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Volume 27, Issue 4

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Observing the Survivor Response

Written by  Dominic Bonacci October 27, 2010

Although data is relatively scarce on the process of living through a disaster, we know from what has been published that survivors often separate themselves from victims by accepting the new reality, having the ability to formulate a plan to escape/survive and possessing a strong desire to survive.

I had an opportunity to see this in action several months ago. While the stakes were not life and death and the property at risk was limited to one customized vehicle, the lesson is still valid and the results worth sharing because this actual situation unfolding in real-time was as good as any table top exercise that could have been contrived. And I clearly saw survivors and victims.

The situation unfolded during an air show event in the Midwest that featured a jet truck act. For those of you that are not familiar with this novelty act, the jet-powered vehicles acts crisscross the country performing at air shows, racetracks and drag strips. As part of its lead-up to their high speed run these jet vehicles exaggerate their show with impressive fireballs, massive amounts of smoke and thunderous noise by controlling the flow and ignition of fuel through their afterburner-equipped jet engines.

On this particular Saturday morning the laws of physics caught up to this jet truck act as years of constant heating and cooling fatigued the metal and pressure from the engine exhaust finally ruptured the heavy stainless steel of the afterburner.

This did not expose anyone at the event to danger, not even jet truck’s driver (although ignited gases escaping through the gaping hole in the afterburner did torch the harness of one of two arresting parachutes). What it did mean was simply that this popular attraction would remain parked the balance of the weekend.

However, mirroring published accounts of actions during a life-threatening disaster, a few survivors stepped forward while the majority of victims simply accepted their fate.

In this case while members of the air show staff made preparations to announce the cancellation of the jet truck act and adjust performance schedules for the remainder of the event a small group of “survivors” formed to assess the situation. They were able to review the damage and formulate a simple repair strategy – source a suitable piece of stainless steel and weld the patch to the inside of the damaged afterburner.

The plan sounded simple enough except that they needed to source a significantly thick piece of stainless steel and find a welder experienced with jet engines on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend.

From here the story takes a romantic turn, in what has quickly become the stuff of air show legend, the piece of stainless steel was acquired from an old industrial kitchen sink that had found a home in the air show’s operations area while a skilled aircraft welder brought his wife and daughter to spend the evening with him as he welded the patch in place. And by 11 p.m. the jet truck was ready to go again performing the next two days of the air show.

Looking at this fun story from a business continuity vantage it offers a great illustration of the three very important disaster survival tips:

  • Accept your reality. From the moment it was known the truck had suffered damage the survivors were ready to deal with it head-on. There was no putting off the issue or even thinking that it was out of their hands – they were only focused on going about fixing the problem.
  • Make a plan. To them the next steps were obvious – source the metal and get it welded in place. Because they had a plan they were able to move forward in a unified direction. Without a plan there would simply be a dozen gear-heads gawking at the gaping hole in the truck’s engine.
  • You have to want it. I doubt the plan would even have been formulated had this small group of Mr. Fix-Its not been passionate about the customized vehicle they were attempting to repair. While the jet truck act was a proven crowd pleasure and an important element in the show’s mix of ground/air performers each of the members of this survivor group had a specialty affinity for cars and this one-of-a-kind vehicle in particular.

In a disaster the majority of people do nothing – they are simply unable to accept their new reality. We want to believe things are OK because experience has told us things are OK. Too often we fail to accept that there has been a change; and in a disaster change occurs quickly and those able to accept the change are able to adjust to it.

To accept the situation and then to move forward with a plan can mean the difference between victim and survivor. Often in the midst of a disaster those affected wait for rescue or help from the outside. This can be a fatal mistake. We see time and time again that rescue and resources take time. FEMA has exerted great effort to prepare the population to the fact that, in the event of a major disaster, they should be prepared to be on their own for 48-hours.

Amanda Ripley explains in The Unthinkable, about the importance of having a plan as it provides focus, and, under much more stressful conditions, can overcome the paralysis that often stops victims in their tracks. With their plan in place our group of Survivors simply moved forward dealing with issue after issue in their efforts to “work the plan.”

Time and time again experts note the importance of being able to formulate and implement a plan. Laurence Gonzales, who has written extensively on disasters and survivors, in his book Deep Survival describes the traits of a survivor as one who plans my setting small, manageable goals then systematically goes about achieving them. He states “You don’t have to be an elite performer. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to get on with it and do the next right thing.”

And in order to have a plan you must have a goal. Perhaps in a legitimate disaster the goal may be to cross the room or build a fire. Goals do not need to be big and plans do not need to be elaborate. However they must be achievable and you have to want it. Back to the air show incident, it is most interesting to note that one of the people not involved in this make-shift repair team was the owner/operator of the vehicle. Perhaps it was because this was merely one event in a long season of events. Perhaps it was because all he could see was that his next stop was his shop at home that had all the tools and materials necessary to fabricate and repair whatever the truck needed. Whatever the reason, he – the person best suited to solve the repair problem -- was not motivated by the goal so the plan meant nothing to him. If we extrapolate this little story onto the set of a major disaster, the truck’s owner does not survive; rather he would be huddled in the corner to accept his fate waiting for rescuers to find him or the disaster to consume him.

“The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead,” writes Gonzales. “It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds it’s what’s in your heart.”

Of course what really makes this story so appealing is the sink – that late in a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend with no access to commercial sources of stainless steel, the team discovers that the industrial sink tucked in the corner of an operations area could yield a piece of stainless steel of sufficient size and thickness for the patch. What seems almost miraculous to others would likely not be so surprising to Gonzales, an adventurer himself. He states, “Chance is nothing more than opportunity, and it is all around at every turn; the trick lies in recognizing it.” Had the team not formulated the plan, the sink would have been meaningless to them. It was only recognized when the plan called for a piece of stainless steel. Think of how many times we have wondered aloud, “wasn’t that lucky?” Wasn’t that lucky that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger had a clear patch of the Hudson River that morning?

I recently toured the Intrepid Air and Space Museum floating on that same Hudson River and learned the story of the aerial torpedo that struck the ship on Feb. 17, 1944, and jammed her rudder in one direction. Only the efforts of a crewmember that happened to have experience with his mother’s sewing machine were they able to jury-rig a makeshift sail with which they were able to steer the mighty aircraft carrier to safe harbor for repairs. Wasn’t it lucky that the particular crewmember happened to be on-board that ship?

And even then only one of nearly a dozen people saw the sink as something other than a sink. Others had used the sink or walked past the sink. But it was one guy who realized its potential. It was Louis Pasteur that said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.”

So even without lives at risk and the only danger being a disappointed audience, the events of that day clearly demonstrated the difference between survivor and victim during a real-life crisis.
On that day in September I witnessed a group that unbeknownst to them demonstrated a textbook Survivor response by adjusting to new data, formulating a plan to deal with that new data, overtly desiring a positive outcome, and moving forward with a plan to achieve that goal. In doing so, at least one member of that group, was able to recognize the tools around that could be used to implement that plan.

And should a real disaster strike I know the person I am going to follow – that guy that saw a sink for something other than a sink.

Bonacci_DominicDominic Bonacci is a business continuity professional with BEP Institute in Cleveland, with a 20-year history of meeting, conference and event planning. More about BEP Institute at www.bepinstitute.com