Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Strangling of Altruism

This essay is based upon some experience that was too personal to put into my new book, but is suitable for a blog—especially since I suspect some of you have had some similar experiences. Either that or you will pretty soon. Here’s why.

As a university faculty member, I am required by the Department of Homeland Security to complete two online courses of emergency management training. The motivation for these training courses is to avoid the snafus that occurred with Hurricane Katrina and the Columbine shootings, in which emergency response was mired in chaos. Institutions and governments were unprepared and had no idea what to do. And since anyone at any time might be called upon to deal with a crisis situation, then anyone in a position of responsibility (apparently that includes professors) should have a plan and know what to do. The big debacle of Hurricane Katrina was caused by Homeland Security itself, since FEMA was run by a Bush political appointee (trained as a racehorse lawyer) Michael Brown, and they found out about the disaster from watching television. The uncoordinated response was the fault of FEMA but they are ordering us to fix the problem by training ourselves as emergency responders along with, or instead of, them.

So far so good. I consider it my altruistic responsibility to be prepared to assist fellow citizens/humans during an emergency. But the online training session was an exercise in internal contradiction and massive constriction of altruism.

“We’re from the government, we’re here to help” is usually a call to go hide. This was certainly the case here.

First, we were required to memorize a chain of command that is extremely complex. The incident commander is the top dog, and he can appoint “chiefs” of functions such as planning, operations, liaison, logistics, and public information. It is actually a lot more complex than that, because under the chiefs superintend the directors of branches, which supervise the supervisors of divisions. Think of it as a Linnaean taxonomy: responders are species, divisions are genera, branches are families, sections are orders.

And it gets more complex from there. Within each division, I think, there are task forces (consisting of “mixed resources,” where “resources” refers to people) and strike teams, which consist of similar resources. They are also divided into groups, which are functional units, and divisions, which are geographical units. So I guess a medic could be a member of a medical strike team in a group but also in a northeast-part-of-town division.

Second, the taxonomy is always changing. The size of the incident command system (ICS) depends on the incident. If someone drops a bottle of acid in my lab, I am the incident commander, and I can appoint the janitor as my chief of operations, and we can clean up the mess (which is not a trivial thing but need not involve a SWAT team). In doing so, I’d better remember to declare myself commander and officially deputize him as chief. If the acid drips through the floor, then the Director of Physical Plant comes over and becomes the new incident commander, perhaps assigning me to be the chief of liaison, which means that I can go to the department secretary and appoint her as my branch director of liaison so that she can make phone calls. And none of us are supposed to tell anybody outside the university about what is happening, since this is the job of the director of public information, I think. Everyone’s role keeps changing, as the incident gets bigger and then gets smaller as it is dealt with. It is like saying that Canis is a family, and familiaris and latrans are genera, but then along comes Canidae and makes itself the family, and now Canis is a genus and familiaris is a species. Moment by moment, the taxonomy changes.

One of the most important charges is that we must avoid jargon. Yet ICS (incident command system), EOC (emergency operations center), IAP (incident action plan), and ICP (incident command post) were on the final exam for this course, at least a couple of them were, and you are required to pass the exam at 75% if you want your university to continue receiving any federal funds!

Third, none of this might matter except that you cannot take orders from anyone except your immediate supervisor. A branch director cannot take commands from the incident commander but only from his or her section chief. And a chief of operations cannot tell a director of liaison what to do. If the liaison chief is otherwise occupied, the director cannot do anything. So this system creates an unmanageable mess of contradictions.

I have been trained now but I know less than I did before about what to do during an emergency. Used to be that I could consult the brochure, which Campus Safety put on our walls by the doors, to see what to do. Those brochures are nice and clear and easy to find. But now we have to be obedient components of chains of command that keep changing.

Worst of all, this system strangles altruism. A person cannot just go help someone in need. If a student has CPR training, she cannot go and help someone who needs it. She is instead to report to the director of operations and identify herself and receive orders. This was actually a quiz question during the course. I am not making this up. Had I chosen the answer that she was supposed to start administering CPR, it would have been the wrong answer. Supposedly she should step right over people who need help and go look for a director of operations (not the director of planning or of liaison!). Here is an exact quote I wrote down during the course: “Until you are mobilized, you remain in your everyday role.”

Rather than facilitating emergency response or altruism, this plan, imposed on us by a federal agency, will force an unclear but inviolable chain of command which puts a person’s authority over the need to help someone. And this chain of command is not the same as the university chain of command. At our university, the administration demands strict adherence to their chain of command. What will happen if, in an emergency, the Physical Plant director claims (rightly) to be my superior but the dean claims to be in charge? Could I get reprimanded by the university chain of command for obeying the ICS?

But, oh well, I got a nice certificate to put on my wall, certifying my altruist status.

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