What we can learn from a systems approach for emergency preparedness?

When we have to deal with disaster, and all that the word ‘disaster’ entails, we are subjected to the unexpected and, often, the unfathomable (i.e. 9-11, BSE, foot and mouth disease, natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 and Haiti’s earthquake earlier this year, etc).  Breakdowns occur when normally discrete institutions or sets of actors fail to come together to manage a given situation in an orderly and effective manner or when key components or pathways are overlooked in the disaster management process.

Take, for example, the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001.  Michael Quinn Patton addressed this in his keynote address at NORAD’s International Conference ‘Evaluating the Complex’.  According to Patton, the UK crisis is an example of a failure due, in large part, to the fact that focus was directed at one part of the system while the connections between key sub-systems (including biologic, geographic and economic elements) were largely ignored.  The economic rationalization of abattoirs and EU subsidies at the time had increased the interconnectedness of herds to a critical point.  Added to this, changes to the reporting rules for foot and mouth delayed the isolation of infected animals. The relationship between actions and the epidemiology of the foot and mouth issue was not fully appreciated in advance where it mattered because the industry was not viewed as an interconnected, interdependent system.


Photo source: The Associated Press http://bit.ly/aNF3tZ

Complex systems are everywhere.  They consist of a collection of parts with a range of dimensions that may share physical, economical or other types of space.  It is in this ‘space’ where overlaps and connectedness occurs.  We often underestimate or are even unaware of the effects of the action of one part on other parts or even the system as a whole. The result? In a crisis, we experience failure.


How can we work to mitigate some of the failures?  Patton suggests that mapping the system is one feasible step.  Mapping enables managers to capture a system’s key elements and their interconnectedness in order that, in the event of an emergency or disaster, collective response can be expedited, changes to structures or rules can be quickly introduced, communicated and established, and the situation can be better managed from a more holistic level.  The Indiana State Board of Animal offers up a good example of ‘mapping’ (2001):


Source: Michael Quinn Patton, Keynote Address, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) International Conference on Evaluating the Complex, Oslo, Norway, 2008.  Patton’s key note presentation can be accessed through the Aid on the Edge of Chaos website:  https://aidontheedge.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/international-conference-on-evaluating-the-complex-2nd-in-emergent-series-on-complexity-and-aid/

Remember that illustration on Complexity theories that Peter referred to at the SNA workshop I facilitated….

I had sent it to him a few months ago…and then lost sight of it. Thanks Peter for sending it along!

Here it is!

Interesting illustration of the evolution of complexity and related theories over timeby Art and Science Factory…


Hilarious! Cuddles the Cow: a comedy in several acts

Originally posted: July 4, 2009

A whale, one might understand. But a cow?!

On June 27, 2009, a large brown cow washed up on the beaches near Clover Point/Victoria, Canada. By Monday the 29th, she was STILL there.

This cow – a simple, domesticated and dead bovine – caused quite a stir for the City of Victoria. Why you ask?

Reported in the Times Colonist (by M. Pearson):

“…the animal washed up about six metres from the water’s edge, but below the high-water line, meaning that technically, it falls within the federal government’s jurisdiction…”

Simple, right? Hell, no!

The Department of Oceans and Fisheries were first called in to remove the rotting carcass. However, DOF officials stated that they only deal with beached “sea life” and this creature was, after all, a land mammal. Then the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was called in to deal with the matter. But after careful consideration, a concern was raised that the animal may have floated in from foreign waters, prompting consultation with US officials.

Sgt. J. McRae of the Victoria Police was quoted: “It was originally thought to be a dead horse, but once the officers got there they were able to determine it was a cow.”

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Speaking of brilliant, I found many of the suggestions/responses posted by the public in their comments quite humorous :

“Well, legally, that cow is homeless so I think it has a legal right to lie on that beach between 10 PM-6 AM. After that, the police will have to come in and remove it.” (Paul D)
“Maybe it jumped over the Moon and crash landed in the ocean?” (Hey Diddle Diddle) 
“I guess the city doesn’t own any chainsaws? Or are they having a meeting to decide when to meet about meeting to discuss acquiring the permits to get the equipment to remove the health hazard?” (anonymous)  
There were also several suggestions for a “public beach BBQ”.
In her demise, “Cuddles” (dubbed so by the locals) not only crossed the line from the land of the living to the land of the dead, but her carcass now lay across several jurisdictional lines including the fact that the beach she washed up on was part of the City of Victoria park property. She was (eventually) officially taken on as the responsibility of CFIA and is in transport to Calgary, Alberta for further evaluation (a place where folks can distinguish between a horse and cow).

So where do you draw the line — the jurisdictional line in these, what I would call, highly unusual one-off cases?

Well, for starters, I wouldn’t have called the poor creature “Cuddles”.