Missing in Action: Private-Sector Situational Awareness

Most adult Americans can personally recall the terrorist attacks against the United States on the morning of 11 September 2001, but many may already have forgotten what happened on the morning of 19 April 1995. Among the questions that can be posed about private citizens are the following: (a) What was the situational awareness of the persons directly affected by those two national tragedies before disaster struck (at about 9:00 a.m. locally on both of those dates)? (b) How aware is the average U.S. citizen and/or local resident of the events and situations – anywhere, and on any date – unfolding around him or her? (c) More specifically, what is their “fight or flight” reaction to manmade versus natural disasters?

Although many Americans may vaguely recall the name Timothy McVeigh, they typically may not remember that in April 1995 he was the person who rented a truck, loaded it with chemical explosives, and used it to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City – killing 168 adults and children, injuring hundreds of other persons, and damaging several nearby buildings.

The morning of 11 September 2001 – a date that certainly should be remembered by most American adults alive on that day – started when 19 men linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group hijacked four commercial airliners and flew them, laden with jet fuel and filled with innocent passengers, into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a remote field of grass in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Those deliberate, carefully orchestrated, and almost simultaneous acts of terrorism killed nearly 3,000 civilians, military personnel, and first responders. They also injured thousands of other people, and destroyed several other buildings in the area close to the Twin Towers. The violence of the 9/11 attacks not only changed the lives of those who died or were seriously injured – and the lives of their families, friends, and relatives – but also changed the nation as a whole.

Identifying the Warning Signs

In general, situational awareness involves being alert to what is happening in the immediate vicinity of the individual citizen and, through that awareness, understanding how information, events, and personal actions can directly affect his or her surroundings, both immediately and in the future. Having little or no situational awareness is often a primary factor in incidents attributed to human error.

Situational awareness is particularly important in disciplines where: (a) the information flow is relatively high; and/or (b) poor decisions can lead to serious consequences – for example, when the person making the decision is functioning as a soldier, piloting an aircraft, or treating critically ill or injured patients. Despite those obvious examples, developing and maintaining situational awareness also can be a critical and even life-saving skill for citizens traveling within and between cities, working in an office building, or simply remaining inside their homes.

Seen in that light, the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was a clear warning for the nation’s public and private sectors alike – largely because that criminal act was planned and carried out not by a foreign-born and ideologically motivated terrorist but by a former U.S. soldier and three other American accomplices. Unfortunately, several other multi-victim attacks occurred on U.S. soil that specifically targeted school children (of all ages): Columbine High School in Colorado (20 April 1999); the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (16 April 2007); and, most recently, the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (14 December 2012).

The faculties and staff at all of those schools undoubtedly had at least some vaguely worded type of plan in place to avoid and/or at least mitigate potential acts of violence, but obviously much more can and should be done. Thus, with an increase in violent shootings and a decrease in available funds, the private sector can play a valuable role in increasing the collective situational awareness in their own communities.

Understanding the Several Phases of Emergency Management

Improving the overall situational awareness of small businesses, non-profit organizations, major corporations, and individual citizens necessarily requires, among other things, large but carefully managed investments of time and money as well as additional resources in emergency management – people as well as equipment. It also involves upgrading the processes and mindsets needed to protect both the local population and the community’s critical assets from numerous hazards and risks caused by manmade disasters – including active “lone wolf” shooter incidents – and/or natural catastrophes. And, in responding to any of these events and incidents, it involves steps that management and individual citizens must take to ensure the resiliency of the organization, office building, or private home. To do all this, though, starts with an understanding of the four distinct phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Mitigation can perhaps best be described as the effort needed to reduce the loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. It is defined more specifically, on the website of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as “taking action before the next disaster to reduce future human and financial consequences.” Effective mitigation processes and actions also require a clear understanding of local risks, the need to address – and actually make – a number of difficult choices, and a willingness to invest the resources needed to help ensure the community’s long-term well-being. Without taking these and other mitigation actions, local businesses and the community at large have only one alternative: accepting the fact that there may well be greater safety, financial security, and self-reliance risks in the future. Personal mitigation, on the other hand, is mainly about knowing and avoiding unnecessary risks, which includes an assessment of the possible risks – to individual/family health and/or to private property – posed by an active shooter or by acts of nature.

Preparedness refers to actions taken as precautionary measures in the face of potential disasters. These actions include physical preparations such as: modifying buildings to survive earthquakes and floods; stockpiling emergency supplies; planning and publicizing local evacuation routes; and training groups, organizations, and individual citizens for emergency action. Preparedness is a critical step in recognizing and mitigating negative outcomes from incidents such as an active shooting or a terrorist bombing and includes coordination with public health agencies and local emergency responders.

Response usually begins with search and rescue operations, but the focus can quickly turn to fulfilling the basic humanitarian needs of the affected population. The effective public-private coordination of disaster assistance also is crucial, particularly when many organizations respond and the demand caused by the disaster exceeds the capacity of local emergency responders.

Recovery, of course, almost always starts after the immediate threat to human life apparently has ended – and continues until such time as: (a) the local infrastructure has been replaced or repaired; (b) electric power, water, and other functional needs have been restored; and (c) everyday life is back to normal (however, that sometimes vague word is described).

The FEMA Reading File: For Personal & Collective Safety

Fortunately, there are many helpful FEMA courses already available on the development and improvement of situational awareness for businesses, groups, and individual citizens. Included in the agency’s forward-looking curriculum are instructions, for example, in situational awareness, workplace violence, facility security, home and small business protection, and school safety.

Other courses also are available on such topics as public-private partnerships, emergency preparedness, natural and manmade disasters, individual citizen and community preparedness, and the dangers posed by hazardous materials. Community organizations and businesses would be well advised to at least investigate the value of these courses in developing and sustaining peer-support and critical-incident response teams.

Ultimately, situational awareness begins with developing increased vigilance on the part of the individual citizen – adults, teenagers, and even younger children. When businesses increase and improve local/community situational awareness by educating and training their own employees on the specifics of emergency preparedness and disaster response, the private sector itself becomes more resilient and better able to prepare for, respond to, and recover from incidents with less reliance on first responders, FEMA, and/or other federal, state, and local agencies and organizations.

Michael J. Pitts

Michael J. Pitts is the managing director for the Readiness Action Division of Dr. Tania Glenn and Associates, PA (TGA), headquartered in Austin, Texas. Before joining TGA in 2011, he spent 30 years in federal law enforcement and government aviation: the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army as well as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He is certified in critical incident stress management through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. He earned an Associate of Arts degree in military studies from the New Mexico Military Institute, a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and international affairs from the University of Colorado, and master's degrees in public administration from Shippensburg University and in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.



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