THE GREAT disaster scholar Joe Scanlon told me that individuals perform well and organizations perform poorly in crises.
Anyone who has been in a big storm in Montreal has seen individuals and restaurants open their doors to people with a thick layer of snow on their heads. Anyone who has lived on the Prairies has helped push a stranger’s car out of a snowbank.
All this is truly heart-warming.
But surely police and official responders can’t bank on such acts of kindness. Surely it’s dangerous to assume that urbanites will find places to stay with relatives and friends during emergency evacuations.
If adhocracy will save us in an urban emergency, why do we have so many emergency planners, police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS) and others working on the issue?
My guess is that police and emergency responders herding strangers into cars for an emergency evacuation of a city would be far worse.
We all might perform like ladies and gentlemen, but haven’t urban emergency plan writers ever seen a horror movie about maniacs in cars? Haven’t they seen those movies about hitchhikers? Haven’t they seen newspaper accounts of real-life versions of these horrors?
In emergency circumstances, we often help each other. But what happens when a municipality mandates that citizens need to help strangers?
There are actually plans that advocate herding strangers into the homes of others and hoping for the best. The Albuquerque, N.M., urban emergency plan says that homeowners “will be encouraged, NOT forced” to share homes with evacuees. Halifax’s plan says that those with vehicles will be “encouraged” to give rides to people who don’t have a car but need a ride.
We don’t know who’ll be designated to encourage during urban emergencies in Albuquerque or Halifax. But let’s say it’s the mayor, council, on-scene commander or someone in the emergency operations centre who calls for invoking the policy of encouraging. It will fall to police, fire, EMS or volunteers to put the policy in place at the ground level.
I can just see the scene at a homeowner’s door in Albuquerque.
City responder: “Pardon me m’am, but this grimy person with the ripped clothing has just crawled through brush fires to make it here. He has no ID of course – lost in the misadventure. I’m pretty sure he’s a fine citizen and even if he escaped from prison, he was probably not in for a violent offence. If his last residence was a mental hospital, remember Churchill, Lincoln and significant percentages of the population suffer depression and other mental illness and are not a threat to anyone. If he doesn’t have his medication, remember lots of medication creates problems, so he might be better off. At any rate, I have to move along and try to place lots of other people in homes – it’s official policy.”
Homeowner: “Very good. Come on in and set a spell.”
I can just see the scene on the Halifax side of the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge. Some person with a clipboard, really good posture and dressed in a snappy golf shirt with an official-looking crest motions for you to lower your car window. Said person notes that the mayor and others have called for official encouragement.
Person in golf shirt: “Please take this hungry, wet person in your car. I don’t know how he got here. He lost his identification in the storm but I do encourage you to put him in the back seat with you – it’s official policy.”
Fleeing citizen in car: “You bet, hop in.”
Not to worry. This will all be caught on various security cameras and available for inquiries and court cases.
These policies of encouragement are, in fact, discouraging.
Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities.
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