(What We Learn at a Table Can Be Very Important)
(By Dr. Joseph W. Koletar)Frank Keating was an FBI Agent from 1969-1971. He was also the Governor of Oklahoma from 1995-2003.
One would think being a Governor would be a full-time job, but in June 2001, Frank Keating took time to play an artificial, but important, game. Organized and directed by Johns Hopkins University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the game was called “Dark Winter,” and involved former Senator Sam Nunn, former FBI Director Bill Sessions, and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, among a dozen others. The object of the game was simple – deal with an outbreak of smallpox in Oklahoma City. The goal of the participants, playing the roles of state and Federal officials, was to manage and try to contain the virus, although the game design had it eventually spread to a number of other cities and even countries.
Per a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (1), the Dark Winter exercise quickly mutated once the scenario was presented to the participants: Where were needed medical supplies, who controlled them, who needed them, why weren’t more available; what was the relationship between state and Federal officials; what civil liberties were to be affected to contain the virus, and who could order compliance?
These and other issues had to be sorted out in the context of the game, but Governor Keating had bloody and painful experience in such matters: Shortly after he took office as Governor, a massive truck bomb tore through the Oklahoma City Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds of others. Conversely, the Dark Winter participants were playing an unrehearsed, artificial game, but experienced the angst and friction common to any ad hoc group slammed with a crisis: Frank Keating had lived it in real time and with real casualties six years earlier.
As the Dark Winter game played out, he offers the following observations in his insightful article:
• There is an assumption that officials at various levels and varied roles will quickly “fall into place” and perform in a coordinated manner, with the Federal government taking the lead.
• In reality, during the game there were repeated disagreements between “state” and “Federal “officials as to what the local population could be told. As a result, people reacted with suspicion, fear, confusion, and panic. Instinctively, Keating reports, “Federal” officials wanted more intelligence as to the source, shape, dimensions, and dynamics of the outbreak. The “military” participants seemed particularly susceptible to this mindset.
• All response is local. Although the Federal Building was the target of the bomb, it was local police, firefighters, and medical personnel who made critical early decisions as to rescue, treatment, and investigative matters. Later, observers coined the term, “The Oklahoma Standard” to refer to the superb degree of inter-agency cooperation that took place in the hours and days after the bomb detonated. To quote Governor Keating, “Locals know the geography, infrastructure and resources that shape the immediate response.”
• To their credit, the state and Federal resources followed the lead of the local agencies once they too became involved. Keating notes that the Federal government is well suited to develop information as to the interstate and international dimensions of the issue at hand without over-powering the role and resources of local and state entities. In his words, “Federalism works.”
As we witness the COVID-19 pandemic play out, we see elements that support Governor Keating’s analysis: confusion as to who does what, ego-driven turf disputes, public anxiety as to what the future holds, and more.
Luckily, we are unlikely to see many pandemics in our lifetimes. But the lessons learned can usefully be applied in smaller, though highly important, situations. Area hospitals routinely join forces in conducting “mass casualties” drills. Schools and local law enforcement have great experience in developing plans for “active shooter” events.
These are examples of crisis management gaming, otherwise known as
“table-top” exercises. Often constructed and executed by outside consultants they are meant to gather key officials and present them as a possible crisis scenario. Participants are expected to realistically carry out their roles under time and uncertainty contains, as they would likely encounter were the situation real.
The result almost always unearths flawed assumptions, confusion as to roles and resources, communication gaps, and more. The exercise is not conducted to assigning blame; it is a mutual effort to learn and improve. Such exercises are useful, fairly inexpensive, and applicable to organizations great and small, be they public, private, or not-for-profit.
Yet, for all its apparent utility, a recent Bloomberg Business Week article (2) notes that corporate risk managers were viewed as “back office” shoppers for insurance rather than serving as adequate resources, to deal with primarily natural disasters. The article further notes that there were only about a dozen small academic programs that dealt with the subject at all.
The article notes the position actually involves a range of skills: analytical ability, media relations savvy, the ability to deal with attorneys, insurance companies, communications skills, and a fair degree of financial literacy. The article further advises that while 80 university programs dealing with enterprise risk management may seem significant, at the same time there are more than 5,000 accounting programs. One industry source predicts there will be “millions” of such risk management jobs in the future.
(The Behavioral Forensics Group, LLC offers multi-disciplinary advice on fraud and risk issues, and also provides crisis management planning, training, and evaluation services.)
(1) “War-Gaming the Next Pandemic,” by Frank Keating, The Wall Street Journal, 4/20/20, p.A-17.
(2) “Wanted: More Risk Managers (The pandemic spurs boards to seek experts in crisis planning and oversight”), by Arianne Cohen, Bloomberg Businessweek, 4/20/20, p. 36.
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