Crisis Response

Anyone looking at the cover of Surprise Attack would likely feel that it is all about military action – and to a large extent that is true. The idea behind the book was to explore an extended series of crises in an exploration of how American national command authority prepares and responds to real time emergencies. 

The first instance of a truly national crisis response is seen in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The management of that crisis was largely made possible due to the fact that it occurred near the end of World War I, with the American public already conditioned to national needs, having accepted both rationing and a military draft. The major advances in sanitation and medical treatment during the war had also created a public appreciation and acceptance of scientific medical practices – professional advice on prevention, diagnostics and treatment was a major factor in controlling the pandemic to the extent that was possible.

Of course national command authority itself has dramatically evolved in the following decades, most dramatically after the attacks at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines (the latter of which deserves a great more attention than it normally gets in these matters) of World War II, the first major emergency in which technology and particularly improved communications allowed quickly organizing the nation’s total resources to respond to a crisis.

Centralized command and response dramatically changed following the war, with the threat of nuclear attack. Atomic warfare demanded a totally new speed in response, either the threat was detected within half an hour and effectively met within 15 minutes of decision time or a preemptive attack could end a war before the public was even aware it had begun.

A complex and highly integrated system was developed to do just that, unfortunately such systems tend to be “tuned” for one very specific type of crisis and one specific type of threat. Which explains why in November, 2001 the system proved ineffectual against a totally different type of threat. That same lesson was learned once again in 2005, when the disaster of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that the nation remained vulnerable to other types of crises.

Still, lessons can be learned, and one of the major lessons of Katrina was that effective environmental response requires the same type of preparation, training and practice as do military threats (which with the resurgence of biochemical terrorism become not unlike major epidemics).

 It all becomes a matter of readiness – and readiness requires practice, communications and to a large extent “continuity”.  In Surprise Attack Chapter 20 details those elements and illustrates one of the real risks, the loss of continuity and the failure of national level officials to participate in exercises. As with military response, if the president and the nation’s most senior officers to not involve themselves in such exercises, if they do not go through the tension and education learned during realistic simulations – they fail to perform in real crises.  That should be no surprise, emergency responders know that, so do the personnel of any operational military unit.

During most of the decade of 2000 and into the following decade, this lesson stayed fresh and the exercises were frequent, with national command level participation.  At this point in time it is somewhat unclear whether that has tapered off in recent years; I suspect it has.  One way to check is to explore the agencies which conduct such exercises and see what’s going on.  I recommend that for everyone’s own education and these are some links that may help:

Click to access NEP_2019-2020_Cycle_Overview_Sheet.pdf

Click to access NEP_Principals_Strategic_Priority_5_Summary_Sheet.pdf


7 responses »

  1. AnthonyM says:

    I would certainly recommend the book. Whilst I originally read it to consider how events in 1963 compared to other crises it is of course, sadly, rather topical today (with the added advantage of being thick enough to help pass the time in self isolation, as and when!).
    It is very interesting to watch the different strategies at play and how they will pan out. There seems to be a ‘Chinese’ model of maximum containment prioritising minimising health impact, presumably with view that this is better politically for the Party longer term. That contrasts with the main western approach which seems to have largely (but not always) given up on containment and is prioritising spreading the pandemic out over time to minimise economic disruption. The latter may be ruthlessly logical for a virus that is quite infectious and with no vaccine but both approaches will have consequences and it will be fascinating to watch how they play out.

  2. larryjoe2 says:

    Good point, on the self isolation – I hadn’t thought about but several of my books are thick enough (and dense enough) to support self isolation for a considerable time while encouraging sleep and thereby reducing stress. Not exactly my original goal but still…

    And as you note it would be very interesting to map out the crisis response with this pandemic to the command and control practices of various regimes. One of the things that strikes me is that the Trump Administration is leaving a huge amount of the response to State governments – which means that state responses are varying dramatically. Here in Oklahoma the State government according to the last press release yesterday is doing little more than “aggressively monitoring” the situation and has implemented no initiative for testing or policies on public gatherings. That is response is largely political and in most instances has only local consequences. However a pandemic is no respecter of state lines which means if for some reason it does get a foothold here the pace of infection could be catastrophic.

    The second is that it also appears that Federal agencies not to mention the military services are each operating relatively independently as well, not a traditional response. As an example, we have a major military base here with large numbers deployed back and forth over seas. Currently something like 20 individuals are “self quarantined” but not being tested because they don’t meet CDC criteria for testing – whatever that might be – an approach almost impossible to fathom and unlike any other country as far as I can tell.

    I really can’t think of a historical instance since WWII where the US has initiated such a fragmented response to a national crisis.

  3. AnthonyM says:

    uum, yes…

    Interestingly there has been quite a bit of attention given to the US situation in media coverage over here in the UK in the last couple of days, which sadly does seem broadly consistent with your concerns. In Europe Germany may also have some difficulties arising out of it’s government structure with a lot of he relevant powers resting with the various Lander. The situation in the USA is quite staggering though and unfortunately probably means the true incidence of COVID-19 is significantly under-reported…and with 27 million citizens without health insurance.

    I would modify my previous comment slightly in that it seems we in the UK are adopting a different approach to others at the moment (at least in public) in that there is no pretence of trying to stop this thing and its a planned strategy of spreading out the epidemic to lower the peak and move the peak into mid-summer when our NHS will have less pressure on it from other conditions (and disruption to power supplies etc will have less impact).

    The UK strategy is ruthlessly logical, but it does rather rest on the assumptions about 80% or more cases not being detected being correct. I hope to goodness they are correct in that (as does seem possible from other data on other corona viruses…). Best evidence suggests that for this to work and get herd immunity by the end of year means about 60% of the population need to be exposed to it by then, which in the UK is 40 million people. If the assumptions on undetected cases are right that will still lead to a very significant number of deaths but if they are materially wrong it may create very significant social and political strains.

    Considering what happened with Hurricane Katrina, the disjointed response and the nature of your health system, the current situation represents a very serious political risk for the current administration in the USA as it seems quite likely that the numbers of deaths (more easily detected than cases) will increase significantly in coming weeks and months.

    What joy…

    • larryjoe2 says:

      I suspect that the real difference in strategy is that you have one, right or wrong, and we remain simply in react mode. Our fundamental mistake was likely starting with the assumption that it could be contained rather than simply accepting it as an aggressive virus and immediately going to mediation, being up front about the anticipated infection curve and the numbers that would be infected, need treatment and even the estimated fatality rates.

      It would probably have been best just to treat it as a vicious strain of flu and go to combat mode, trying to keep the curve as flat as possible so as to minimize the strain on the medical facilities. Which of course is what China and South Korea did (in China’s case the info might have not been made public but you can be sure it was projected). With our approach it has to spike as soon as we really begin quantity testing.

      Which takes me back to the issue of command and control, pandemics should be one of the things we routinely exercise and not just with first respondents but with the classic high level decision making and war gaming – which quickly tells you what data you need to make decisions, sets time lines and related penalties and brings educates the top of the chain of command with what advice they have to have to make decisions. At the risk of being nasty, that hardly ever involves having your son in law write your fire side chat to the nation.

      The professionals understand all this and lay out exercises for civilian disasters ranging from weather disasters to geological to medical. But if the top of the chain of command does not become involved with those exercises before a real one happens – this is what you get. It would be nice to think lessons would be learned but there is precious little sign that institutional leaning survives from one administration to the next.

  4. AnthonyM says:

    Can but agree.

    On a more cheery note, once the USA get moving it tends to really get moving in a big way (although an FDR / George Marshall ‘New Deal’ type mentality would probably be useful at the moment)

  5. larryjoe2 says:

    In this instance I think certain parts of the economy will recover and do so within six months to a year, probably not sooner. But those parts will be in the essential infrastructure industries and services. The issue is that American is now a service economy largely based on consumer demand and we have already fallen well behind demand in a couple of the most in demand services – relating to health care and servicing an aging population. You can’t rebound there without training and education and career commitments that take some time – we could with certain programs, a national health core would be one but the sort of thinking for such things is not in fashion at the moment. This health emergency will stress an already fragile system beyond any quick rebuild without quick political acknowledgement of the already existing problem.

    This pandemic will also condition people away from several service oriented activities – eating out, large sports and cultural events – for longer, certainly until we get on demand testing and a vaccine. Overall I think the article I will link in below is very much on the money – other than in one important aspect. It expresses that it took a very short time to get to a national emergency. That is simply untrue. National emergencies of any sort become visible quite quickly, minutes, hours, days at the most. A more accurate statement would be that in this instance we were in denial and simply failed to officially recognize a national emergency existed – much less to respond to it. A response such as we saw from the governor of my state (aggressively monitoring the situation for literally weeks) provides an excellent example of how not to respond to an actual emergency.

  6. larryjoe2 says:

    Those following this post should find the following interesting. Its a study of an epidemic crisis response exercise. I listened to one individual who participated in an exercise during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. One of the points he made was on the continuity issue I originally noted. He said that there was certainly participation and attention by a number of the Trump appointees – however at this point in time no more than some 30% are still with the administration. The retention is worse the higher up the chain of command you go.

    That sort of thing compromises the entire effort and I’m still trying to find examples of similar, more recent exercises.

    This study did make absolutely clear the new measures that should have been taken:

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