Emergency Managers Procrastinate Too

A few weeks ago, a co-worker stuck this comic strip on my door.

It made me laugh, but in that “yeah, that’s pretty funny but not really because it’s too close to true” sort of way.

Unfortunately, it’s a message I’ve heard way too many times over the years, and illustrative of one of the most common assumptions made about people in the emergency management field: we’ve all got our disaster preparations wired tight.

Well, not exactly.  In fact, when I attended a local emergency management focused conference back in April (it’s the one conference I try to never miss), one of the session presenters did a quick survey of those in the room to gauge our collective level of preparedness.  He asked people to be honest (“no one’s keeping track”), and had everyone hold up a hand.  He then ran down a list of common tasks we as emergency managers frequently encourage our public audience to do, such as establish an out of state contact, identify a neighborhood rally point, build and place an emergency kit in your vehicle, etc.  There were maybe a dozen things he went through, starting from the most basic and increasing (but only slightly) in terms of complexity, cost, or time.  You were supposed to put your hand down the first time he mentioned a task that you had not done.  And wouldn’t you know it, in a room full of at least 40 people [my estimate] who do “emergency management” for a living, I think there were two people who still had their hand up at the end of his list.  And I wasn’t one of them.

Okay, so this is hardly a scientific study.  But regular conversations with many of my colleagues over the years tells me it’s not that far off the mark.  Emergency managers (and 1st responders for that matter, i.e. police, fire, ems), as a group, are not necessarily poster children when it comes to disaster preparedness.  After all, we’re people too.  Perhaps the only difference is, we’re supposed to know better.

So if it’s true that we “know better,” meaning we understand why it’s so important to “be prepared,” and more or less what it takes to get there, why are many of us just as unprepared as the rest of society?  Turns out, there’s a bunch of reasons.

One of icons of disaster academia, Eric Auf Der Heide, wrote a classroom text in 1989 titled Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation & Coordination that’s still referenced today in many emergency management university courses [including the course I teach at the local university].  One of the chapters is dedicated entirely to the subject of preparedness apathy.  He cites no less than 14 different types of apathy, or put more plainly, explanations for why individuals and organizations fail to prepare for disasters, despite the numerous compelling arguments for why they should.

Of the various types of apathy he identifies, some are economic in nature (short term profit vs. long-term benefit), some political (pressure from special interest groups, etc.), and some psychological (underestimation of risk, de-prioritization, etc.).  A few are a combination of all three.  At the end of the day, any one of them is sufficient to dissuade an individual or organization – sometimes consciously, most of the time subconsciously –  from pursuing active steps toward better preparedness.  Consider them all together, however, and it’s easy to see why disaster education / preparedness campaigns face such an uphill battle.  But since that doesn’t absolve me of my professional responsibility to keep pushing the boulder, I’ve got to figure out the path of least resistance.  There’s only so many “disaster prep on the cheap” tips and tricks, and the political aspect is above my pay-grade, so that pretty much left the psychological element.

Time to pull out the chase lounge, fluff up a pillow, and ask people to lie down and tell me – “So, how does thinking about disasters make you feeeeeel?”  – which I did, but without the chaise lounge and pillow.  Not that I didn’t want to use them, but… ya’know… I couldn’t get em’ to fit in my office.

Anyway…with rare exception, everyone I asked agreed that yes, being prepared for disasters was important, it was something they wanted to do, and they even had a good idea of the most significant and specific tasks they needed to complete to get them there.  Why?  Because for the last three years I’ve done countless presentations, seminars, one-on-one sessions, how-to’s, etc., all intended to motivate and encourage individual and family preparedness for my departments’ employees – so that when the disaster does happen (which in our area is presumed to be “the big one” – as in earthquake) – they’ll be able to focus on their professional responsibilities as part of the disaster response team, instead of panicked about their families.

Despite my efforts, all but a handful had done a single thing.

Just stab me in the heart.  After you’ve punched me in the gut.

But there it was.  Even though everyone I talked to agreed it was a perfectly rational, sane and not even terribly difficult set of goals and tasks that they fully intended and even wanted to do, they simply hadn’t gotten around to it yet.  When all was said and done, it came down to pure and simple procrastination.

Psychology is a funny thing.  And it appeared, as much as we may not like to admit it, we’re simply not rational beings.  So it was about now that I remembered one of my favorite books that had been long boxed up and recently re-shelved called Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.  Dan’s a social scientist / behavioral economist who’s CV reads like the index of the journal Schools I Never Could Have Gotten Into.  Which is why it’s a good thing he wrote a book I could buy instead, because when it comes to understanding human behavior, he’s pretty much a genius.  After my gut-punch, knife in the heart experience and determining I needed to develop some creative ways to motivate my co-workers to become better prepared, I pulled his book off the shelf at home and flipped to the chapter, “The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control.”

I’ll spare you the details and cut to the punchline: procrastination is the result of sacrificing our long-term goals for immediate gratification (page 111, 1st ed, 2008), even though it may not be a conscious decision.  And as the second part of the chapter’s title indicates, that decision is principally a reflection of our individual level of self-control.

Dan, being a social scientist, wanted to experiment with different strategies for overcoming procrastination, and his students at the time became the guinea pigs…er…test subjects.  He had three classes, and assigned three papers to each class during the quarter.  For class one, he told them they could turn their papers in at any time during the quarter, but they had to pick their own deadlines for each paper.  These deadlines could be spread out, or all at the same time, such as the end of the quarter.  However, once they picked a deadline, they couldn’t change it, and late papers would be penalized a percentage for each day late.  For the second class, he assigned the same three papers, but with no deadline stipulation; they could turn their papers in early (before the end of the quarter), but there would be no grade advantage in doing so.  For the third class, however, he assigned strict deadlines for each paper at the 4th, 8th and 12th weeks; the students had no choice in the matter.

So which class do you think had the best relative set of grades (collectively)?  If you were one of the students, which option would have motivated you to do your best work in regards to writing three papers in a single quarter?  If you were in class one, and could pick your own deadlines – but then had to stick to them, would you have spaced them out throughout the quarter as a self-determined motivator to get them done; or would you have hedged your bets and set all three deadlines for the end of the quarter?  What if you were in class two, and could set whatever arbitrary deadlines you wanted – even though not meeting them (except at the very end of the quarter) had no repercussions?  Or what about class three?  Would you prefer three firmly established deadlines, about which you had no input.

To find out what Dan Ariely’s experiment indicated, as well as how I plan to incorporate his findings into my own efforts, check back for my next post in a few days.

Until then…if you knew a disaster was going to happen tomorrow, what’s the one thing you’d do today to prepare for it?  So go do it! [here’s a great site to get some ideas]


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