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Bringing Clarity to Chaos

​Effective disaster response depends upon not getting lost in the complexity, experts say. The response brings clarity to the chaos by using methods that break the disaster down into manageable components, then devises informed and targeted solutions. Ideally, this approach should be directed by a leader adept at crisis management and aware of its potential hazards. 

Take, for example, the recent disaster of the Fort McMurray wildfire, which began in May in Alberta, Canada. The fire spread to 1.5 million acres and forced more than 80,000 people from their homes before finally being declared under control on July 5. Roughly 2,400 homes and buildings located in Alberta's oil sands region were destroyed in the fire. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated the total damage at $3.5 billion.

Peter Power, a crisis response expert who heads London-based Visor Consultants and who chaired the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto last June, says that recovery from the wildfires will be a long process: "It will take years, not weeks." 

And given the fact that it shut down 1.2 million barrels of daily oil production, the damaging economic effects are far-reaching. "The economic recovery is far greater than just the local community, given the criticality of oil exports," Power says.

One factor that can complicate the response to a wide-ranging disaster such as this is what Power​ calls "a crisis-within-a-crisis," or an occurrence during the response that flashpoints into its own crisis.

In terms of the McMurray fire, Power gave the example of the South African firefighters who were brought in to fight the blaze but quickly went on strike amid reports that their pay was scandalously low—$15 per day for fighting the fire in 12-hour shifts. The flap became an internationally publicized incident until Alberta Premier Rachel Notley stepped in and helped resolve it. 

Besides the risk of a crisis-within-­a-crisis, there's also the possibility of an "issue that happens post-event that can become the second disaster," Power adds.

To illustrate, he cites the massive amounts of charitable donations that were raised in the wake of the wildfire. For example, the Canadian Red Cross collected more than $60 million just a few weeks after the fire began.

Such generosity was an immensely positive development, Power explains, but even an amount as large as that will not cover all losses. This raises the possibility of an ensuing controversy over how to distribute the money, a debate that could become polarizing and damage the region's comity.

"I was delighted—and concerned—when I read about this vast amount of money," Power says. "This is a very complex issue."

To make the complexity of disaster response more manageable, Desi Matel-Anderson, former chief innovation advisor for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), uses a three-step response method. While at FEMA, Matel-Anderson headed the first innovation team to provide real-time problem solving to the Hurricane Sandy response.

The first step in her method consists of defining exactly what the disaster is. This may seem basic, but it is sometimes skipped, and it is key to formulating a targeted and focused response, she explains.

"People think that it's a really simple question, but it's really hard to not want to go right to the solution," she says. (Matel-Anderson now leads a nonprofit organization that deploys volunteers from across the world to respond to disasters.) The McMurray fire, for example, would warrant different responses targeting different parts of the disaster—fire containment, mass evacuation, and humanitarian relief, for example. "Disasters can have disasters within them," she says.

The second step is to create a "challenge statement" that defines "the who and the why"—who will be served or helped, and why the effort is necessary. This step is also sometimes skipped during a response, Matel-Anderson says. For instance, responders to a disaster may decide to build a response-based app without being sure exactly who the target audience is, and why it is necessary.

The third step is to formulate a solution. This starts out as an inclusive process where all ideas are welcome.

"It's all about coming up with as many crazy solutions as you can," Matel-Anderson says. After all ideas are considered, "you select one that you know will serve the who, the why, and the how."

When assisting Syrian refugees who were evacuating Lebanon's Beqaa valley after a fire, for example, Matel-Anderson's team used a 360-degree virtual reality camera to take footage of the evacuation route, which evacuees could then download to their smartphones. "You put yourself in the shoes of survivors," she says.

As part of the McMurray response, Matel-Anderson worked on an effort to give wildfire evacuees information on how to expedite their recovery efforts. One of the notable aspects of the wildfire response is that anywhere from 80,000 to 95,000 people were evacuated safely, with almost no lives lost. (Two people died in a highway car crash while leaving the area.)

"It was a pretty amazing triumph for the community," she says. Thus, in the first step of Matel-Anderson's method, the defined disaster was the forced evacuation of tens of thousands of residents, and then the need to resettle them afterwards. The who and the why, defined in the second step, were the evacuees, and their need for assistance in their recovery efforts.

In the third step, the solution formulated was to assist the McMurray evacuees in their resettlement by giving them information that was proven to work for previous wildfire survivors. So the responders took information that was used by survivors of Alberta's Slave Lake wildfire in 2011—which forced the evacuation of Slave Lake's 7,000 residents—and distributed it to Fort McMurray survivors. 

Another key component to successful disaster response, besides clarity of method, is focused leadership, Power says. He notes that Notley, who for many became the face and focus of efforts to contain the wildfire, generally received high marks for her leadership in handling the crisis. To Power, her actions seemed consistent with the four qualities that Rudy Guiliani, who was New York City mayor during the 9/11 attacks, has emphasized when it comes to crisis leadership: be visible, be composed, be resilient, and be vocal. 

In contrast, when U.S. President George W. Bush was photographed looking down at Hurricane Katrina destruction from Air Force One at 40,000 feet in the air, Bush seemed aloof, distant, and removed, Power says.

Both Notley and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to avoid such damaging optics; in the wake of the wildfire, Trudeau was often seen getting out of his helicopter and interacting with people, and Notley was photographed giving evacuees preloaded debit cards, Power explains.

Power, who is coauthor of the British Standard on Crisis Management and a former member of the U.K. National Security Commission, offered three experience-based tips for security managers who are managing a crisis.

The first is that, in many crisis situations, reassuring levels of selfless behavior become evident, suggesting that most people are hardwired to help each other. However, a manager should not assume that this will happen all the time, and be practiced by everybody. Contingency plans should be made that assume people will react in different ways.

Second, an objective, dispassionate analysis of the response after the fact is crucial. In Alberta, firefighters received justifiable praise for their brave work, but officials should not shy away from releasing any post-event reports that find fault with them.

"They deserve praise, absolutely, but don't let that get in the way of a thorough analysis," Power says. 

Third, response experience is critical. For some organizations, turnover can mean that none of the employees who were involved in the last crisis response are left. This should be avoided if possible; response exercises have value, but institutional memory is also crucial.

"Keep your experienced staff," Power says. "Keep a core of these people."