‘Black swans’: Fire service leaders should work to speed the extinction of such events

The fire service must heed relevant warnings to prepare for predictable major events and increase department resilience for the truly unpredictable events

For fire chiefs, addressing daily urgencies is often all-consuming. Even still, the chief must make time to be strategic and focus on challenges that may not be readily apparent. In fact, the greatest challenges a fire chief could face comes in the form of disruptive or catastrophic events that occur with little or no warning. These events can profoundly impact our communities, the department’s ability to deliver service, and the organizations we lead.

When disruptive events occur with little or no warning, they are often called “Black Swan events.” More specifically, black swan events have a major impact on society and presumably could not have been predicted.

The term “black swan event” is rooted in ancient times when it was thought that black swans did not exist. The theory is frequently attributed to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who authored the book “The Black Swan.” The black swan theory has since been expanded to account for other disruptive events:

When disruptive events occur with little or no warning, they are often called “Black Swan events.” More specifically, black swan events have a major impact on society and presumably could not have been predicted.
When disruptive events occur with little or no warning, they are often called “Black Swan events.” More specifically, black swan events have a major impact on society and presumably could not have been predicted. (Photo/Getty Images)
  • Green swan events – major climate events that impacts the financial system;
  • Grey swan events – events that can’t be predicted but can be imagined; and
  • White swan events – events that are both common and likely.

Taleb asserts that we cannot predict black swan events; therefore, we need to become resilient to them. While becoming resilient to disruptions is a worthy and necessary goal, fire service leaders can, and should, continually seek clues that foretell future disruptions.

“Predictable surprises”

In their book, “Predictable Surprises,” Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins take a different approach to what many would characterize as black swan events. While the title is seemingly contradictory, it is intended to highlight the fact that many events that surprise us are, in fact, predictable. One key characteristic of a “predictable surprise” is that preparing for or mitigating the problem has immediate costs, while the benefits of these actions are not immediately realized. The lack of short-term benefit provides a powerful incentive to delay actions that could mitigate a disruptive event.

Another important concept is that our biases blind us to the possibility of rare events. This can lead to rationalizations in which we develop a false narrative about potential risks. Such narratives frequently take the form of statements like, “It can’t happen here because …,” “Nothing bad ever happens here …” or “We don’t have the resources to handle that.”

[Resource: Ditch the ‘It can’t happen here’ mindset]

Is this the era of Black Swan events?

Some would call the 21st century the “era of black swan events,” but could these tragedies truly have not been predicted?    

One event that has been referred to as a black swan is the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California. The 2005 California state fire plan described the area around Paradise as being susceptible to large, damaging fires, with potential for loss of life and property damage. This finding was echoed in 2008 by a Butte County Grand Jury following destructive fires in the same area. The Grand Jury report also identified the inadequacy of existing evacuation routes. Evacuation route capacity would later be identified as a contributory factor in many of the 85 deaths that occurred at the Camp Fire.

Related resources

Another example is the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder, Colorado, which destroyed over 1,000 homes in just a few hours. During an OEM press conference, the Marshall Fire was described by members of the Colorado congressional delegation as “very unusual” and “unprecedented.” What many do not realize is that the Marshall Fire occurred in grasslands that mark the beginning of the Great Plains. The wind-driven grass fire occurred during a predicted fire weather event that the National Weather Service had been advising of for several day. Fires in the Great Plains have increased by 400% since the 1980s, making fires such as the Marshall Fire quite predictable.

Events miscategorized as black swan events are not limited to wildland fires. The failure of the levee system following Hurricane Katrina was described by many as a black swan event. However, a Katrina-like event had been described in the October 2004 National Geographic article “The Big Uneasy.”

The list of events that have been described as black swans is quite long and includes the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Fukushima nuclear emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic and many other events that had extreme impacts yet were, in some regard, predictable.

Often a disaster is given the black swan title out of convenience or to deflect the fact that we failed to adequately prepare for the event. Some events that were described as a black swan were, in fact, predictable but were not expected because we ignored previous disasters or the environment around us. These events might be more accurately described as white swan events since they were both common and likely.

Preparing for major events

As leaders, our goal should be to hasten the extinction of the black swan by learning to make the unpredictable predictable and by increasing the resilience of our fire departments and communities to disruptive events.

The first step in eradicating the black swan is to purposefully engage in understanding the world around us. Too often, fire service leaders fall victim to the tyranny of the task-oriented workday, which prevents them from dedicating time to understanding the threats that face their community. While a good community risk assessment is a good step in understanding threats, the CRA typically identifies white swans, risks that are somewhat likely. To identify less common and catastrophic events, we need to take our situational awareness to a new level.

You may be familiar with Dr. Richard Gasaway’s situational awareness concepts. The same concepts of SA that we apply on the emergency scene can be applied to our strategic leadership. Gasaway defines three levels of SA.

  1. Perception: Perception is the process of gathering information about the environment. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, perception would be the recognition that there is a new disease impacting a distant country.
  2. Understanding: This means comprehending what is happening in the environment. In the pandemic example, comprehension would be the recognition that a lot of people are getting sick in another country and that the disease could make its way to our community.
  3. Prediction: This is the ability to anticipate future events. Related to COVID, prediction would have resulted in the recognition after SARS and MERS that a pandemic would eventually impact our community. This could have resulted in proactive measures to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Developing this level of situational awareness requires that we intentionally engage in environmental scanning, and consider events like terrorist attacks, pandemics, mass violence events, power grid failure, supply chain crises, financial crises, drought and wildfire. There are many resources available to assist in this process.

The strategic leader must regularly remove themselves from a focus on the immediate and think about the future. Simply reading from a wide variety of sources is a good first step. There are many resources, such as the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), state fusion centers, Executive Fire Officer research papers and the Homeland Security Digital Library, to name just a few. Further, informed chiefs should periodically read the work of futurists. While some futurists focus on extraterrestrials and new forms of civilization, others can provide valuable insight into new trends and threats that our communities will face. For example, while you may not find all of their hypotheses valuable, futurists like Peter Diamandis and Mark Stevenson will undoubtedly challenge you to think differently about the future.

Building resilience

Once we begin to develop a predictive mindset, we must take action to prepare our organization for potential disruptions. Before we prepare for specific hazards or scenarios, a fundamental first step is to have a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) for your organization. A well-designed COOP will help ensure that your organization can continue to serve the community when disruptions occur. A comprehensive COOP will address supply chain disruptions (food, fuel and medical supplies), loss of use of facilities, and workforce issues (such as a sick workforce).

[Read next: Building a fire department COOP: A guiding light in an operational storm]

Beyond the COOP, take clear actions to prepare for specific hazards. If you realize that you need to address a wildfire risk, there are resources such as the IAFC’s WUI Chief’s Guide. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has many resources regarding cyber and infrastructure threats, while the Department of Homeland Security has a variety of resources for preparing for both natural and manmade disasters.

Fire service leaders cannot employ the non-strategy of hope; we must make reasonable preparations for likely threats. Are you content to hope that your community is not the victim of the next black swan, or will you actively seek to identify threats, eliminate them when possible, and prepare your organization and community to be resilient to those threats that cannot be mitigated?

Look ahead and prepare

While the black swan is unlikely to become extinct, situational awareness and strategic leadership can prepare us for events that may seem unpredictable. We must escape the tyranny of the task-oriented workday, taking time to conduct environmental scanning, develop situational awareness, mitigate risk when possible, and prepare our organization to be resilient to disruptions that will undoubtedly occur.

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