Rethinking major scenarios about upcoming emergencies and disasters

–Worst-case scenarios make predictions easier for crisis management in ways not commonly recognized or appreciated.

Take this example: a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off-shore of Oregon and Washington with aftershocks in the range of magnitude 8.0 and follow-on tsunami impacts, first being a 60ft wall of water coming across the shoreline. In other words, it’s not difficult to predict that this scenario, if realized, lays waste to coastal lives and assets, including critical infrastructures there. Unimaginably bad, yes; but: predictably very bad.

–Now move inland further away from the epicenter. Do such predictions become more difficult? Yes and no.

Yes, because breaks and disruptions that matter in infrastructure interconnections will have been next to impossible to pinpoint ahead of time. No, in that emergency management skills and capabilities honed in lesser disasters predictably become more attenuated and stretched, even when interconnections are pinpointed.

Knowing both these downsides is useful because priorities for emergency managers would focus on what’s left to respond with immediately afterwards. Still unimaginably bad, but: predictably not as bad as along the coast.

–Now let’s be more specific. Assume inland bridges A, B, and C had been seismically retrofitted beforehand, but it turns out that the bridges X, Y and Z were the ones destroyed afterwards. For some, this demonstrates poor planning and the need for much better planning when it comes to future catastrophes.

But what kind of emergency management is to be criticized for pre-disaster mitigation as if emergency managers had not mitigated at all? We expect emergency managers to ask and act on their what-if scenarios beforehand in order to prevent more or different failures than those that arise from catastrophic earthquakes.

Also, for all we know, bridges A, B and C (and their interconnections) would have been affected far worse had they not been pre-mitigated. In other words: yes, still unimaginably bad on the whole, but predictably different with respect to actual impacts.

–More: There is no closure rule to what-is scenarios, including unimaginably worst-case combinations around earthquakes. You don’t need to be professional emergency manager to come up with other nightmare scenarios to keep you awake at night. That too is predictable. For some, this lack of a closure rule is itself the well-established nightmare.

–So then what’s has happened to that much-touted, pervasive unpredictability of our times?

When it comes to on-the-ground emergency response and recovery, unpredictability often comes as more or less differentiated predictabilities. Real-time unpredictability and contingencies carry their own information about systems in failure and that information can be useful for managing or coping ahead differently. Widespread uncertainty is more likely to be differentiated rather than undifferentiated, even in emergencies. As Paul Schulman puts it, uncertainty isn’t the lack of information; it is itself a kind of information about where the sociotechnical systems is in real time as a system.

–So what?

The nub of the unpredictability problem becomes clearer for crisis management. We can and should expect that the more detailed a beforehand catastrophic scenario, the more likely actual on-the-ground events will deviate from that scenario.

But that doesn’t matter as much as the beforehand planning and coordination processes involving professionals skilled and experienced enough to differentiate what-if scenarios and further differentiate the details. More, they do so for the purposes of both strategy and tactics, even when (especially when) conditions are to be unimaginably bad and predictably so.

Principal source

P.R. Schulman (2021). “Reliability, uncertainty and the management of error: New perspectives in the Covid-19 Era.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management DOI: 10:1111/1468-5973.12356

See also blog entry: “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics”

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