Hurricane Sandy and the fog of war: redux.

This morning’s USA Today contains a thoughtful editorial on the Hurricane Sandy warnings. The editors point out correctly that the hazard was well-forecast but that problems with labels for the storm – hurricane? Or nor-easter? – contributed to some confusion in the minds of the public as well as emergency responders and political leaders. [My recent fog-of-war post covered this topic and provided a few additional links.]

The USA Today editorial was also constructive in that it placed less emphasis on blame and more emphasis on what to do next time around. This is in the spirit of National Transportation Safety Board investigation of airplane crashes. NTSB provides a thorough, exhaustive delineation of all the causes and contributing factors behind each aircraft incident…both the crashes and the near-misses. They follow with a list of recommendations.

Often these have to do with what the aviation community refers to as cockpit resource management. They’ve learned that flight crews who perform well in accidents or near-accidents also engage with one another differently than flight crews who perform poorly. One big difference? The effective crews are those where there’s little formal hierarchy and plenty of communication, not just during the emergency, but for the extended periods of time between crises. By contrast, crews operating under rigid hierarchy often can’t communicate in the rapid, effective manner needed in emergencies.

In  natural hazards, as opposed to aviation, the cockpit crew includes hundreds of emergency responders and political leaders at local, state, and federal levels. The cockpit crew also includes millions of ordinary citizens, who are all actors. They’re sheltering in place, evacuating, leading families, helping neighbors, acting as first responders in myriad ways. In the case of natural disasters, this “crew” will be effective only if there has been extensive preparation beforehand…and the same governing collegiality.

Fixing some key nomenclature during the critical moment? Absolutely needed. But the challenge is far more complex.

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