Avoiding Disaster Cascades

The Modern Survival Guide #28

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and I have to hope that they won’t lead to catastrophe because in this article I’ll be talking about disasters.

There is a concept that pops up quite often in modern life to describe how really awful things happen, and it’s called the Disaster Cascade. Understanding the cascade effect can be a crucial component of survival in the modern world.

I just lost a few people, didn’t I? This all sounds very technical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Put simply, a disaster cascade is when one bad thing happens and kicks off another bad thing, which kicks off an even worse thing, and so on and so forth until it’s a full-fledged disaster. This isn’t limited to industrial accidents, either. You see this all the time in natural disasters — there are heavy rains which flood a reservoir, the dam’s overflow gate gets stuck, the dam overflows or breaks, the flood waters wash through a local chemical plant, the chemicals weren’t properly stored, pretty soon zombies are wandering the landscape, and then the president nukes the town from orbit because it’s the only way to be sure.

Ok, that particular example is a bit of a stretch, but you get where I’m coming from here. That’s actually a pretty standard disaster cascade (minus the zombies and nuking): a relatively small problems kicking off a host of other problems, usually because of human actions in the middle. This is a key element of the cascade effect — there is typically a human agency in there making things worse. In this example, this was the dam, the dam’s overflow gate, and the chemical plant. If the dam hadn’t been there, or the gate had been maintained properly, or the chemical plant hadn’t improperly stored the zombie serum, the other disasters down the chain would have been avoided.

This is the secret of most major disasters: they tend to rely on people screwing up. Sometimes the screw-ups are so basic that it’s tough to recognize them as screw-ups at all (like, for example, the placement of the city of New Orleans below sea level). But still, it’s fundamentally the case in many disasters that people’s actions have the potential to either exacerbate or mitigate the consequences.

Ok, I hear you saying, that’s all very well, but how does it apply to me?

Well, there are a bunch of implications, depending on whether you are in charge of a disaster control group, are responsible for said group, or are just along for the ride in the disaster. I’ll go through them one by one.

When You’re in Charge

The first thing you have to understand if you are in a position of power is that people are lazy and untrustworthy when taken as a whole. Individuals, on the other hand, can be smart, talented, dedicated persons. But people suck. So, when considering any situation that has the potential for disaster, you must figure out which elements of that situation deal with people and which elements deal with individuals.

For example, maintenance crews are people. They may be good, they may be bad, they may be interchangeable, and it may be tough as hell to tell which are which from a position on high. Maintenance supervisors, on the other hand, are individuals. You may be able to know them personally. You can certainly have a direct impact on their personal accountability.

With that in mind, here are seven steps to preparing for a disaster cascade:

  1. Make a disaster plan
  2. Distrust your workforce
  3. Maintain your authority
  4. Trust your line managers, and make sure they trust you
  5. Inspect work
  6. Establish redundancy
  7. Maintain a disaster fund

To continue the maintenance example, let’s say that you are in charge of county bridge maintenance. You have crews whose job it is to maintain the bridges. You have a few supervisors who run those crews. You know that bridges are subject to disaster cascades — maintenance failures lead to weathering damage, which leads to structural failures, leading to bridge collapses, which kill people. What do you do to moderate the cascade effect?

The first step is to have a plan. You should work with your supervisors and other experts to figure out what problems could turn into cascades. A good indication here is to look for “single points of failure” — systems or processes that have no backup. Then figure out how to mitigate those problems, should they occur. Then recognize that the plan will eventually go stale, and you’ll need to revisit it at regular intervals.

The second step is to distrust your crews. You should assume, at all times, that when they are out of the immediate sight of a supervisor they are drinking beer and chatting with Russian mail-order brides on their phones.¹ You assume that they are falsifying as much information as they can get away with in order to skip work they don’t want to do, leave early, or avoid boring things.

With this in mind, the third step is to maintain and exercise authority over your workforce. You shouldn’t care if your workers don’t like you. You need them motivated and involved in their jobs, and you need them following orders. You don’t need them to like you. The best you should ever hope for is that they respect you, but there are exactly zero reasons why you should be friends with any of them. Friendships in this instance just get in the way. It’s lonely at the top, which is one of the reasons they pay you more.

The fourth step is to trust your line managers and supervisors. With these individuals you absolutely should be building interpersonal relationships. You should get them into a position where they feel they can trust you, so that they tell you when bad things are about to happen. You should work with them to figure out incentives for finding problems and fixing them. If you can’t do this with any given individual, you should get rid of them and find someone else.

The fifth step is to inspect work — in particular, work-in-progress. It’s much easier to correct an issue in-situ than it is to come along later and find a problem that requires a rebuild.² This is one of the key jobs of your supervisors. You should also conduct random audits of completed work; this is a job for an outside group (because trusting your supervisors only extends so far).³ Finally, you absolutely should conduct targeted inspections of structures or procedures that you know are old, obsolete, or damaged.

The sixth step is tough for all kinds of reasons: establish redundancy in any system where lives are at stake. Modern politicians and CEOs hate redundancy. It looks bad on paper, because “efficiency” is the buzzword of the decade. Efficiency delivers quarterly returns, but in a real disaster situation, redundant systems and backups stop the cascade and save lives and lots of money. You probably won’t be able to install enough redundancy to prevent every cascade effect, but you should at least try to mitigate the ones you know about.

The seventh and final step is the most difficult, and it is to maintain a disaster fund for the correction of major problems in a worst-case scenario. This is really, really hard to do. No one likes war chests, slush funds, or emergency funds. They are often seen as superfluous or wastes of money by people with MBAs. And these folks are correct, these money pots are wastes of money — right up until you need them, then they’re the only thing that saves lives (because money is the magic anyone can do, and when hours count a bank loan is only days away).

When You’re Responsible, But Not in Charge

Taking a step down the ladder, you may find yourself in a situation where you are responsible for mitigating disaster scenarios, but are not in charge. This is usually a mid-level supervisor position or similar posting where you have a staff and limited budget, but no decision-making power on policy or procedures. In this situation you are responsible for enforcing policy and performing routine project management and inspection activities. There are three big things to do here:

  1. Do your job
  2. Make sure your people are doing their jobs
  3. Be a whistle-blower if necessary

Thing One is to do your job. In this role, when it comes to disaster cascades your job is to look for potential problems, try to anticipate events that could turn into a disaster cascade, and oversee work done to correct these issues. Follow your organization’s plans and procedures, and recommend changes when necessary. This takes training and natural talent, and you’re either good at it or you’re not. You can sort that out between you, your HR training rep, and your manager.

Thing Two is to make sure your people are doing their jobs. All the previous statements and warnings about trusting people should apply here too. The catch in this role is that you can make a big difference with incentive structures, and they don’t even have to be large ones. Donuts and muffins are actually pretty good motivators for people to do good work, and when paired with cash and fair review processes, it is possible to positively impact your peoples’ morale and job performance. Go read a specialized book on that, if you want — there are literally hundreds out there.

But that’s only part of the picture. There’s also Thing Three: you’re responsible for something that doesn’t appear in the books and won’t come up in your performance review — whistle-blowing.

The supervisory role is usually the best position to spot flaws in processes, procedures, and maintenance activities that are not being otherwise addressed. From time to time, though, these things are not addressed because the people in charge have a vested interest in ignoring them (usually for monetary or reputation reasons). As a responsible party, if you are put in this situation it becomes your decision whether or not to do something about it.

Remember: a disaster cascade doesn’t just happen by itself. It usually needs deliberate human intervention or inaction to create the perfect conditions for a small problem to become a big disaster. These conditions are very often the result of policy and procedure decisions (or lack thereof). If your boss(es) have a history of ignoring potential problems, that’s when you move into whistle-blower territory.

My advice to you, if you get caught in a situation where whistle-blowing becomes a real consideration, is to do so as soon as possible, with the understanding that you will probably lose your job. There are three very good reasons to do so anyway.

First, if a disaster happens and people die, and you could have stopped it by blowing the whistle, unless you are a sociopath you will never forgive yourself. That’s years of trauma and depression that you’ll have to deal with. Save yourself the burden. The job isn’t worth it.

Second, if a disaster happens and people die, who exactly is going to catch the blame, do you think? The people in charge? Sure, maybe one or two, but mostly it’ll be you (shit rolls downhill). If there are shenanigans going on in the upper ranks, you will be assumed to be complicit. If not, you’ll be assumed to be incompetent or negligent. You will almost certainly lose your job, regardless. There is no happy scenario here. Better to bite the bullet and get out with your reputation intact. You might lose your supervisory job, but there’s probably an auditing position somewhere that would be happy to hire you after the dust settles.

Third, remember Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Any disaster that can be foreseen will eventually happen, and the odds go up radically if people are deliberately ignoring safety issues. If you escape a cascade on your watch, that’s just pure luck in that kind of situation. Once you accept this proposition the other two points take on real imperative significance — hope is not a strategy, so make your move.

Remember that whistle-blowers are usually ok in the long term, and that there are legal protections in place for whistle-blowers in the US.

When You’re Along for the Ride

For most of us, our dealings with disaster cascades come from the “victim” angle — for the most part, if we encounter them, it’s as a participant. And for the most part, if we encounter them, you’re already in the middle of a full-fledged disaster. If you find yourself as part of a disaster scenario, my best advice to you is to do what the authorities tell you, and then stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye. Your fate is no longer in your hands, and will rest with emergency personnel in any large-scale event.⁴

With that being said, if you are not in a position of authority or responsibility, you still have a role to play in the lead-up to any disaster cascade, and it is: do your best to recognize when one is about to happen, and then get away. Remember that disaster cascades often rely on location, and some locations are riskier than other.

So nothing major here, you just have to predict the future, right? Well, sure… but then, there are almost always warning signs, aren’t there? We certainly hear about them after the fact, in droves. The trick is to spot them early, accept them, and act on them. Most localities can help with this; local governments almost always have some information on potential threats in the area and recommendations for things to do if a threat becomes a reality.

And then there are some things that are just blindingly simple. To return to the theme of natural disasters, if you don’t want to be in a hurricane, don’t live in the Caribbean or Florida during hurricane season. If you don’t want to be in an earthquake, don’t live in LA. And so on, and so forth. If you need to figure out what disaster scenarios are common to your area, Google it. Make the information age work for you.

Now, there’s a big problem here… what if you can’t leave? That’s an awful lot of people. If you can’t get out of a disaster-prone area, for whatever reason, your only remaining alternative is training. Identify specific things you can do to live through a disaster, or fallback options you can put in place to get out of the immediate area. Sometimes the difference between life an death can be staying overnight at a motel outside of the flood zone.

In this situation, the internet is your friend. It’s worth spending an afternoon looking over the geography and industrial landmarks of your area. Do you know if you live in a flood zone? Do you know if there’s a major pipeline or zombie-serum-producing chemical plant nearby? How does electrical power and/or water get to your house? Are you in the fallout range of a major city? And so on. Once you know what risks exist, you can make plans for them.

The core point here is as simple in concept as it is difficult to implement: acknowledge the risk, make plans to avoid it, and do not trust to hope. If you see a forest fire that is approaching your home, hoping that it goes somewhere else is not a valid survival strategy. Nature doesn’t give a firetruck about your hope; nature will burn your house down if that’s what physics demands in that situation.

Instead, in a disaster scenario your odds of survival go up dramatically if you can recognize the trigger conditions and then take actions based on the worst-case scenario. Never assume the dam will hold. Never assume the fire won’t spread. Never assume the hurricane will turn north. Never assume the army will stop the zombies. In a disaster, assuming the best gets you killed. The worst that happens if you assume the worst is that you look foolish for a little while, and/or spend a little money.

Final Points

You are almost certainly going to experience at least one major disaster in your life. The world is complex, a lot of things can go wrong, and people have messed with enough stuff that human error can have major implications. How you respond to disasters may very well determine whether you end up making an insurance claim or never having to worry about insurance again.

So, a final admonition — like they say in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, DON’T PANIC. Plan, practice, and acknowledge the situation instead. Panic is the result of your brain going into vapor-lock when confronted with a new scary situation. Part of overcoming panic is avoiding this kind of cognitive dissonance. So admit to yourself right now that disaster cascades happen; it’s a fact of life, and it will probably happen to you. But you can, from time to time, interrupt a disaster cascade by executing a good plan… or at the very least get yourself out of its way.

¹My apologies for assuming the work crews are primarily men, but, well, they tend to be. Just work with me here.

²For more information on this kind of thing, see the work of William Edwards Deming.

³Random is the key word here. These should be surprise inspections of structures or processes. The important point is to avoid giving people time to cover their tracks. Never, ever, ever assume that people will value other human lives over their own professional careers.

⁴If you see a survival opportunity (pinned people, or a window to exit an area, opportunities to move to cover, etc.), you should act on it, but in most major disaster scenarios civilians can only help by getting out of the way or sending money. If you’re looking to help out after a disaster always send money. Never send goods. Goods require people to manage them, which requires money and time that really can’t be spared, whereas money is a fungible resource that the disaster responders can use as needed.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.