Emergency Preparedness

“Gray Rhinos” And How We Do Better Next Time

Thoughts and Analysis by Tom Henkey
Director of Emergency Management, Titan Security Group

Long-term and systemic disruptions of any kind are quite rare. Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and wildfires can be devastating to surrounding communities, yet almost never negatively impact the entirety of the American economy. They are, instead, largely regional events with some national implications.

A communicable-disease pandemic has proven to be an exception. COVID-19 has made immediate and extensive impacts on our economy and on our social behaviors. Perhaps the only analogs we may envision are a large-scale bioterrorism attack, or a widespread and extended failure of the electrical grid.

Such massive disruptions must be addressed by prevention, preparedness, and mitigation. If they are allowed to take place, and we find ourselves in a largely reactive respond and recover mode, then we are acknowledging that such massive social and economic impacts are inevitable.

Author Michele Wucker coined the phrase “Gray Rhino” to refer to events such as pandemic disease. At its core, the concept is the opposite of the widely referenced “Black Swan” event – a disruption so unexpected and unpredictable that it remains essentially unforeseeable. A gray rhino is a different type of animal entirely. In her 2016 book of the same title, Wucker defined the term as “the big, obvious thing that’s coming at you.” It is the risk that is entirely predictable, but fails to be acted upon.

Such as a pandemic.

Public health experts have been warning society for literally decades that a widespread outbreak of communicable disease was a “when” and not an “if.” It was a gray rhino bearing down on us, yet getting very little attention in terms of planning or preparation. We got gored because we failed to be proactive.

And yet this collective mistake offers us all an opportunity to absorb several critical lessons learned, and to improve our prevention, preparedness, and mitigation efforts for the next time. Because there will be a next time. Some obvious takeaways:

Put a subject matter expert in charge. The RAE concept works. The person with the responsibility, authority, and expertise to make educated and actionable decisions is the person who should be in charge of the overall effort. For a pandemic, this points to a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official, a highly regarded former Surgeon General, etc.

Establish a clear chain of command. The pandemic response in the U.S. showed us what a confused and ineffective mess our society becomes if no formal system is established to address a crisis. Aligning federal, military, state, local, and private-sector resources into a formal, efficient structure is vital to success.

Structured logistics and distribution. Perhaps the most important lesson from the coronavirus outbreak is that logistics are everything. The systemic lack of planning and structure that led to a chaotic and counterproductive bidding war among state and local governments and medical providers for critical supplies serves as a perfect example of how not to manage a supply chain.

Cross-sector collaboration is mandatory. Another obvious shortcoming in the preparedness for and initial response to this pandemic was a lack of collaboration. Involving unique and varied resources and skillsets including the private sector and military is absolutely mandatory for future crises. It is vital to have such agreements in place before a crisis emerges.

Fixed and reliable communications channels. During this pandemic, confusing and contradictory messaging from the federal government caused unnecessary inefficiencies and cost lives. The designated subject-matter expert placed in charge of the nation’s response must be the key conduit of concise, reliable, and truthful information during a period of crisis.

Identify the other rhinos. Just because you’ve tamed one beast doesn’t mean there are not others roaming around. We cannot afford tunnel vision. For example, hurricane season begins in the U.S. in less than two months, and climate change has created sea levels and weather patterns we simply have not seen before. We need to be proactive in our assessment and planning for predictable large-scale hazards in the future.

In essence, now is the time and place for unified, decisive, and innovative leadership across all sectors. A vital portion of that responsibility lies in performing an honest after-action review of our preparation for and response to the coronavirus pandemic, and rapidly applying the lessons learned to the next crisis. And there is always a next crisis.

As always, if you “See Something, Say Something”. For life-threatening emergencies, call 911. To report suspicious activity, call 855-RPRT-2-S4 (855-777-8274).

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