This week we learnt that the Fukishima disaster was man made. Not just that it involved a nuclear reactor, but the underlying culture, decision making process and lack of disaster experience all contributed to the extent of the disaster.

It “could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

via: Fukushima Disaster Was Man-Made, Investigation Finds

As a resident of an earthquake prone region, this is troubling, and across many organizations there is an attitude that decision-making and management performance in non-disaster times will be mirrored in a disaster situation. There is a reason the military goes to such lengths to make sure officers are vetted and trained to lead in combat situation, even in the face of certain death. I’m glad we don’t have any nuclear plants in the Vancouver area, but there are plenty of decisions to be made by transportation professionals, structural engineers, water resource engineers and a myriad of others who decisions may impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents.

So what are we to do as a society? Can we naively hope for one of two outcomes? That there will not be an earthquake or when there is one, that decisions will be easy?

It seems like engineers and scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are making progress on a complex disaster management simulator that may shed some light on this field of research:

The prototype features a map of a disaster area projected onto the movie theater-sized screen, with overlays detailing the location of hospitals, power plants, temporary shelters, and many other key landmarks, infrastructure, and critical data. Due to the complexity and interconnectedness of these infrastructure systems and data, responding organizations must collaborate to be effective. The researchers’ new system enables emergency officials from different backgrounds and different agencies to interact with the data collaboratively and at the same time.

The researchers are also developing ways to use this kind of environment to better study decision making. For a variety of reasons, it is rare for researchers to have an opportunity to observe the work of emergency response managers and responding organizations during an actual disaster. So the new technology is able to simulate emergency situations using data from past disasters and other simulations techniques.

This is exciting to see technology being developed to improve training and assessment of leadership and response techniques, as most training scenarios that I’ve been involved in, other than several I was involved in while in the military, feel staged and rarely flow at the speed that real life events occur. The more I read about decision making in stressful conditions, the more I believe that critical response personnel and key decision-makers must be trained and tested to make sure that the decision response process is functional and logical. One of the developers of the simulator is described in the quote below:

Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor David Mendonça is interested in how and why we choose to do the things we do. His expertise lies in investigating the cognitive processes that underlie human decision making. More specifically, he studies decision making in non-routine, high-stress, time-pressured situations. By connecting the dots, you can see how this pursuit led him to studying the cleanup effort at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He’s also interested in how first responders make decisions in emergency and disaster situations.

via: What Engineers Can Learn from Satchmo, Dizzy, and Miles

The world will be a better place if we can measure our ability to respond, and from an engineering perspective, what you can’t measure, you can’t improve. When you read post-mortems from disaster responses around the world, inevitably there is room for improvement in the decision making process, perhaps this area of study will change the way we respond to disasters.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

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