The Perils of Worst Day Planning

“The notion that one will not survive a particular catastrophe is, in general terms, a comfort since it is equivalent to abolishing the catastrophe.” -Iris Murdoch

In my business, there’s a line of thinking that advocates planning for the absolute worst case scenario. The idea is that if you’re prepared for that, you can handle anything. Using this thinking, exercises end up being things like:

  • The ENTIRE San Andreas ruptured during a 9+ Richter Scale earthquake.
  • All the people between LA and SF are dead or dying.
  • Giant tsunamis are washing away the Coast Range.
  • Fresno is facing coastal flooding from the Pacific rushing inland.
  • FEMA is on holiday.
  • And the terrorists, seeing the chaos, activated a sleeper cell and launched an Ebola/Smallpox bio attack in Sacramento.

What in the hell do you do with that? If you’re running an Emergency Operations Center you sit down, fish your flask out of your go-bag and start figuring out your next job. Somebody is getting fired over this and we all know it won’t be the elected guys. 9057924573_899cef899d_z

In all honesty, this is a bit more exaggerated than what you usually see, but not by much. I’ve seen more than one scenario with one or more of those exact elements in them. The idea is that the exercise must break the system to discover gaps.

I disagree.

Something like this is a non-starter. It’s so overwhelming that there’s literally nothing people in the impact zone can do. It wipes out the ability to respond right out of the gate…which I suppose is great if you’re testing the ability for other states or the military to take over and save you.

Never a good plan, by the way.

Back in the day, a certain single function program inside a behemoth department inside the beltway (one that also makes you take your shoes off to fly) kept insisting that we develop a plan for a nuclear attack. I refused and told them that if San Francisco suffered a nuclear attack it was going to be a Sacramento problem…there wouldn’t be enough Bay Area left to respond to any sort of sizable nuclear attack. It would have been a waste of resources to prepare for that.

Had they asked us to plan for a low yield Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) that would have been a different story. That would have been a very bad day as opposed to a worst day. Don’t get me wrong, bad is a relative term and even a low yield device is awful, but it doesn’t necessarily incapacitate your ability to respond. That’s the difference.

The idea of preparedness is to be prepared right? If you prepare and test for being wiped out, you’re not really preparing yourself or your organization.

062012_0582It’s like planning to back fire the neighborhood if your stove catches on fire. You need a fire extinguisher or some baking soda, but you won’t think of that if you only think about a conflagration.

Here’s the downside of worst day planning:

  • It simultaneously demotivates people and provides an excuse not think through problems (why bother?)
  • It introduces undue fear into a community
  • It makes solving the problem too hard, too expensive, too complicated and resources get diverted (again…why bother?)

Instead, plan for what’s most likely.

Study your risk and the consequences of the bad things that might happen. Then plan for the most likely bad thing(s) with the biggest impact to you. That’s a bad day.

It’s probably far more mundane than you think. Don’t worry about tsunamis in Idaho. Worry about a long term power outage from any source: a blizzard, a suicidal squirrel, or an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). In the end you still have no power, that’s the consequence you need to deal with.

Wait, you say? Yes, yes I did say EMP. Why you ask…isn’t that a worst day scenario?

I’m glad you asked.

Yes it is, but I wanted to make one last key point about bad day planning. If you’ve planned for not having power you’ve done a few things like obtained generators and figured out how to keep them fueled. You’ve also (or you should have) thought about what to do when the fuel runs dry. How do you operate or survive without power? Your efforts are scalable. The foundation you build buys you time and space to cope with something worse.

An EMP pretty much wipes anything electrical that’s not shielded. It creates a long term power outage, along with a host of really bad downstream consequences (that we’ll discuss in a future post).

If you’ve thought about living without power, then you’re good to go for a while. Your bad day plan is scalable. It’ll get you by for a while as you figure out what comes next, even in the post-apocalyptic world of no Candy Crush and using a card catalog (with a candle).

If you obsess on the EMP you end up digging a bunker and putting Faraday cages on all your stuff. Perfect if it happens, but if all you really need is a flashlight and batteries, you’ve used all your money on one thing (bunkers are expensive and your HOA will probably object) that probably won’t meet your need.

Faraday cages probably won’t help you much if the most likely event with the worst consequences is an earthquake. In that case a backup generator (shield it if you worry about EMP…I’ll meet you half way here), seismically retrofitting your house, and water storage is a much better investment.

My point is use knowledge to plan for the bad days and you’ll have a foundation to scale up to the worst day. If you only plan for the worst day then a relatively minor bad day can rapidly become a worst day.

Or maybe even your last. new-york-4520

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.” -Alan Lakein


The shameless self-promotion bit

Bad days happen. Knowing what to do beforehand can make the difference between a bad day and your last day.

If you’ve not thought about the big picture or managing bad days, we’ll help you figure out what your bad day looks like and develop plans to navigate the event and the aftermath. There’s a lot more to it than evacuating the building and calling 911.

If you already have some plans we’re happy to take a look and give you some feedback on what, if anything, you could do to make them better.

When you’re ready to test, or practice your plans we’ll help you develop exercises and workshops aimed at learning and improvement, not breaking the system looking for failure.

If you’ve recently been through an event and would like an outside expert to help you analyze how things went and determine what worked and what didn’t, we’re here for you.

Remember, preparing for a bad day now may very well save the rest of your days. The investment of time and money is well spent. Think of it like flossing…easy to forget until you’re in the dentist’s chair.

Just click on the contact tab up above and we’ll get back to you straight away.

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