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by Lucien G. Canton: Melding theory and practice

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How realistic is your planning?
February 06, 2013
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"I saw a frog in the air once, so therefore frogs can fly!"

This was a favorite saying of one of my former colleagues in San Francisco whenever we encountered someone who was so sure of their opinion that they could not be swayed by the facts. We've all encountered people like this. Indeed, if we're honest, we'd have to admit that we have sometimes been that person.The psychological term is "misleading vividness", a condition where we draw conclusions on the basis of limited anecdotal evidence.

Couple this with another phenomena, that of perceived risk. The immediacy of media images has changed how we perceive risk in the United States. In the days when news took days to reach communities, the perception was that whatever had happened did not necessarily affect our community. Now with constant breaking news, the most minor risks have an immediacy that makes them seem like direct threats to everyone. 

Unfortunately, these two phenomena have had an impact on how we do emergency planning in the United States. We often talk about "disaster mythology" but a lot of false assumptions have been woven into our plans. For example, despite research demonstrating that people are resilient and able to participate in response, our plans continue to assume that response must be centrally controlled. We spend considerable effort during response dismantling spontaneous feeding and sheltering sites because they are not part of the "official system". We assume that people will act contrary to their best interests, although we have seen time and time again that people are more likely to act altruistically in a crisis than to act negatively.

Further, we have squandered limited planning resources because we feel the need to plan for risks that are more perceived than actual because they are in the public eye. We have forgotten that part of our job is to prioritize risk for our communities. All-hazards planning should mean that we consider all hazards in our planning, not that we plan for every possible hazard. Scenario-based planning has its uses but should not be the norm.

If we are to be effective planners, we must move away from these outdated assumptions and begin using evidence-based planning. We need to plan realistically for what is most likely to occur, not what we think will occur.

No matter what you believe, sooner or later that frog is going to hit the ground.

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