In April, it was impossible to ignore the countless news reports on the H1N1 flu “epidemic.” It dominated headlines for most of the month, from informative pieces in The New York Times to sensational, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it reports on TV, to satirical coverage on programs like Jon Stewart's Daily Show.
It also called to mind the many national emergencies FM has covered in the past, from 9-11 to Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Katrina, to the San Francisco earthquake in 1989.
In each of these and other cases, real crises emerged that had long been predicted. Yet in each case, advance planning, and real-time emergency responses, were far from adequate. It's a story that repeats itself again and again, and seems ingrained in the way Americans respond to crises. Time after time, we demonstrate that we are not very good at evaluating the extent of relative risk or at making the right kinds of preparations for emergencies that only have a chance of happening.
I spoke about this to Sandy Smith, executive editor of EHS Today (Environment Health & Safety) another Penton magazine that is read by safety, health and environmental managers across the public and private sectors (you can check out its suggestions for pandemic planning at www.ehstoday.com). She also edits newsletters targeted to first responders and other emergency personnel, and had just returned from Geneva, Switzerland.
Sandy was there to interview project managers at the World Health Organization (WHO) who are responsible for emergency response and pandemic planning. By chance, she was also there on the morning WHO was notified of the outbreak of H1N1 influenza in Mexico.
“I think the media often makes the inevitable chaos worse,” she says. “There is a tendency to make everything into a crisis. When that is not yet appropriate, it causes people to disregard issues that are still of real concern. They are quickly oversaturated with information and warnings, and then do not pay enough attention when the warnings become real and urgent.”
More recently, I talked about the same issues with Rafi Taherian, executive director of dining at Yale University. He has a long record of planning for such contingencies, going back to his former role at Stanford University.
“We need sound plans in place because a university may suddenly find itself with 15,000 people on campus with nowhere to go,” he says. “We must plan not only for their safety, but also for the protection of infrastructure, resumption of critical services and continuity of operations in case an emergency affects the availability of employees or supplies.”
One thing Taherian did recently was to require staff to view the PBS documentary, Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History. For many, he says, it is a great surprise to learn that a disease can strike so rapidly that you could begin to experience symptoms one day and be dead the next. That as much as one-third of the world's population became infected, and that as many as five percent those who were infected died. Or that 11,000 could die from the flue in a single month in a city like Philadelphia.
“One big point the documentary makes is that, in a crisis, many people and bureacracies seem driven to do something immediately, even if it's the wrong thing to do,” Taherian says.
“We would be much better off asking ourselves if we are really prepared for an unexpected emergency,” he adds. “And if not, what do we need to do to become better prepared? How often do we review, practice and critique the emergency preparedness plans so many of us already have on the shelf?”
Finally, I asked the corporate director of foodservice for a large, international financial firm for his take on pandemic planning.
“You have to look beyond the ‘window dressing’ common to contingency planning activities at many companies,” he says.
“We take it very seriously at the top levels of our organization. And I've found there are significant differences in terms of how much planning has really taken place at many firms, and among those in the supplier and contractor communities we depend on.
“In a true emergency, the agreements you have on paper do not matter. What matters is whether your business partners are as prepared for a disruption as you hope to be. Directors need to investigate carefully what kind of planning has really taken place.”
Indeed, when it comes to contingency planning, “the window is always open.” It is an opportunity to reasonably prepare, to evaluate relative risk, to think about how we might respond to the unexpected.
And the truth is, we can never really shut the window. Despite even the best planning, it will always be open. We can only try our best to be ready in case something unexpectedly flies in.
“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened up the window,
And In-Flew-Enza!” *
* a childhood play-yard rhyme from 1918, as reported in the PBS documentary, 1918—The Worst Epidemic in American History.