Improv in Emergency Management

In emergency management we put a lot of emphasis on planning and training, and rightfully so.  Deliberate planning establishes a foundation for our actions, thought out well ahead of any incident or disaster we might deal with.  Further, most training we receive is necessarily sterile.  We are trained how to respond to, organize, and manage incidents and the various facets of them.  To learn the elements and procedures being taught, we must first learn them in their most raw form, free of other distractions.  We also know that in reality, our plans and training only get us so far.

I’ve recently been reading American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11 by James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf.  This is an incredible book, the story of which I only knew small pieces of.  It tells of boat operators and waterfront workers who supported the mass evacuation of people from Manhattan as well as the delivery of responders, equipment, relief supplies, and services proximate to ground zero.  This book is well researched and supported by a multitude of interviews and other accounts of the heroism and actions taken following the attacks.

One of the themes that struck me early in the book was that of improvisation.  For over a year now, I’ve been taking improv classes and doing some performances.  We have an outstanding group of people and I’ve learned a lot, not only on the stage, but skills that I can apply across various aspects of my life, from work and podcasting to social situations.  While I’ve always intuitively known that our emergency plans only get us so far and then we basically have to make things up, I never actually labeled it as ‘improv’.

Kendra and Wachtendorf state “Since it is difficult to anticipate everything, communities need to be able to improvise as well as plan ahead.” They further elaborate that “Theatrical improvisers exercise skills that allow them to perform skits and routines spontaneously.  They are making things up as they go, but they know which principles to pull together.  They know how to make use of props and cues and the environment closest to them.  Instead of following a scripted plan, improv performers match what they know and what they have at hand.”  Consider this in the context of emergency management.  Does it sound familiar?  It certainly should.

We use our plans as a foundation.  We should continue to endeavor to make those plans as solid as possible without being unwieldy, while still recognizing that for a period of time, certainly early in the incident and very likely at other periodic times throughout, chaos rules.  Circumstances take us away from the pages of the plan, but that doesn’t mean that we have lost control, it simply means that we need to improvise to bring the incident back into line with our assumptions, or, if it’s not possible, we are developing a new plan in the moment.  Even if we have deviated from the plan, the principles contained within the plan still hold incredible value.  They become touchstones for us, reminding us what must be accomplished and what our principles for managing the disaster are.

Collectively, I challenge everyone to flex some improv muscles.  This can tie to several things.  First, take some improv classes.  Many larger urban areas have them available.  Don’t be afraid to try something different.  Next, find opportunities where you can use your plans as a foundation, but with scenarios that may deviate from the plan.  Even if it’s a zombie attack scenario, which may sound silly, but when you break it down to many of the fundamental impacts (infrastructure, public health, mass care, civil unrest, etc.) many jurisdictions already have a lot of the planning in place.  Some creativity with a scenario like this or another, forces people to think outside the box and work together to solve problems, which is what improv is all about.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the topic.

© 2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC ℠®

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