Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Who's to Say What Constitutes a Crisis?

Earlier this week, I blogged about what I referred to (with tongue somewhat in cheek) as "the great water crisis of 2010," the Massachusetts water main break that left 2 million people without safe drinking water.  I also used the term "catastrophe," although I said it wasn't a very catastrophic catastrophe.  A Quarterbacker calling him/herself I'm Just Musing wrote an interesting comment:
Do you really feel this was a "crisis" or a "catastrophe"? What has happened to this country when something like this causes panic and people fighting in supermarkets to get bottled water. You could drink the water if you boiled it first, that isn't so hard to do. The power going out, I can see that being a problem, although even with that, you would be surprised how well people can function without it, it's just that we would rather complain than try to make do without.
I responded briefly to this reader in the comments, but I think this deserves a more thorough explanation.  Is a water main break automatically a crisis, or automatically not one?

What Musing is actually arguing here is not so much that the water incident in Massachusetts isn't a crisis, but rather that it shouldn't be a crisis.  People should not react strongly to this.  It's a little inconvenient, but it's not a big deal.  We should not be upset.  But whether something should be a crisis probably isn't the major factor in whether it actually turns out to be one.

I am reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies, The American President, in which the President (played by Michael Douglas) says, "This is not the business of the American people," and his Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen, responds, "With all due respect, sir, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business." In a similar vein, it is all well and good to say we shouldn't be upset about something, but our minds have a funny way of deciding for themselves what is and what is not upsetting.

From the point of view of early crisis intervention, it is completely irrelevant whether we should or should not be upset by something.  The only thing that matters is whether we are.  If something impacts us so significantly that it overwhelms our usual coping skills, it is a crisis.  There is no "should" about it.  There is only "is."

One of the biggest mistakes overly enthusiastic responders make, particularly when they're new, is to come at a situation with all the intervention tools they've got based on what they think people are probably feeling. On the flip side, it is equally bad to fail to notice that something is a crisis for the people involved because it wouldn't both most people. Experienced teams listen carefully to how people are doing before planning their response.  That doesn't mean you can't use the event to predict who might be upset and what they may be feeling, but this shouldn't prevent you from noticing people who are impacted whom you didn't expect, or from discerning that everyone's actually doing OK.

So should the water incident in Massachusetts have been a crisis for people?  I think Musing makes a compelling case that it should not have been, at least for your average citizen.  For your average crisis responder, however, anything big can be a crisis, and we know that, for someone out there, this probably was.


Colleen said...

Not only should this have not been a crisis....they did test the water...and it was safe, TO BEGIN WITH! The water coming untreated from the back up reservoirs was actually safe. Now, they couldn't trust this, of course, but it was clean. My friend from Lexington boiled a big pot of water every day, and said it was a minor nuisance, this running out for bottled water was pure foolishness. When she looked it up, she found that you could just put a bit of bleach into your water, instead of boiling!

Definitely a tempest in a teapot. Isn't there be some way to advertise the boil water order to people yet have them stay calm about it?

Lexington was giving out gallons of water to residents. Why? My friend was saying, "It was a nuisance, but hardly a crisis....after all, I have a stove. I can boil water."

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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