you can and do it as though the students were your children.

Education is mankinds most hopeful endeavor. We hope to imbue the attitudes, values, and beliefs as well as the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will make students good and productive citizens. We have also tasked educators to provide health guidance (obesity?), driver’s education, alcohol and drug prevention, civic education, civil defense (HLS), and many others.

Education should also make students self-reliant. Self-reliant citizens are able to provide for themselves even in the most harrowing situations. There is no self-reliance algorithm.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 14, 2014 @ 7:52 am

John!Some history and your comment excellent. The question asked revealing because while IN LOCO PARENTIS largely dead that is exactly the problem in K-12 and even beyond.

Why? Historically the federal civil defense program treated k-12 both students and teachers as part of the GENERAL PUBLIC and not as a congregate cvare center or special population. Thus no one accountable for school security or EMERGENCY PLANNING.

It is a long long story as to how this changed both for disaster relief [now a Post-Katrina statutory mandate] and for EP. The change started with the $150M NRC administrative litigation at the Shoreham Nuclear Power station wherein the license applicant was pitted against some on Long Island and the STATE of NY.

School buses are often a key to EP evacuation planning and role conflict between teachers who also are parents a complicated issue.


It will be of interest to see the cultural change necessary to protect k-12 from active shooters. Personally I don’t think SWATTED-UP local police is the answer!

Comment by Rubin, claire

August 14, 2014 @ 9:02 am


I cannot think of any studies of the personality types that gravitate to EM occupations. It is an interesting question.

I did post the question on the facebook group page that I maintain for those interested in Higher Education in Emergency Management. I hope someone replies in the next day or so.

Comment by Donald Quixote

August 14, 2014 @ 9:17 am

A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.

When discussing Black Swans with policy-makers and planners, our interpretation or impression of unpredictable is rather important. What does unpredictable mean to us – if it can happen here or when it will happen here? How improbable is the event? Six months ago, the presence of the Ebola virus in the United States was very improbable according to the remoteness and mortality rates of previous foreign outbreaks. Not so much today. With the globalization of trade and travel, medically uncontrolled Ebola or another serious pathogenic threat is only an international flight away.

It appears that we are much more comfortable planning for the last incident, for we know what now needs to be done better the next time. If only the threats adhered to this planning concept with us………

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).

Comment by John Comiskey

August 14, 2014 @ 9:26 am


Yours is a great question.

In the interest of transparency, my first sense of emergency managers is a New York and a NYPD sense. However, USCG operational experience elsewhere (NOLA and others)provides me with a second and more national sense.

Local EMs, in my experience are (mostly) housed in other than EM agencies. Their discipline specific experience and/or bureaucratic proficiency/connections lands them their positions.

My current research asks how do college homeland security curricula prepare students for homeland security.

*Planning assumption: emergency management is part of and/or related to homeland security.

The most current focusing HLS events Superstorm Sandy and the Boston Terror Attack provide great guidance. See NPR 2013 & 2014.

Assuming a meta-discipline approach, what needs to be done to prevent/mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from such events.

To your question, how do emergency managers fit into that equation?

Certainly other events such as Ebola-like pandemics and the 2009 H1N1 super scare and HLS Black Swans (see QHSR 2014) fit the same equation.

Another approach is to reverse engineer the question: what kinds of jobs [emphasis on plural] is the person interested and what are the job prospects (see Bureau of Labor, Jobs Outlooks and usajobs.com)

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 14, 2014 @ 10:06 am

John and Claire! Most of DHS loves guns, badges, and uniforms not science, engineering or brain power!

Comment by Quin

August 14, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

Black Swans are better ignored until their arrival – cynically, it reduces expectations for preparedness, responsibility and accountability if you do not acknowledge the possible threat.

I’m calling bullshit.

On December 8, 1941, the U.S. made a conscious decision to always be prepared to fight two wars and sufficiently fund its national security to carry that out. Even though that standard has slipped to a “fight one, hold one” we’ve still managed to have a fairly open national dialogue for decades on the level of national defense we expect – though until recently it always ends up as “spend more.” One caveat, while the “guns and butter” trade off has been a point of a little discussion during this time, I don’t think we’ve taken it seriously until after our two (or is it three or more?) wars of the last decade.

But it shows we can set a national expectation and carry it out, ie. pay for it. The problem is, we only do that for national security.

The country is long overdue for some adult conversations on what it should expect from its governments (notice the “s” there”) should disaster befall us. And even if we can’t agree, or even pass more than a guess, what might cause a true catastrophe, we can certainly look to the level of impacts we can collectively agree to that our governments (and private sector through regulation) should be able to handle. Essentially setting an objective yardstick for what “resilience” really means.

We can do it, but the public doesn’t care and the policymakers are too chicken, or scared, to tell them what the other side looks like and what it might cost. Come to think of it, it’s somewhat similar to the fight over civil defense from 1950-1980 when it finally was subsumed by “all hazards”. But the danger never goes away.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 15, 2014 @ 1:32 am

Great comment IMO Quinn! See FFF on the 15th!

Comment by Rubin, claire

August 15, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

I am still researching the topic of who gravitates toward EM jobs and why. Very little has been done on that topic.

I have checked with 3 librarians and am still collecting relevant articles.

The topic is wide open for theses and dissertations to those searching for a topic!!!

Comment by Bruce Martin

August 15, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

To the point about “Guardian” characteristics and Black Swans, I find that framing missions as “capabilities-based” has helped in some silos (See Corps Business, David Freedman – a book about USMC management principles). If we describe emergency management actions as a suite of tasks from which we can select based on the mission, then IMO we can be more successful in the response phase, even in a Black Swan event.

And remember, too, that even stodgy ol’ ICS encourages “chunking” of a problem into aspects one can handle, rather than becoming overwhelmed during the chaotic phase of an incident. That is best learned/practiced, as you say, by exercises and stretching the participants. Very rare in my work history as well.

Comment by Bruce Martin

August 15, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

KAI also clumps guardians and military types. What does Disc reveal in EMs? Perhaps we should investigate other assessments as well.




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