Don’t Just Prepare for Disasters Passed

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading Rumsfeld’s Rules, a bit of a memoir by former Congressman, Secretary of Defense (twice over), and CEO Donald Rumsfeld.  Much of the book is highlighted by quotes which have influenced him in various stages of his life.  One of his anecdotes references the Maginot Line, a multi-layered defensive system created by the French after World War I along their border with Germany, intended to protect France from any future invasion from Germany.  The Maginot Line would have proven a rather effective defense, had Germany used similar strategies in World War II as they had in World War I.  Obviously the Nazis were quite successful in their invasion of France, quickly conquering and occupying the nation.  The difference was that the Nazis were fighting a new war, whereas France was preparing to fight the last war – which is the quote Rumsfeld references with this anecdote.

What can we learn from this in emergency management and homeland security?  It can’t possibly apply to us, can it?  Obviously we base many of our plans and preparations on disasters of the past.  We have an in-depth trove of information from sources like LLIS which allow us to learn from past disasters.  Much of our hazard analysis is based upon what occurred in the past.  We study past disasters, examining them from inception through recovery, arm-chair quarterbacking all facets of response – from command, to organization, to logistics.  From this we learn what practices to embrace and what needs to be improved upon.  Since we’re quoting, it was Benjamin Franklin who said “Experience the best teacher.”

To the contrary, we have a rather prolific saying in emergency management that no two disasters are alike.  So why all this effort to examine the past?  There is a lot to be learned from the past.  As previously mentioned, we spend a lot of time and effort examining earlier disasters so we can learn from them.  While every disaster is different, there are also many commonalities – all of which we can better prepare for.  The past also puts disasters and their magnitude in context for us.  We can’t be stuck in the past, however.  While the next disaster may have similarities to one passed, there will be differences.  It is our job and our responsibility to predict to the greatest extent of our efforts what the impacts will be of future disasters, as well as the hazards they will stem from.  Yes we must learn from the past, but we must always look to the future.

How do we look into the future?  Reconvene your planning groups and discuss this new context.  Engage members to continually reassess what is changing – in the climate, the geography and landscape, and the new or changed technological hazards in our areas.  We must look beyond our borders both literally and figuratively as I outlined in a previous post, and consider all possibilities.  Use exercises which introduce scenarios new to us instead of those based upon disasters of the past to help us contextualize this and better prepare.

My challenge to you – Take an honest look at your plans, policies, procedures, and training – are you preparing to fight the last war or the next one?

© 2014 Timothy Riecker

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