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Shelter-in-Place: A Teachable Moment In Boston
April 21, 2013
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There isn’t much left to say about what happened in Boston on Monday. As I write this, the manhunt is over, the lockdown was lifted, and the cities are adjusting to a new normal.

From an Emergency Management perspective, I believe this will turn out to be a case study for an efficient, coordinated and collaborative response to an unexpected event from every responder – especially the public, the medical community, local and federal law enforcement.

I watched closely for the first 5-6 hours; then I just listened occasionally and watched for official updates.  This is a personal lesson learned from being too closely captivated by disasters I wasn’t directly involved in.  The event will proceed whether I’m glued to my TV or computer screen, or not.

Emergency Managers, like others who deal with emergencies every day, learn how to distance themselves emotionally from the events surrounding a disaster.  That’s the only way to keep enough perspective to manage all the details coming into an EOC: communication, mutual aid, personnel, shelters, staging, triage, barricades, evacuation and so on.

As I watched the events in Boston, I realized that is exactly what I was doing. I was critically watching the videos for organization and control, listening to the news and sifting out the rumors, following the official – and unofficial – tweets. I appreciated the coverage on NPR, where Steve Inskeep (Morning Edition) kept reminding us that he was “collecting dots, not connecting dots.”

I’m not suggesting Emergency Managers aren’t emotionally affected by these kinds of disasters; that comes later, when we replay the decisions that were made and think about how our actions effect the safety and security of the people we are responsible for. We translate our experience into preparedness training - for ourselves and the public.

I wrote a couple blogs recently about disaster preparedness messaging.  One was about sticky messages and one about using the Zombies Apocalypse as a meme to create teachable moments – when it is possible for a teacher to break through the apathy and get a message across. We want people to prepare for the unexpected, but we struggle with how to get their attention and convince them.

The request for the public to shelter-in-place during the Boston Marathon Bombings is just such a teachable moment.

I would hazard a guess that a whole lot of people didn’t know what shelter-in-place meant before Thursday, and now it will become part the public lexicon. It’s different than a snow day (Boston has that one covered).  Shelter-in-place requests are generally limited – in time and scope.

Asking the public to shelter-in-place isn’t an unusual request, either – although it is more often used because of a chemical spill or, more recently, at schools during a shooter scare.  It’s a way to keep people safe – and out of the way – until the responders can contain the area or eliminate the threat.

The shelter-in-place request for the Boston region was from civil authorities, complied with willingly, for 12+hours, by over 1 million people, on a beautiful Spring day.

It was the epitome of a large-scale, unexpected, public event – one that could have been longer and more traumatic than it was.

What is the message we should be spreading about the shelter-in-place request in the Boston Metropolitan Region?

“This really happened in Boston. It could easily happen to you …

“… and it’s a good idea to keep some emergency supplies in your home, office and car just in case.  Here – let me give you a list to get you started.

The emotional impact of those videos, tweets and news reports will do the rest.

Teachable moments are rare opportunities.  This one is an entirely plausible, yet unexpected, event. It was a situation almost everyone can imagine happening to them. Taking precautions against it are not complicated, unreasonable or especially onerous.

I would like to see everyone be prepared for those catastrophic events we always talk about, to be independent for several weeks, and in a position to help their neighbors.

In the meantime, I would settle for everyone being prepared to spend a day stranded at home, work, on the subway,  or in their car.

Because … it’s a start.

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