Complexity and Emergency Reactiveness

This past weekend a fire broke out in a large apartment block in Canada’s most dense and multi-ethnic communities.

The fire, not as large as one could imagine when you hear “6-alarm blaze”, was still far greater in its impact than its size would suggest. As of last night, there remain 1700 people unable to return home. The building’s structural integrity is now in question, which could pose even further problems for a community that is not well prepared to cope with it. Reading through the stories of what happened in the community, which is where much my research group‘s work is focused on, it is hard to imagine how difficult it must be for people living in a modern city to be camped out in makeshift shelters that are propped up throughout the downtown.

One quote from the Torontoist’s coverage points at the cascading set of problems that these problems cause:

“I just want to know what’s going on,” said Romaniuk, a fourteen-year resident of 200 Wellesley Street with long red hair and an accent that was difficult to place. She had arrived home from work last night only to be denied access to her apartment by emergency responders. “At some point I need to get in. I need to go back to work. I have no clothes to go back to work.” She said she’d slept at her cousin’s home, and that she’d do so again tonight, if necessary. For those who had nowhere to go, the Community Centre was filled with cots, draped with Red Cross blankets. Some residents slept at other ad-hoc downtown shelters last night.

Here we see a remarkable dichtomy between the a part of the world where such sites are rare and those parts where such sites are common, perhaps even semi-permanent (PDF). In Toronto, emergency services have done a decent job of handling the crisis and moving quickly to find places to hold residents who are without a home. But what passes for good in these situations is usually a matter of perspective.

The cascading set of problems that these problems cause are usually examples of complexity in action. The interconnectedness between events and the unintended consequences that emerge from simple actions have ramifications that our post-event analyses only scratch the surface upon. They also cause much discussion about the suitability of emergency preparedness plans. Such plans, often designed to help communities respond quickly in a disaster, tend to work well when the parameters are known and the system constraints are reasonably tight. Airplane emergency safety planning is one area. In an emergency, those in a plane have very few options for escape and in those situations where a problem occurs and there is a chance of survival, most of the strategies, imperfect as they are, will do the job of getting people to safety. A plane is a closed system.

Communities are more troublesome beasts. They are open systems and it is virtually impossible to imagine the variety of scenarios that could unfold in the event that a large scale disaster takes place. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed clearly the flaws in both their plan, but also in the mindset that goes into planning in the first place. The mere act of planning is problematic when you consider a complex system.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a plan as:

plan |plan|
1 a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something : the UN peace plan.
• [with adj. ] a scheme for the regular payment of contributions toward a pension, savings account, or insurance policy : a personal pension plan.
2 (usu. plans) an intention or decision about what one is going to do : I have no plans to retire.
3 a detailed diagram, drawing, or program, in particular
• a fairly large-scale map of a town or district : a street plan.
• a drawing or diagram made by projection on a horizontal plane, esp. one showing the layout of a building or one floor of a building. Compare with elevation (sense 3).
• a diagram showing how something will be arranged : look at the seating plan.

Consider the terms. The first is a detailed plan of what you are going to do. This means having some idea of what the context will be, what the parameters are, and the agents involved. How often can we do this reliably?

The second part, intention, is far easier. This is something that one can develop abstract, but focused sets of ideas about what is to be achieved.

The last part is about as problematic as the first.

Colin Powell had a more realistic, complex view of planning:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy

Since Katrina and as the potential spectre of a pandemic influenza sits in our minds, public health has been focusing on emergency preparedness. Thinking in complex terms might enable us to get the best of our intentions to gel with what Powell speaks of: contact. The Toronto fire example provides a decent case for planning, but as the unplanned for consequences begin to reveal themselves (lack of ability to work, loss of pets, missing medication schedules, eating nothing but pizza for three days straight to name a few) the strength of this plan will be forgotten. Considering things as complex from the outset means that plans are no longer solid documents, but fluid, adaptive processes that require new ways of engaging this complexity.

I don’t see much of that. But then, I’m too busy planning for other events that are equally as ludicrous (classes, papers, research projects). Perhaps we all would be wise to heed John Lennon:

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

For those interested in learning more or doing more for those affected by the fire in Toronto, here are some links:

ongoing activities and news:

co-ordination wiki:

fundraising opportunities:

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