Featured Article for September
Why Do We Live in Fear?
A risk free society is an unrealistic goal
In his weekly column in the Chronicle this past Sunday, my old boss, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jr, drew some interesting contrasts in how local governments responded to the officer-involved shootings in Tulsa OK and Charlotte NC. In Tulsa, police released video of the shooting and charged the officer involved with manslaughter. In Charlotte, police have still not released any footage of the shooting, leading to assumptions by members of the public that the police are lying about the victim having a gun. The result was that Charlotte has seen nights of often violent protest while Tulsa has remained quiet. Brown’s recommendation is blunt:
Lesson one for police agencies throughout the nation: Release the video immediately after every incident. Eliminate the speculation that you’re hiding something. It’ll come out one way or the other, so you might as well be the one to do it.
I believe that we are seeing in Charlotte is one of the “four traps of decision making” I’ve written about previously: using the need for gathering more information as an excuse for inaction. One of the things you have to accept up front in any crisis is that you will not have all the information you need to make a good decision. There is a good chance that your initial decisions might turn out to have not been the best course of action or may be completely wrong. However, failing to take the risk of making a decision that may seem wrong in hindsight frequently allows the crisis to escalate, often to the point where you lose control. Acting decisively on the best information you have available at the time can be justified and explained; failing to act and allowing things to get of hand cannot.
Remember that Botterell’s Fourth Law of Emergency Management is, “Perception is reality.” If you give the appearance of concealing the truth, this is what the public will believe. You need to be seen to act decisively and quickly if you are to retain the public turst. One of the sayings attributed to General George Patton is, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” This applies as well in crisis management as it does in war.
In his song What Made America Famous? Harry Chapin tells the story of a small town feud between the local volunteer fire department and
The kind of kids that long since drove our parents to despair.
We were lazy long hairs dropping out, lost confused, and copping out.
Convinced our futures were in doubt and trying not to care
The "hippies" shared a rundown slum with black welfare cases and were shadowed by the police wherever they went. In retaliation, they paint a swastika on the fire house door.
Things change, however, when the building catches fire. The firefighters are initially reluctant to respond but one of them threatens to go alone and shames the others into responding. In the course of the fire he rescues the narrator of the song, his girlfriend and two children who are trapped on a ledge. But he goes further: he opens his home to the victims of the fire.
We spent the rest of that night in the home of a man I'd never known before.
It's funny when you get that close, it's kind of hard to hate.
The identification of outsiders through visual cues is bred into us from prehistoric times. It was a defensive mechanism used to identify potential threats, i.e. people who were not members of our tribe. But in our multi-cultural society, we may well have outgrown the need to classify people by their differences from us. It’s easy to hate “those people” but it’s hard to hate someone you have taken the time to know. There is a reason that Zulu warriors greeted each other with the phrase, “I see you.” Differences don't seem important when you're faced with disaster.
As someone who spent years in private security in the US and abroad and has dealt with national security issues, I’ve seen the dark side of human nature. But the one thing we see over and over in disasters is the willingness of ordinary people to extend a helping hand to total strangers. And it’s not just those who have a responsibility to help, like the firefighters in Chapin’s song. In the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the biggest jerk on our block knocked on every door to ask if everyone was alright and if they needed any help. He even refueled the patrol car of the local cop who was constantly writing him parking tickets.
Chapin’s narrator undergoes a change because of his experience in the fire and the song ends with him dreaming of a world where everyone works together to build a better country. It's a dream many of should keep in mind in these troubled times.
I had the kind of a dream that maybe they're still trying to teach in school.
Of the America that made America famous... and
Of the people who just might understand
That how together, yes we can
Create a country better than
The one we have made of this land,
Emergency managers tend to focus inwards on our communities, as opposed to homeland security which is fixed on external threats outside the country. Our area of interest is on specific threats that directly affect the populations we serve and larger issues of national security are left primarily to the Federal government. But ultimately we deal in risk and one of the key factors in determining risk is social vulnerability. If we accept this, we really cannot afford to ignore the increased global connectedness of the modern world.
A scenario I read recently highlights how seemingly disparate events can combine to create catastrophic results. In this scenario, BRITEXT leads to additional defections from the European Union, weakening the EU’s ability to impose economic sanctions. At the same time, the election of Donald Trump in the United States leads to a weakening of NATO as the US becomes increasingly isolationist. The weak economic sanctions coupled with reduced NATO military deterrence encourages Russia to seize additional territory in border states, leading to armed conflict.
Clearly, this scenario has little bearing on day to day emergency management. However, it does demonstrate how things are connected and these connections can have an impact on social vulnerability. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, has led to a net increase in jobs for the country as a whole but has led to a loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, increasing unemployment and lowering wages in states whose economy are based on manufacturing. Increased poverty means increased vulnerability to disasters and reduced tax revenue to invest in preparedness. The conflict in the Middle East has produced the largest movement of displaced people since World War II. A large number of those refugees can be absorbed into the United States but since immigrants tend to cluster in communities, they will affect local demographics and present emergency managers with challenges related to cultural differences and languages. As both these examples show, the overall impact of an event on the country as a whole may not be the same as that on a local community.
I am not suggesting we spend our time playing useless “what-if” games or constructing doomsday scenarios. What I am suggesting is that we turn our focus outwards enough to be able to recognize events that could have the potential to affect social vulnerability within our communities and to begin developing strategies for dealing with them. This means thinking beyond day to day hazards to think both globally and long range, two things that, unfortunately, we have not done well at any level of government.