Ask yourself this question; during the last fire alarm at your job did you follow one of the building captains down the proper stairwell to safety, or did you cower under your desk to finish the last 15 minutes of your conference call? Do you get annoyed whenever you are watching your favorite program on television and the screen turns into a kaleidoscope of neon colors, an ear-splitting sound emerges from the speakers, and a semi-robotic voice decries “this is a test of the emergency broadcasting system, this is only a test…”
Well, you are not alone. In the post-911 world in which we live, our society is bombarded with various forms of emergency management communications. So much so, in fact, that we tend to err on the side of not reacting to various emergency stimuli in our daily lives. Despite the inconvenience these emergency tests may cause, we must remain diligent about following their directions. The more we practice during non-emergency situations, the more resilient we will be for the next real emergency.
A recent study in the New York Times highlighted an interesting discovery. Scientists researched how special-operations soldiers and race car drivers achieved resilience during the physical and emotional stresses of their jobs. These individuals were placed in brain-scanning machines as they wore face masks, and the researchers were able to control the flow of oxygen at the press of a button. In another control group, 48 healthy adults were placed in the same machines and were given the same face masks to wear. These adults were divided into three groups: high resilience, average resilience, and low resilience. These categories were determined by questionnaires given to them about their self-perceived emotional and physical resilience.
As the researchers began restricting the flow of oxygen, something interesting happened. The control group of “low resilience” healthy adults had brain signals that were quite inactive right before they realized the button was going to be pushed, resisting the flow of oxygen. However, after they started having trouble breathing they experienced extremely high levels of activation in the section of their brains leading to bodily awareness; overreacting to the threat once breathing became difficult. The control group of “average and high resilience” adults, as well as the elite soldiers and racers, showed increased levels of brain activity right before they thought their oxygen was about to be restricted. However, the level of activity in their brains sending signals to bodily awareness were muted. This group experiences a stressful condition but did not overreact physically or mentally.
It would seem risk favors the prepared. The aforementioned example accurately illustrates the power of resilience; the ability to maintain a level of functionality despite changing conditions in one’s environment. So how exactly can a person, group, or nation become more resilient? The key is preparation.
For an individual, attaining a level of high resilience could mean knowing what to do in case of a fire at the workplace. At an organizational level, it could mean ensuring a business has proper insurance in case the management team is killed in a fatal car wreck. For a nation, ensuring that local, state, and national agencies are operating under the same procedures and nomenclature leads to a higher level of resilience. The establishment of the Department of Homeland Security after 911 is a great example.
Special-operations soldiers and race car drivers were more resilient not only by physically and mentally training for their jobs, but also by role-playing. The old adage “practice like you play” applies to any group who wishes to achieve a high-level of resilience in the face of adversity. The Paris terror attacks in November 2015 and the recent Belgium bombings highlight how first responders are trained to spring into action; in the weeks and months preceding the heinous acts these brave men and women had been regularly training for mass casualty events. While emergency responders around the globe have developed this high resilience mindset, it is time for the citizenry of all nations to follow suit. Citizens should take it upon themselves to review emergency procedures such as:
A. Knowing the location of the nearest hospital and police station.
B. Becoming familiar with hurricane evacuation routes and travel on these routes in the weeks preceding hurricane season.
C. Ensuring fire alarms are checked bi-annually.
D. Ensuring homes have proper flood insurance.
These are a few often overlooked examples of how individuals can attain a higher level of resilience. The more we are prepared for impending disasters, the more favorable the outcome will be when the inevitable actually occurs.