Friday, September 24, 2010

The World Isn't Coming to an End -- It's Only an #X24

If you were killing time on Twitter around noon Eastern Time today, you might well have gotten the impression that there was something big going on in California.  Shortly after noon, news filtered out of an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale near the Aleutian Trench, south of Alaska.  A tsunami warning was issued, and a few minutes later a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit California.  Then came the tsunami.  If you weren't paying close attention, you might have been alarmed, but none of it was real.  It's part of an exercise running today and tomorrow called Exercise24, or X24.

The purpose of X24 is to test the use of various tools on the Internet in the event of a major disaster.  X24 has been using Twitter (with the hashtag #X24 and clear warnings of "This is a test.  This is not real."  They have a page on Facebook.  They are using Google Docs to exchange requests for aid and match providers with requesters.  The idea is to see what works and what doesn't, and whether there are uses for social media and the Internet in such a situation that folks might not already have thought of.

Exercises like this one are used in emergency response organizations all over the world.  Sometimes they are simulated using actors to portray victims or criminals, and sometimes they are done entirely virtually, merely sitting around a table and talking through what should happen next.

The idea is that having a great plan is wonderful, but you won't really know if you have a great plan until you try to use it.  The problem is, if you need to use it, it's really too late to discover it's not all that wonderful.  In addition, being taught or trained how to do something in an emergency is different than actually doing it.  For example, if you had a choice between two surgeons with exactly the same education, one who had done your procedure five times this week and one who had only watched other people do it, who would you want?  Simulations also serve as inoculation training for first responders.  They introduce various traumatic possibilities to people in a relatively controlled way.  When a real emergency hits, there are fewer elements that the responders' brains have never encountered before.  This makes them more resistant to the effects of the trauma exposure, and more able to stay calm and do their jobs.

There are two truths about exercises like this.  Truth #1 is that something will happen or not happen during the exercise that no one, in all of their planning, ever thought about.  This is, in some sense, the entire point.  By running a drill, you can discover what is missing from your plan.  Truth #2 is that, no matter how extensive your drills are or how many you have, during an actual emergency something will happen that never happened during the drill.  There are, in turn, two reasons for this.  First, every emergency is different and you can't possibly simulate every possible scenario.  Second, people behave differently in an actual emergency than they do if they know it's just for practice.

X24 is an interesting exercise because it uses the Internet -- and hence the whole world -- to practice in.  The organizers should be cautious, however, in leaning too much on this exercise to answer specific questions about how the Internet would handle an emergency.  I strongly suspect that the number of people retweeting the #X24 tweets and posting information to Facebook, as well as looking for information on emergency and news sites, during the exercise is a tiny fraction of the number who would do so if an actual tsunami hit California.  You can tell from this exercise whether you can use Internet tools to share information, but until it actually happens we won't really know if those tools have enough capacity to make it a good idea.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

After the San Bruno Explosion, What are You Scared Of?

Thursday night, a giant explosion ripped through a neighborhood in San Bruno, California.  The blast and subsequent fire, apparently caused by a ruptured gas line, leveled 38 homes and killed at least 7 people.  Six more are missing. 

I don't know about you, but if you gave me an hour to list all the horrendous things that could happen to me I could come up with a pretty long list, but I doubt a gas explosion destroying my neighborhood would be on it.  It certainly wouldn't be on the top.  We all know, in the back of our minds, that there are certain things that could happen to us -- car accidents, homicide, natural disasters (different ones, depending on where you live) -- but there are other things that just don't make the list because they are so rare we don't know about them.  Gas leaks?  Sure.  Gas explosions?  Maybe.  The entire neighborhood detonating?  Not so much.

I'm not sure whether that makes the typical person's reaction to this better or worse, but it does make it different.  When we hear about, say, a horrible car accident that killed multiple people, it may make us more afraid to drive.  We may lose our own sense of safety on the road.  We may imagine what it would be like to be a family member getting that call, or to be on the road and witness or be involved in the crash.

Our reaction when something so bizarre happens is a little bit different.  Yes, we probably are more sensitive to the smell of gas or more careful not to leave the stove on.  We probably don't spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be in the incident itself, largely because we just can't.  Even once it's happened somewhere, our minds can't yet process fully how such an event would play out.

The most important difference is the quality and amount of fear we may feel.  When we hear about a car accident, if we feel afraid we feel afraid when we drive, or when our loved ones drive.  The fear is specific to the incident.  An extraordinary incident like the San Bruno explosion, however, can cause two different kinds of reactions:  either it seems so unlikely that even though it's happened it doesn't seem possible, or it seems so random that the entire world seems less safe.  Our fears, if we have them, are not specific to gas lines or even to sitting in our homes.  They are about something completely random coming out of nowhere and hurting us.  We don't react to the sudden discovery that a specific situation is not safe, we react to the discovery that the world is not safe.

Most of us experienced this kind of reaction nine years ago, after the 9-11 attacks.  The fear we felt and the reactions we had were not necessarily about flying or working in an office building or even about the type of person we presumed to be the terrorists.  It was fundamentally about the notion that a day could start as normally as that day did, and turn into such a nightmare without warning.  Our worldview was violated not because we used to think flying was safe and now it wasn't, but because we used to think that life was safe and we found out maybe we were wrong.  The people of San Bruno found that out again this week, and in some small way, so did the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Calm Under Fire at the Discovery Channel

Last week, a man walked into the lobby of the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Maryland and took three people hostage.  He was heavily armed and had what appeared to be explosives strapped to him.  The building was locked down and then evacuated.  When the incident was over, the hostages were unharmed and the perpetrator was dead, shot by a law enforcement sniper.

So, imagine you're at work and a man with a gun and explosives comes in, yells a lot, tells people not to move, and you run.  You call 911, from inside the building or from outside.  What do you imagine you would say, and what would you sound like saying it?  I'm not asking what you should say, or how you should act, but how do you imagine you would actually behave?  I know I've had to call 911 for much less serious situations which were much less threatening to me personally, and while I say what needs to be said I am pretty agitated and upset. 

Over the weekend, the 911 tapes from the Discovery Channel incident were released.  Clips were played on various television news broadcasts, and summaries were printed in the press.  What is truly remarkable to me in listening to these is that the callers uniformly sound calm and are able to give extremely detailed descriptions of what is going on, what the man has in terms of weaponry, and how he acted when he entered the building.  No one is crying.  No one is screaming.  No one is yelling for police to hurry.  They say what needs to be said, they appear to be very accurate, and they remain calm.

To what can we attribute this calm and accuracy on the part of people who had just narrowly escaped being killed?  There are probably a number of things at work here.  First of all, the man who was responsible for this was a known quantity.  He had been arrested outside the building before and, until two weeks before, was under a court order to stay away.  His picture was posted around the building as someone to look out for.  This means that when people called 911 and described him, they weren't only working from what they had just seen, but also from pictures they had seen and information stored in their long-term memory.

Having pictures of this man posted around the office also served another purpose.  On some level, everyone who worked at the Discovery Channel and saw those pictures had considered the possibility that something like this might happen some day.  They may not have believed it, and they may not have imagined the specific details, but the thought that this man was dangerous and could harm them had already crossed their mind.  When it actually happened, they didn't have to process something brand new.  Instead of thinking, "Something horrible is happening and I don't know what to do with it," they could think, "The horrible thing that I feared is happening."  That left more brain power available to notice the details.

My daughter also points out another important fact*.  When we're scared, our senses are heightened and our memory for what we perceive is also heightened.  This can turn out not to be very helpful, because we often remember the wrong things.  In this case, however, it seems that people remembered the right things.

Finally, it's important to note that feeling out of control and acting out of control are not the same thing.  We can imagine that, under these circumstances, we'd be scared out of our minds.  And certainly being scared out of our minds can affect how we act.  But people often experience a remarkable ability to do what needs to be done in an emergency, and fall apart later.  Bravery does not mean not being scared.  It means doing what you need to do even though you're scared.  I think we can all agree, there are a lot of brave people over at the Discovery Channel.

* You know you're bringing your work home when your 12-year-old child can analyze a crisis situation and come up with insightful commentary!

Ross Douthat at the New York Times had an excellent piece yesterday about what we should -- and should not -- draw from the politics of the perpetrator in this incident.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

We Are the World, Except for Pakistan

Frequent Quarterbacker Edwin dropped me a note earlier this week to suggest that I might like to write about the flooding in Pakistan, seeing as how it is being branded one of the worst natural disasters ever.  In case you missed it, 20 million people have lost their homes and an estimated two thousand have died.  Those surviving are, aside from being homeless, at tremendous risk for disease and starvation. 

This is certainly a crisis, and certainly the sort of thing I write about.  So why haven't I?  My reasons are somewhat specific to me.  The flooding in Pakistan hit the news in this country during the second week in August.  It may have gotten coverage before that, but certainly not a lot.  My regular readers know that during the second week in August I was in Haiti, doing crisis intervention following their earthquake in January.  I first heard about the flooding the day I returned and, to be perfectly honest, I was resentful that there was another natural disaster.  My gut, emotional reaction was that Pakistan was stealing the spotlight from Haiti, and they should wait their turn.  That was not a rational reaction, of course, but it was real.

I shared that reflection with Edwin when he asked, and he said that, in some ways, he had a similar reaction.  The floods were too much, too soon after the Haiti earthquake (not to mention the Chile earthquake, the gulf oil spill, etc.).  It's interesting that he described it as being too much, as though he (and by extension, we) couldn't absorb it all.  Others would say that the rapid succession of disasters has made us numb.

Edwin and I are no alone, however, in not really focusing attention or assistance on Pakistan.  In contrast to the reaction to Pakistan, international aid has been very slow in funneling to Pakistan.  I haven't seen any cell phone text message fundraising campaigns, and there is no "We Are the World for Pakistan."  I'm absorbed with Haiti.  Edwin feels like it's too much too soon.  What's up with the rest of the world?

I think there are a number of factors in play here, and any one of them may play more or less of a role for one person or another.  If one doesn't resonate with you, keep going down the list.  Something will.  In addition to what I'll call the "natural disaster overload" described above, here are some things I think are going on:

  • Floods are calamities in slow motion.  Unlike an earthquake, there is no shocking breaking news that shakes us all out of complacency.  The moment when a flood goes from a problem to a catastrophe is not clear, and the more time we have to get used to something the less likely we are to feel like it requires action.
  • The impact is measured in lives displaced, not lives lost.  Two thousand people is a very large number, but the death toll from the Haitian earthquake was more than one hundred times as great.  Death gets our attention.
  • It's Pakistan.  Americans, at least, don't particularly like the Pakistani government, despite the fact that they are technically our allies.
  • It's Pakistan.  The Pakistani government is notoriously corrupt, and the country has a significant Taliban presence which makes operating there very difficult.
  • It's Pakistan.  There is a tremendous anti-Islamic sentiment in this country right now.  While relatively few Americans would consciously decide not to help because these are Muslims, the anti-Muslim rhetoric makes it much easier to not notice that these are people.
I've taken way too long to start blogging about the situation in Pakistan.  I'll devote some more space to it in a few days.  In the meantime, I'd like to recommend two of my favorite disaster relief charities, both of which are doing relief work in Pakistan because they already had people on the ground when the flooding started.  Please consider a donation to Doctors Without Borders, the American Jewish World Service, or the relief organization of your choice.  Disaster is disaster, and disasters shouldn't have to compete for whose is more important to get our attention.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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