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Thad Allen: “It’s a leadership challenge, it’s a legal challenge, it’s a policy challenge, it’s a resource challenge”

Posted on 05 February 2012 by Alice

Published on,
1st February 2012
By Alice Johnson
Thad W. Allen, senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, recently retired from the United States Coast Guard. As the 23rd Commandant of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Allen was selected by President George W. Bush to lead the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as the Principal Federal Official. In 2010, he was selected by President Barack Obama to lead the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as National Incident Commander. He spoke to Zawya about effectively handling large-scale catastrophes.

Thad Allen

What is the main response challenge when there are so many different entities involved in a crisis?

That’s a great question. With any large catastrophic events that are occurring these days… it may be beyond the purview of one agency, one country, one company, to be able to completely handle the response and meet the expectations of what I would call a whole of government or a whole of nation key response. And to be effective you need to learn how to bring in different people to network and collaborate and be effective and create what I would call ‘unity of effort’.

Is this ‘unity of effort’ difficult to create?

It depends on the agenda, but the reason it’s difficult is there are horizontal issues related to how you relate to other governmental and private sector entities that either have a stake or equity in the response. The goal is trying to bring it together so you understand the best thing we can do is work together to solve the problem. And it’s a leadership challenge, it’s a legal challenge, it’s a policy challenge, it’s a resource challenge.The response to Katrina was criticised – what would you say went wrong?

In the first week of the response – and I have been very frank in my discussions about this in the last five or six years – I don’t think we got the problem right to begin with. If you don’t understand the problem right, you can’t fix it.The problem was that the local authorities on the Gulf Coast lost what I call ‘continuity of government’. What they really needed to do was re-establish the elements of their government, including command and control communications. That didn’t happen for a week.

Have you seen an increase in disasters in the last decade?

I’ll leave that to the scientists, but I can say it would appear that the problems that we’re encountering are larger and more complex and impact more elements of society than ever before. I do know this: the level of complexity and the scale at which these events are occurring are such that no single agency and at times no single government can actually mount an effective response by themselves.

What about the cost of responding to such events; has it gone up?I think the cost of responding to any event is going to increase with the cost of living and the inflation rate, and the cost of goods. There’s a separate issue and that’s who should bear the cost of the response.

Are there any new forms of technology or processes that have ensured more effective responses to large-scale catastrophes?

I think there are technologies that allow crowd-sourcing, allow us to try to understand where the need is for a response. On the other hand, you’re automatically going to be graded by the public and it will be announced publicly immediately through social media. I think that is something that’s dramatically new in the last five or six years.

So how have responses changed in light of the social media phenomenon?

Well, it can help you mobilize resources, it can help you communicate, it can help you explain a level of complexity to the public. On the other hand, you need to be able to get that information out in a timely manner because if you aren’t, there’s generally a perception that there’s information being withheld or you’re not being open and honest about it.

Do governments and other agencies agree with you on that?

That’s a very good question. Here’s what I tell people: it really doesn’t matter what you think. It really doesn’t matter what your position or your policy is in government or a company. The public can participate in these events because there’s no barrier to entry on the internet.

If you’re not out there and you’re not interacting and you’re not providing information, then the public is only going to hear what is said from people who are trying to observe it from where they are, and they may not have complete information. Each government has a

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responsibility to put the entire picture out there.

How do you balance the needs of the people affected by the events with the needs of the corporate entity or government seen to be responsible for it?

I guess you need to differentiate between a man-made disaster and a natural disaster, and the difference between the two is with a man-made disaster you potentially have a culpable party.

Compared to the last century, how have insurance implications changed?

It all has to do with having good, accurate information about the level of risk, the consequences and the cost that will be entailed in that, and the problem with insurance is when it’s hard to figure out one of those three.

Out of all the natural or man-made disasters that you’ve been involved with, which has been the most challenging?

It is the interface between the technical expertise required to fix the problem, and political leaders who feel they are accountable to their constituencies to be relevant in a response. Everything else is dwarfed by that.

Among Haiti, Katrina and Deepwater, which one instigated the best response?

They were all very different. One of the things that you need to understand is that the event that occurs does not create the pre-conditions or status of the community, the people, the country. Hurricane Katrina did not

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invent low-income, high-density housing, childhood nutrition and educational problems. But the extent that those exist in a community that has one of these events occur, the events are exacerbated and are made worse by those conditions.

© Zawya 2012

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