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Action is our primary defense

April 24, 2007|by ROBERT GARY

Fractals are sort of like geometric versions of the metaphor. A pattern that is observed on a larger scale can also be found on a smaller scale within the same entity. For example a Maple leaf looks a lot like a Maple tree, except much smaller. Well, I think the Virginia Tech incident looks a lot like Katrina, except much smaller.

Let's review the facts. In Katrina, FEMA was paralyzed because no one could get in touch with Michael Chertoff, who was in Atlanta attending a presentation on avian flu. Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, had arrogated to himself 100 percent of all of the authority to issue any orders that would cause FEMA to do anything. So FEMA was essentially inert during the critical six hours after the levees broke and a lot of chaos and unnecessary suffering resulted.

At Virginia Tech, the officer in charge of security apparently froze after he learned of the first shooting in the dormitory. Information was passed along to the president of the university, who apparently was the only person who could declare and implement a campus-wide security alert. Two hours later, the university president, by his own account, was still gathering information, trying to more fully inform himself about what had happened in the dormitory. Because there was no timely immediate security response on a campuswide basis a lot of needless deaths occurred at the hands of a homicidal lunatic.

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I could go on and talk about the prior warnings from Professor Nikki Giovanni. And I could talk about the issue of gun control and about the university's awareness that the killer was mentally unstable.

But instead, I want to stay focused on the security issue. The reason is because all executives, managers, and leaders can learn a serious lesson about security from Katrina and from the Virginia Tech events.

As soon as there are facts that indicate strongly that human lives have been lost, the protection of human life takes precedence over institutional public relations.

FEMA should have been on the move even without an order from Secretary Chertoff. The campus police should have, on their own authority, issued a campuswide security alert even without the prior approval of the university president.

How can such things happen? Why wouldn't they be regarded as usurpations by low-ranking persons of the privileges and prerogatives of high ranking persons? Because, in a life-threatening situation, the officer in charge of security must have pre-delegated authority to take appropriate action first and fully inform the high boss second.

On an aircraft carrier, if the officer in charge of the quarterdeck feels that there is something imperiling the ship, he has pre-delegated authority to do whatever it takes to quell the threat. The captain's permission is not required. Respond first, coordinate with the brass as soon as reasonably possible.

It's true on Navy ships and it's true at nuclear power plants, and it's true in most big city fire and police departments. Standard operating procedure includes standing orders to act first, based on what is reasonable under the circumstances, and verify permission later.

At Virginia Tech, when was the first moment that a campus policeman or security officer knew that a shooting had occurred and that the shooter was not in custody?

Add five minutes of deliberation time to that moment and you have the moment when the officer in charge of security should have activated his pre-delegated authority to call for a campus-wide security alert. Five minutes later every person on campus should have had some sort of message, phone call, e-mail, or loudspeaker announcement that a campuswide security alert was under way and a brief statement of the threat to be guarded against.

This is not Monday morning quarterbacking. This is a capsule summary of what every executive with institutional responsibilities can learn from Katrina and the mass murders at Virginia Tech.

This is what can be fixed, what we can take from this horrific incident, the lesson that can be implemented so it doesn't happen over and over in a neverending set of fractal images of dysfunction.

There's nothing positive to emphasize here. But we can eliminate the negative by encouraging CEOs to pre-delegate emergency response authority to the lowest level consistent with the reasoned exercise of professional judgment - in this case probably the campuswide officer in charge of security at the moment the first shooting was confirmed by the policemen who went into the dormitory.

Don't let this happen in your organization. Take steps today to create standard operating procedures to ensure that, whether you are fully informed or not, some sort of response clicks into action when an emergency is confirmed to be in progress.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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