“Just get there and then we can sort things out.”
Roger Mason PhD
When responding to emergencies the instinct of many is to assemble the resources and then attack the problem. The phrase, “Just get there and then we will sort things out” is as shopworn and misleading as other equally misused phrases like “Time is always on your side.” There are two problems with the intention to assemble emergency resources then organize the response.
The first problem is mistaking the collection of resources as the most important initial move that incident managers can make. The timely dispatch and collection of emergency resources is a problem that should have been worked out long before the disaster at hand. The first task should be organizing the resources and applying them to the problem. Many emergencies involve huge numbers of responders standing around waiting for orders while a handful of personnel are directly confronting the emergency situation.
The second problem with waiting to organize the response until resources arrive is the mistaken belief that responders will see the problems and answers in the same way as you do and automatically begin filling gaps and developing solutions. Unorganized response means people are standing around, becoming misdirected or taking action that further complicates the chaos of the emergency. In a worst case scenario, first responders’ safety can be compromised in friendly fire or an accident or victims may suffer from increased response time due to chaos.
The recent report of the Boston Bombing shootout highlights these risks. While overall leadership and coordination at the command level was strong, “’the [shooting] scene became a tangle of police vehicles with flashing lights that impeded the ambulance transporting the injured officer to the hospital and hampered pursuit of the surviving suspect,’ according to the authors of the 50-page report by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership.”
In training for incident commanders I always recommend they select one of their most capable subordinates to manage the staging area. No one wants to be away from the action. The conventional wisdom is this support function can be done by anyone. In the western part of the United States wildfires are a major and recurring emergency. The fire management authorities in those states have made the staging and organization of responding units a science. This is of paramount importance when several simultaneous fires are drawing on the same resource pool.
In telling the story of an emergency response the media often wants to evaluate the effectiveness of the effort based on the heroism and personal efforts of those involved. In my career I have been at scenes where people exhibited outstanding bravery during misdirected and disorganized operations. Personal courage cannot overcome poor communications or misdirected efforts. It is not about the courage of the responders. It’s about the effectiveness of the organization during the response.