I have a theory: we often don’t know what good response looks like

25 April 2007

Case study 1: I look forward to a cold day at work. Living in 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent humidity all day, I find frost on the car after a night of stargazing, or to dropping in to the upper left hand corner of the windchill chart something of a relief. I get a lot of guff from co-workers for bringing a large duffel bag of winter clothes with me every time I go up to work, and when I offer them some, they usually reply that they’ll be okay, even though the worst chill they look dressed for is eating ice cream. The dichotomy continues as I add layers and lurk outside while they begin to shiver and stay inside longer and longer

I say this not to illustrate moral superiority, you understand, and I certainly don’t find masochistic fun in being cold. Having spent several years in Fairbanks, Alaska, I recognize cold when I see it, and have the right kit to go out in it. My observation, then, is that people who have not spent a lot of time in the cold expect that they will feel it no matter what.

Case study 2: A fire chief I used to work for had an adage about being an emergency responder. It was a sort of consolation that, even if you didn’t solve the emergency you got called for, you did prevent it from becoming a bigger emergency. The chief put this forth in response to questions about not taking extreme measures to put out a house fire; many emergency responders are familiar with the injunction to “risk a little to save a little, risk a lot to save a lot.” In this instance, any property counts as “a little,” whereas life generally counts as “a lot.”

Another way to think about this is that once your house is on fire, you’re already having a pretty bad day, and while you expect the fire department to show up, it doesn’t really turn into a good day after that. They can generally fulfill expectations by arriving with lights and sirens blaring and industrial-sized demolition tools swinging, and then by leaving covered in soot and soaking wet, without any attention paid to what happens in between.

This post is neither a criticism of professional skill among emergency responders nor a tirade about the moral turpitude of folks from warm climates. It is a discussion of the wide range of situations where we often don’t recognize the difference between a good response and a bad one. It is possible, as my old fire chief said, to save every other house even if the one you were called to burns down. But we have to expect that, and recognize that our emergency response will never be perfect. The fear of the pendulum swinging too far the other way, with public officials strung up for every piece of property not preserved, I suspect is one of the forces keeping those same officials from pushing too hard for evaluation and oversight of disasters. But those who do their jobs well and know how to prove as much should be willing to proactively educate and build support.

I can think of a couple of other examples of disciplines where those within don’t try to hard to correct the impressions of those without, but does anybody else have any insight into this phenomenon?

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