Heroic Actions or Mindless Mistakes

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I recently read an article, What not to do in a disaster, courtesy of the BBC. It’s an exceptional article, and it opens with the astute observation that surviving in a disaster is not about taking heroic actions, but rather about avoiding mindless mistakes.

Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal, Colorado

Dr. Leonard Marcus of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that, in the face of an emergency or disaster, every single human being will, without fail, automatically behave in one of three ways; we’ll freeze in place, we’ll flee the scene or we’ll fight. Dr. Marcus calls those responses, “going to the basement” because they’re governed by our limbic complex, the base of our brain. Dr. Marcus also says that, while people will eventually recover from that initial reaction and get out of “the basement,” they’ll recover much more quickly if they have a plan and have practiced that plan, even just in their minds. Everyone who has ever flown should recall from the flight attendants’ preflight safety briefings that they are supposed to have looked around and found the nearest emergency exit. What’s not said is that we should all then think about how we would actually get to that exit, and we would do so without stopping to retrieve our baggage from the overhead bin (which will probably be jammed), and then get out of the airplane. I’ve practiced emergency egress from an airplane. It’s not as easy as you might think.

In the broader world, there are an almost infinite number of things that can go seriously wrong confronting us with emergencies and disasters. While we should think about which of that infinite number are mostly likely, we can’t have a plan for everything, but we can have detailed plans for the most likely and then categorize everything else into:

  • I have to evacuate (this is different than fleeing because, in an evacuation, you have a safe place to go rather than blindly running from the site).
  • I have to shelter where I am or very near by (this is different than freezing because you are intentionally finding a safe/sheltered place rather than being paralyzed in place).
  • I have to take action against someone or something (sometimes this is different from fighting because you have specific actions you need to take rather than simply doing the Taz, the Tasmanian Devil, thing).

With detailed plans in place for the most likely emergencies and disasters, and having thought through evacuating (run), sheltering (hide) and taking action (fight), you’re in a position where you can avoid those mindless mistakes like the man who, in the face of a raging brushfire ran back into his house in California several years ago to save his cat. He died, but the cat (which he apparently never found) survived without him.

All of this is captured under PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.

In the world of smart phones and video/photo social media, the most important mindless mistake to not make is to take a selfie with the disaster roaring down on you (tsunami or tornado or avalanche or whatever in the background). While it will make a great image for the newspaper, you won’t be around to appreciate it.


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