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The Cassandra Paradox

Of warnings and predicaments

I've noticed a disturbing trend. Lets call it the Theory of Successful Blame. Something happens and despite the planning and training and preparedness the situation escalates and the impact is worse (perhaps far worse) than originally anticipated or planned for. For failing to predict the unpredictable or protect the unprotectable, society demands someone be accountable... Theory of Successful Blame...and we feel safer as we attribute the outcomes of a situation to somebody's failures rather than the situation itself.

Not too long ago we talked about what may be the most influential decision that nobody is paying attention to. You’ll recall the Tenet Health/Katrina ruling requiring Tenet to pay 25 million to patients and refugees that took shelter in the hospital during Hurricane Katrina.

Later, in September 2011, I posted on a story from Italy - six seismologists on trial for deaths caused by an earthquake because their warnings were not “aggressive” enough and passed along the story to fellow blogger Jim Garrow (@jgarrow) of The Face of the Matter.  Jim addressed the issue from the warning and information point of view in a recent post.

Jim also shared an important link to blog in his piece pointing to the fact that people turn to the internet during disaster situations.  Until reading Jim's post I was skeptical that social media and internet resources would be a meaningful participant during disaster or crisis situations. I'm still skeptical, albeit somewhat more accepting.

For my part, I believe that warning systems have to tell what to do, when to do it, and why it must be done. We now have to add how bad it might, could, potentially will be and what might, could, potentially will happen if you don’t comply with the warning/prediction and take action.

And therein is the problem.

Emergency planners, managers, and responders (dare I say bloggers/podcasters?) are responsible for actions taken (or not) before, during, and after disaster situations. While emergency planners, managers and responder should be held accountable for their performance during crisis or the performance of their planning or training preparedness, it seems that the need to have a scapegoat overpowers the reality that many of the disaster situations are fluid and may not evolve as predicted. Unreasonable expectations need to hold someone accountable when an unpredictable situation goes astray.

What can we expect when  naturally occurring biological event - seasonal influenza, for example, fails to follow an epidemiologists prediction? Will the Theory of Successful Blame hold? If the vaccine is poorly matched to the circulating strain of flu, will we hold the epidemiologist accountable for the illnesses or deaths?

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