Sunday, September 17, 2006

Being Prepared for the Unthinkable

We grew up with fire drills in the schools that our young minds thought were a bore although it was nice to get outside. In our post 9/11 world, we are now confronted with the call to add another drill: practicing a plan of action when someone terrorizes us with guns or any other behaviours that threaten our security and safety. In the aftermath of the Dawson College tragedy in Montreal where an alienated 25 year old male randomly shot at anyone in his path, I am struck by the lack of preparedness of the administration and teachers.

One rationale mentioned in the media was that such an act was “a rare occurrence”. True enough as the statistics bear out. But, when it happens and people are severely injured or lose their lives, the price of not planning for something that in all likelihood will not happen seems too steep.

As we know, such random acts are not confined to schools. Any place where people meet and work is a forum for a disturbed individual. Thus, our workplaces are as vulnerable as schools. To what extent are we prepared for the kind of act that occurred in Montreal?

Generally we have learned from history turning the lessons into “for the public good” legislation and a myriad of bargaining unit agreements. In the interests of healthier learning and workplace environments, educational institutions and many others have voluntarily put into place harassment, bullying and other related policies and practices to underscore management’s commitment to our safety and security. However, it’s my guess (I have not done the research), that we are less consistent across the board on emergency plans and drills for dealing with dangerous individuals who can do extreme harm in a matter of minutes.

I refer more to low cost, low tech means than to building design, door systems, cameras, metal detectors and additional security personnel. Months ago I happened by chance as I was surfing TV channels to catch a documentary that is relevant to this subject. It described the training that some US schools are providing to staff and students on what to do if the Dawson College scenario occurs. The preparedness plan primarily focused on having a mental plan of action---recognizing quickly what is unfolding and making wise decisions on the spot to reduce personal danger. In reading the newspapers and watching the TV coverage, teachers at Dawson College seemed woefully unprepared to provide the necessary leadership to handle the crisis. I am assuming that there were no drills pertinent to that type of scenario to help them automatically spring into action.

Good fortune and the quick action of the Quebec police proved that taking the lessons of history seriously and creating a better plan of action do produce better results. In this case, less lives lost and fewer people with physical injuries.

It is a sad commentary on the world today that multifaceted “disaster management” is rising higher on the priority list for leaders. Our front line emergency personnel and disaster specialists are well aware that an emergency plan is only the tip of the iceberg. With no shortage of disasters from which to draw lessons (9/11, Walkerton, SARs, AIDs, Katrina, various terrorist plots, global warming…), leaders of all stripes are increasingly recognizing that a systemic approach is the most effective. Prevention, preparation and smart action combined strengthen the robustness of solutions to big issues. On the flip side, too much/too little attention to one part of the system reduces the opportunity for solutions that work both in the short and long term.

Hence, “seeing the whole picture” (or being open to exploring it) is a more pressing skill for leaders in our current world locally and globally. As James Lovelock said in 1979 when he coined the term “Gaia” to describe earth as a single, planet-sized organism where all things are interconnected:

“There must be an intricate security system to ensure that exotic outlaw species do not evolve into rampantly criminal syndicates…”

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