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Real-time Problem Solving in A Crisis

Viewing disaster needs from the bottom up rather than the top down can make all the difference in response.

In an interview for an article in Security Management magazine titled Bringing Clarity to Chaos, by Mark Tarallo, former FEMA chief innovation advisor Desi Martel-Anderson offers a three-step model for real time problem solving in a crisis. While Martel-Anderson applies her model specifically to the development of technology projects in support of response, I believe it offers an interesting perspective that can be applied to any response operation.

The first step in any problem solving is, of course, the identification of the problem. In Martel-Anderson’s model, she suggests defining what the disaster is. In this context, the term “disaster” does not mean the overall event but the specific issue that you are seeking to address. Any disaster consists of multiple responses to different issues. A residential hotel fire, for example, may require fire suppression, evacuation, and sheltering, each of which may be the responsibility of different agencies and require different methodologies. Being clear about what you are trying to accomplish is a critical factor in formulating an effective response.

Martel-Anderson next suggests creating a “challenge statement” that defines who is being served by the response and why the response is necessary. This understanding is crucial to targeting services. Following the Northridge earthquake, the Los Angeles encountered a problem in sheltering its large Hispanic population. Aside from the obvious language barrier, many of those evacuated had experienced major earthquakes in Mexico City and Nicaragua and were reluctant to enter congregate shelters because they feared aftershocks. Understanding this social issue helped the city to decide to support outdoor sheltering rather than trying to force people indoors.

The third step in Martel-Anderson’s model is the formulation of a solution. By understanding the problem and who is being served and why, formulating an effective solution becomes a matter of selecting the best solution for those being served. It allows planners to view potential solutions through the eyes of those being helped and can prevent problems of miscommunication and embarrassment. During Hurricane Iniki a well-intentioned operations person sought to reduce the high incidence of foot injuries by ordering work boots for disaster victims, an item that wasn’t culturally accepted in Hawaii.

The key point of this model is one that we would do well to keep in mind in all our planning: view everything from the perspective of the end user. This approach can focus and simplify our efforts and ultimately will be more effective than just assuming we know what is needed.

Lucien Canton is a management consultant specializing in helping managers lead better in crisis. He has been in turn a professional soldier, a private security manager, and an emergency manager before becoming a consultant.