At the recent annual conference for the International Association of Emergency Managers I was fortunate to hear presentations by a number of the major academics supporting our profession. One thing that struck me was the similar views expressed by Dr. Dennis Miletti, a sociologist, and Dr. Brian Fagan, a historian specializing historical climate change. Both emphasized the need to take the long term view when dealing with crisis. While they were dealing with different time lines, the message was the same, "you need to see the big picture."
This is a major concern for those working at the operational level in crises. The tactical concerns are immediate and highly visible and it is easy to get drawn into trying to resolve these types of issues. I once saw a big city mayor become very involved with the rescue of passengers stranded in a subway after regional power outage, something that was a fairly routine problem for the transportation agency and the police department. On another occasion, a mayoral staff member began setting up an evacuation of the local airport on September 11th and establishing shelters for stranded passengers. The fact that there was a well-trained shelter branch available in the emergency operations center and that the problem was being handled by the airport management team completely escaped her.
It is easy to dismiss these examples as the result of untrained officials who neglect to participate in exercises and that would certainly be the case in many instances. However, focusing on the tactical rather than the operational issues is a common failing in many crisis management situations. We need to recognize that tactical issues are best handled by first responders and we must trust them to do their jobs. The best way we can help resolve tactical issues is to provide needed support to responders but, most importantly, to anticipate future needs.
This long-term view is essential in a crisis. The time available for decision making at a scene is measured in minutes and seconds. At the operational level, we have the luxury of hours and often days in which to consider the situation and make decisions. We need to acknowledge that our job is to move ahead of the crisis, identify emerging issues, and determine future resource needs. If we do our job well, it makes dealing with tactical issues much easier on everyone.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi Photo: SF Chronicle
As many of my readers know, I generally do not follow stories, preferring to draw lessons from events rather than to report them. However, the story of the missing patient found dead at San Francisco General Hospital several weeks ago continues to evolve and to offer some excellent examples of different approaches to crisis communications.
As you may recall from my previous posts, a woman patient went missing from her room in SF General at around 10:15 AM on September 21. The hospital implemented a search protocol which included a search by Sheriff's Deputies who provide security at the hospital that failed to locate the patient. Her body was discovered seventeen days later during a routine maintenance check of a little-used fire-escape stairwell.
In contrast to the pro-active actions of the hospital (see my blog of 10/17) the Sheriff's Department has been silent on the incident. There have been no public expression of sympathy or any word of immediate corrective actions or changes to protocols. At the same time, continuing news coverage raised concerns over the actions of the Deputies and the thoroughness of the search.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi finally broke his silence at a news conference yesterday, detailing numerous errors made by his Deputies - incomplete searches, failure to pass on information, confusion over the race of the patient. His briefing was professional, focusing on the facts of the case. The Sheriff did include an apology of sorts, stating, "We are eager, like everyone else, to get to the bottom line of what happened to (the victim)." He did not take questions but did provide copies of his statement.
Clearly, this incident is far from over and there's no question that there will be a lawsuit. In this light, Sheriff Mirkarimi's willingness to present the facts in this case is commendable. By avoiding the temptation to defend his department or to gloss over mistakes, he may have recovered somewhat from his long silence. However, the lack of a strong apology and a failure to demonstrate any level of corrective action (e.g. protocols have been changed, additional training has been provided) are major negatives.
Remember that in a crisis the public is looking to see real empathy for the victim, immediate corrective action, and a commitment to finding the facts.