Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush presented some of his personal lessons-learned in crisis management and disaster preparedness as advice to attendees at Wednesday’s General Session. The lessons “can be applied to any setting, whether you’re the governor, or a CSO, or the fire warden on your office floor,” Bush said.
The first lesson for attendees was that they must continue to adapt in order to get better, and never stop learning from experience. Bush, who was Florida’s governor from 1999 until 2007, recounted his time as governor in 2004 and 2005, when the state faced eight hurricanes and four tropical storms in a span of 16 months. Improvements that the state made after the storms include the creation of a program for homeowners who hurricane-proofed their homes, an increased culture of preparedness through public education campaigns, and tax holidays for disaster supplies. The storms also spurred improved special needs shelters, the country’s first state law enforcement radio system to allow first responders and emergency coordinators to talk to each other, and other initiatives, according to Bush.
While Florida received federal government funds to help during the storms, “all the money in the world can’t do the work of a good disaster plan executed by competent and committed leaders,” Bush said. He added that “if you don’t have the pieces in place, you don’t stand a chance.” During the hurricanes, Bush said “we took a good emergency response organization, through adaptation and trial and error, and turned it into one that I believe is the envy of the country. We got better through lessons learned.” The preparedness gained by the Florida National Guard and first responders trickled out into other states when 3,300 Florida public servants helped in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina.
Although Florida had already been through many natural disasters, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992, it was that 2004-2005 experience that helped the state progress to that next level of preparedness. Bush told Security Management in an interview after the talk that the intense experience of preparing for new storms while still recovering from the last ones “changed me; it will be there for the rest of my life.” He added, “We had a good emergency response capability before the storms…but if you have a culture that is focused on constantly improving, the experience makes you better.”
Bush urged attendees to use as many people as possible in their organizations to make a difference. States need to take advantage of the “megacommunity” of state government, counties, cities, towns, and other resources, and Bush added that private sector companies can do the same within their organizations. Additionally, Bush told attendees to surround themselves with people who are talented—the right kind of people for a disaster. He said government is dysfunctional and you end up having to deal with many small crises, and those skills later help to deal with bigger issues.
“People who are tasked with disaster preparedness need to have that instinct for Murphy’s Law and the experience to back it up.” Bush said that if you have someone on your team whose standard response to any challenge is “everything will be fine,” then you should move them somewhere else. “You want people to worry. You want people to know that bad things happen.” Combat veterans are particularly good at crisis preparedness and response, said Bush, because they know that things will go wrong and they are ready to deal with it when that happens.
No matter how experienced your team is, you still need to focus on training, said Bush. He added that you can’t just train people who have risk or security in their job titles; “you need to train everybody who’s going to be a key person in a crisis or disaster.” Although there is no way to train for every potential crisis, Bush said that the exercises taught his team valuable lessons. “We learned the difference between a manmade and natural disaster could be found in how we acted—even when circumstances completely overwhelmed us.”
And Bush reiterated the importance of disaster training during his interview with Security Management. Regarding the recent preparations for Hurricane Irene, which hit the east coast last month, Bush said that New York City’s terrorist training was likely helpful in crisis response preparation. “All that training, you can transfer it. These are skills that can be applied to other types of disasters.”
The final lesson learned that Bush provided attendees was “don’t pass the buck.” Bush said. “In a crisis, there’s no time to lay blame at people’s feet—and sometimes you have to take blame when it’s not your fault for the good of the response and recovery.” He provided an example of post-Hurricane Wilma recovery in Miami-Dade County in 2005, when Miami-Dade turned down water and ice from the state. During a press conference, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was asked what FEMA was doing about the lack of water and ice in the county. Bush said he took the microphone and accepted personal responsibility for the situation and promised to fix it, though it wasn’t his fault. When the truth came out, Bush explained that he accepted the blame because “the controversy would have distracted from the central mission, which was helping Floridians recover. I knew that if I accepted fault, everyone would get back to work.”
Bush told Security Management that taking the blame in that situation had no downside in retrospect; he said that acceptance of responsibility is a trait that people are not going to get too critical of. They are more critical of the other side, which is “blaming somebody else.”
Bush said the people who do crisis management and preparedness best “understand that if your job is thinking about the worst-case scenario, planning for it, and averting it, no one notices when you succeed, but if you do your job wrong, everybody notices,” much like with baseball umpires. “Make one wrong call, and they remember your name until the day you die.” Bush added that it’s not a job for people who get bored by another quiet day in the office, because another quiet day in the office without a disaster is a great day. Bush closed with, “I want to wish all of you more quiet days in the office.”