Featured article: Avoiding "Disaster of the Month" Syndrome - Five Ways to Maintain Your Focus
As I write this, San Franciscans are enduring what has been billed as the "storm of the decade". The forecast is for severe winds, which for us means sustained winds of around 30 MPH with gusts approaching 50 MPH and rainfall of up to 3 inches. The National Weather Service has issued a number of advisories, watches, and warnings.
So far we've seen steady and heavy rainfall and occasional wind gusts. I'm told about 38,000 are without power in my neighborhood and expect that we'll see some downed trees as we did in last week's storm. The emergency services have done a good job of providing advance notice and preparedness information and are standing by to deal with anything untoward. Schools have been closed for the day in many communities, including San Francisco, and a number of events have been canceled.
Whoa! Let's step back and put this in context. Is this a bad storm? You bet but it's no worse than others we have experienced. Winds of up to 50 MPH are not unusual in San Francisco (see the article below about a Hazardous Weather Outlook in November). But school closures and cancellations of planned events are. I'm not knocking the people that made these decisions - they are prudent precautions and were made after considerable thought. What I am interested in is the high level of public concern that prompted such actions.
To someone from the East Coast who regular experiences hurricane warnings, our concern over 50 MPH gusts must seem ludicrous. For those who endure winter storms that dump feet of snow or those in the Midwest who see regular flooding, 3 inches of rain may produce chuckles. Well, we in the Bay Area laughed at you when you had that minor earthquake a few years ago and went into panic mode.
The simple fact is we fear what we don't understand. After three years of drought, many in the Bay Area have forgotten the El Nino rains of the late 90's. We don't know what to expect from a heavy rainstorm. It doesn't help that you are reminded of the oncoming storm every time you turn on the TV or surf the net.
What can you do to relieve your anxiety? There are three simple things you can do:
Storms are unpredictable and always carry risks. Prudent precautions are never wrong. But don't let an approaching storm cause you to live in fear.
Stay dry out there!
A colleague recently posted an article from Smarter Travel that said that "counter-terrorism officials" were considering a ban on carry-on bags and personal electronics over the holidays because of intelligence that terrorists were targeting US flights bound for Europe. My first reaction was that we were in for more "terrorist theater" where thousands of travelers will be inconvenienced because of a vague threat. It also looked like a boon to baggage thieves, with all those cell phones, laptops, and cameras being placed in checked luggage, and possibly to the airlines who charge fees for checked luggage.
But my spider-sense started tingling. The threat was very specific: only Europe-bound flights were targeted, not US-bound flights. (And, of course, terrorists would never consider changing their targets just because we implemented draconian measures for those flights.) The article said that US officials had confirmed the intelligence about the attack, so I went to the original NPR article.
The NPR article originated with an article from a UK newspaper site. NPR did receive confirmation from "US officials" that they had intelligence suggesting a high-profile attack by al-Quaida over the holidays. However, the NPR article did not reference flights originating in the the US. In fact, it said just the opposite:
The plot, the U.K. newspaper reports and U.S. officials confirm, is thought to involve the smuggling of bombs onto planes bound for major cities in Europe. The plan did not seem to include any U.S.-bound flights, U.S. officials told NPR.
Turning to the original UK article, several things are immediately apparent. The intelligence is over two months old and supposedly came from US intelligence sources, according to an unnamed "airport security source". Neither Scotland Yard nor the Department of Transport (with responsibility for airline security in the UK) would comment on the allegations. According to the unnamed source, bans on carry-on bags and electronics were options that were under consideration. However, the article does a good job of explaining why such measures would be difficult to implement. And even the source says:
All electronics may be banned from hand luggage and placed in the hold, that has been considered, and there has been behaviour analysis training at airports but while it's effective, it's difficult to roll out quickly and is not a sufficient safety net.
The threat is aimed at Europe. The U.S has improved their security over the summer but we have not.
If we consider all three articles, it's easy to see how minor changes transform the threat from a UK issue to a US one, raising concerns that the Department of Homeland Security will once again over-react and make travel even more miserable than it is already. The threat of terrorism is very real, particularly in Europe but, as with any threat, it is important to keep it in perspective. We need effective security, not reactive security.
If you were to ask, I would never have said that my family has any sort of military tradition. Our family history doesn’t include any great heroes or participants in major battles or campaigns. However, on doing some personal reflection yesterday for Veterans Day I realized that at least three generations of my family have served.
Mind you, I am stretching a point with my father. The sum total of his military experience was a brief stint in the home guard in Belize during World War II. In the unlikely event that the Axis powers invaded the mangrove swamps of Belize, my father and his friends were prepared to defend their homeland. I only know about his service from a funny story he used to tell. It seems that while they were drilling in an aircraft hangar my father accidentally discharged his rifle. The resulting scramble for cover by his fellow soldiers did not bode well for the future performance of the home guard in battle.
My own service was considerably different. After completing college on an Army scholarship, I spent seven years in Germany at the height of the Cold War. It was a serious time – Vietnam was just winding down, there was war in the Mideast that threatened to spill over into a nuclear conflict, and the Warsaw Pact forces were becoming aggressive. As so often happens after a war, we had to deal with outdated equipment, personnel shortages, and limited training budgets. Drug and alcohol abuse was common as the Army tried to redefine itself after the debacle of Vietnam. But I learned more about life in one year there than I had in four at college.
If my war was cold, my son’s was considerably warmer. Following September 11, my son felt the need to do something and enlisted in the Army Reserve. Shortly after completing his training, his transportation unit was deployed to Kuwait for a year to provide support for the combat in Iraq. He still doesn’t talk much about his experiences there.
I left active duty to complete my Master’s degree and enter a career in public service, though I did continue to serve in the Reserves until retirement. My son completed his service and is currently enrolled in a police academy. We do not consider ourselves a “military” family. Nor do we consider ourselves “heroes” for having served. I did meet a number of true heroes during my service and I think that title truly belongs to them, not to me. The rest of us were just getting on with the job we had chosen.
Yet our experiences in the military changed us in subtle ways. The lessons I learned about leading groups of people from disparate backgrounds have influenced and continues to influence me. My son returned from Kuwait a confident, mature man. We are proud of our service and of the bond we share with other men and women who have served. But we are well aware that neither the military nor everyone who serves in it is perfect. So please don’t call us heroes; we’re just ordinary people who chose to do a particularly nasty job.
Did I miss something? Judging from the lack of news coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Ebola crisis has been solved. My morning paper didn’t carry a single article on Ebola and even the respected Facebook site Ebola Virus Info has not had an entry since November 4. What few stories I have been able to find have had little substance. Instead, the news is all about the recent elections.
This, of course, is not unusual. We’ve conditioned the public to have a short attention span. Problem surfaces, public concern is elevated, the government overreacts, a new story emerges – problem solved. Unfortunately, problems don’t go away; they’re still there even though our attention has moved on to something else. As I have noted in a previous blog, one would expect that our experiences with SARS and H1N1 would’ve made it clear that pandemics are a very real risk and that we need to maintain the capacity to deal with them. Yet judging from our reaction to the Ebola “crisis” we still lack the capacity to deal with a biological threat, no matter the cause.
This myopia does not pertain to just biological threats. We see the same lack of judgment when we rebuild on barrier islands, in floodplains, and below levies following a disaster. We seem to have an inherent belief that if we ignore risk it doesn’t exist.
All the more reason than for those who work in emergency management to remain focused on incrementally building capacity to deal with actual risk. During the run up to Y2K, the public’s attention was fully engaged in dealing with vague predictions of catastrophic, world ending computer failures. But in addition to addressing these public concerns, emergency planners around the country were quietly developing a metropolitan medical response systems and task forces to respond to a potential terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. When September 11 occurred, that capacity was already in place and we were beginning to focus on pandemic planning.
The real trick is to remain focused on actual rather than perceived risk. When everyone around you is running around screaming about the sky falling, it’s tough to be the one saying, “No, the real problem is that the river is rising.” You won’t be thanked and you won’t be appreciated but, in the long run, you will make a difference.
Had enough of zombies yet? Goodness knows I have. But it is that time of year and I suppose it’s to be expected that someone would come up with yet another way of using zombies as a metaphor. This time it’s the faculty at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, California. The University is hosting a zombie health symposium today. The idea is to blend fantasy with real science and use zombies as a springboard for discussing larger health issues while at the same time engaging students with a bit of whimsy. If you’re truly interested, you can read more on the University’s website.
Full marks to the faculty at Samuel Merritt for coming up with a way to have productive scientific discussions with their students. However, the curmudgeon in me has to ask why we feel this need to go to such extraordinary lengths to engage audiences. I’m all in favor in making learning fun and trying to avoid mere boring recitation of facts. But sometimes the message can get lost in the medium. When we use metaphors such a zombies and vampires there’s always a risk that audience will be having so much fun with the fantasy we’ve created that they miss the point of the exercise. I’ve written before about how such scenarios can be taken out of context and generate negative publicity. For this reason, we need to be very careful how we use such methods, particularly if we are a public agency.
That being said, I think the approach that the faculty at Samuel Merritt is using sounds like great fun. If I’d known about it sooner I might even have dropped by. You never know when a bit of knowledge will come in handy…