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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Every Emergency Plan Needs a Little Chaos

Emergencies are chaotic.

Why? Because human behavior is hard to predict, particularly during a crisis.

That’s why emergency managers find truth in the old military saying that “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Even experts with years of experience cannot prepare for every possible contingency once human beings become involved. City planners and state governors are particularly aware of this challenge as they struggle to protect their citizens from manmade disasters or natural events, such as hurricanes and fires.

PERSPECTIVE: Every Emergency Plan Needs a Little Chaos Homeland Security TodayDuring this busy 2018 hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Preparedness Month is a good time to re-evaluate our approach to emergency planning. So, here’s an idea: instead of fearing chaos, what if we embrace it?

Experience shows introducing an element of chaos can significantly improve emergency planning. Combining simulations with realistic experiments involving people who have the freedom to make mistakes teaches valuable lessons. Simulation allows you to explore the results of those “mistakes” – including multiple “what if” scenarios – and ultimately create stronger plans. The main idea is not only to create a plan, but to also “experiment” with it.

During one simulation of a terrorist event at a university, we found that engaging with the public one-on-one improved situational awareness and helped decision makers respond more effectively during emergencies. Simulated experiments can be customized for any situation. With the latest tools and technologies, it is possible to create a realistic synthetic environment representing a full range of stakeholders: first responders, law enforcement, university presidents and students, football stadium owners and fans. In some cases, volunteers are directed by a command center to go into the field and act out various catastrophes. In other cases, the volunteers work without a script.

To understand the levels of experimentation available, think of the pyramid structure. At the base are the statistical predictions, such as the Monte Carlo simulation, which model the probability of different outcomes. As you climb the pyramid to each narrower level above, the amount of human involvement increases, from simple tabletop games up to field events in an operational environment. Each new level helps you achieve greater operational fidelity. Simulated events play a key role in this hierarchy as they introduce the human factor at a cost that is well below a full-scale field event. Insights gained from the simulated environment experiment can then inform a field event, making it a much richer activity – by performing the simulation first, far greater value is realized for the investment.

Many critical insights (and some flat-out surprises) can emerge in a simulated experiment where chaos can flourish and do its work. For instance, in one simulation we discovered that two key stakeholders were unable to communicate with one another during the emergency, and that people turn to Twitter when they should be dialing 911. In another, we measured the impact of a new technology to track identifications during a crisis like a mass shooting. We have also worked with emergency managers to test products and tools to help local officials with a rebuild effort after an aerosolized anthrax attack.

As former FEMA director Craig Fugate said, “The most perishable and precious commodity in disaster response is time, and you never get it back.” Simulations can reduce that response time, save lives, and cut costs. These experiments demonstrate which tools work well, which don’t, where the gaps and redundancies are, and where to target resources most effectively. They show us the reality of an emergency and the ways in which our plans succeed and fail. We see how we really behave, which is not always how we expect people to behave.

So, if you are improving emergency preparedness, give those plans some exercise by introducing a little chaos. No doubt, you’ll find some surprises – and now is a far better time than in the midst of an emergency.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Yosry Barsoum
Yosry Barsoum
Yosry Barsoum is vice president and director of the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute (HSSEDI) at The MITRE Corporation. HSSEDI is the FFRDC that MITRE manages for the Department of Homeland Security. The MITRE Corporation is working to solve some of the nation’s biggest problems in defense, cybersecurity, healthcare, homeland security, and the judiciary. MITRE is a systems engineering company committed to the public interest, operating seven federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) on behalf of U.S. government sponsors.

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