The Lessons of Flint – Firestorm CEO Harry Rhulen talks to ASIS

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Flint WaterThe crisis in Flint, Michigan, which resulted in local residents ingesting dangerous levels of lead from their drinking water, is an emergency on all levels of government and a national tragedy.  “Getting clean water is literally what decides whether you live or die. We were poisoning our own people,” says Harry Rhulen, CEO of the crisis management firm Firestorm and a member of the ASIS Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council.

The crisis, which unfolded over the course of the last few years, also touches on many critical issues of emergency and crisis management—an illustrative case that provides several lessons learned, especially regarding where the response functions may have faltered. In separate interviews, Rhulen and two other crisis council members, Jerome Hauer and Hart Brown, recently discussed and analyzed the Flint emergency with Security Management.

“Situations like this generally occur not as a result of a single decision or event, but as a result of a progressive series of decisions,” says Brown, who leads the organizational resilience practice for insurance brokerage HUB International. “In this case, ignored warning signals, inaccurate assessments, inattention to feedback from the residents, and the force of momentum with financial goals ultimately led to the health [crisis].”

The crisis started when the state of Michigan declared that Flint was in a fiscal emergency and assumed control of the city’s finances; in October 2013, Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to oversee city operations.

As a result, Flint found itself in a potentially problematic situation, common in jurisdictions across the country—having an emergency manager who is a political appointee with insignificant emergency management training and experience. “We’ve seen this over and over again,” explains Hauer, who has worked in emergency management for several U.S. mayors and governors, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Hauer is now a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Nonetheless, as a cost-cutting move, the state-controlled city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. The move was considered temporary until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready under a new regional water system.

According to Rhulen, the decision to switch water sources is similar to the decisions that managers of all stripes, including security managers, make on a regular basis. In considering those decisions, the cost savings are examined versus the potential for damage if the decision does not work out.

But in Flint’s case, officials did not sufficiently evaluate the possible hazards—which in the case of a public water supply are immense. “The potential for damage is so huge,” Rhulen says. Such potential for damage should have required adequate testing before the switch was made, he adds.

Rhulen advocates a “predict, plan, perform” model of crisis management, and says that Flint officials skipped the “predict” step—which requires that managers brainstorm different outcomes and potential problems—when they decided to switch water sources. “The predictive piece is so important,” Rhulen says. “They jumped right to ‘perform.’ No one thought through all of the ramifications.”

Read this Article in full at the ASIS Security Management website

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