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Training the hands for disaster recovery

The Pentagon recently showcased a presentation of disaster response technologies by an alliance called Transportable Infrastructures for Development and Emergency Support (TIDES). The systems displayed used IT and other methods to provide food, water, sanitation, telecommunications and other services to refugees and others who have been harmed by natural or human disasters.

TIDES participants set up their technology demonstrations, which ranged from satellite ground stations to an innovative, yurt-like structure, in the grassy area inside the Pentagon's "doughnut hole."

The organizations participating in TIDES do so without a formal, top-down governance structure, according to Linton Wells, National Defense University distinguished research professor.

TIDES is a voluntary coalition of government agencies, corporations, nonprofit organizations and military units that have jointly developed technologies for disaster response and relief. It does not have a corporate vehicle per se that serves as a governance structure, Wells said.

During a recent tour of the TIDES exhibits, Wells emphasized that hierarchical enterprise architectures create information silos that hinder exchange of data and effective cooperation.

Wells' comments reflected the strengths that a decentralized organization structure can bring to a disaster situation.

But certain experiences with disaster assistance call into question the approach of a hivemind love-in to address refugee situations and natural disasters.

For example, during the Katrina calamity, the Coast Guard proved to be the most capable organization for search and rescue in the early days after the event because of its hierarchical ability to redeploy resources without discussion. The preexisting array of government and social institutions had been destroyed and the remaining local residents did not spontaneously form self-help organizations.

But every Coastie who arrived at the Katrina disaster area had been trained in the fundamentals and in many cases the finer details of how to carry out the tasks needed to help disaster victims. Military basic training does not follow Robert's Rules of Order.

One need only consider the unenviable job of a physician who has been charged with the responsibility for "triage" at a disaster hospital, or sorting who will get what level of medical care.

Triage is not a situation where inviting the opinions of stakeholders, such as relatives, would facilitate the disaster response. The fact of the matter in that rather ghastly situation is, some must die so that many others may live.

The history of disaster relief efforts is besmirched by examples of theft or destruction of disaster response materials as a result of poor planning or inadequate protection of goods such as food supplies.

As this blog entry is written, for example, news reports circulate that Darfur refugees now living in camps in neighboring Chad are being preyed upon by janjaweed militia murderers and thieves who have pursued them from their homes in Sudan.

Well, fact is, a roundtable discussion of how to respond to these problems is not the best approach.

When push comes to shove, hierarchical organizations do well in using deadly force to protect the weak from the strong.

In the words of the 144th Psalm:

Blessed is the Lord my Rock
Who trains my hands for war,
And my fingers for battle--
My loving kindness and my fortress,
My high tower and my deliverer,
My shield and the One in whom I take refuge,
Who subdues my people under me.

Posted by Wilson P. Dizard III on Nov 21, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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