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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Light up the darkness." - Bob Marley


[NOTE:  This piece has become one of the anchor pieces in the story of getting ready for the great disruption that began in 2020 with the pandemic.  More pieces to the back stories are here, including a sort of update to this post here on Why called The Great Transformation.]


Most Counterfear.com blog posts are conversational and fun and not so technical. This one is technical, serious, and sobering.

It is a memorial.  It is a foundation.  It is also an explanation.  A clearing.  And a space to dream.

This blog post is WHY.  Why “counterfear.”  Why the counterfear focus is on risk.  On change.  On resilience.  

It's why I think all of this is so important.

This post is made in honor of a dream.  A few dreams, actually.  It is a post in honor of the idea that when one dream fades - we can build another.  We light up the darkness.

Counterfear is a new dream. 

It is an idea - about a way of being.  It is a tool.  It is an approach.

It is an alternative.

It is a choice.

Counterfear is a phoenix, rising from the ashes of dreams since passed.

May the ashes of what has come before serve to nourish this vision, so that it can shine.

Catastrophe & Fear & Disasters... Oh My...

The “counterfear” idea surfaced in 2013.  When it did, fear seemed to have settled into a sort of steady state in the US.  I don’t think I’m over exaggerating to say that right now, fear appears to be on the rise.  That doesn't mean it is necessarily (because I'm not a researcher) - but it's easy to see where it looks that way.  It’s quite something.  Recent terrorist attacks are only amplifying it.  After all, that’s the goal of terrorism:  terror.

Terrorism succeeds when we’re afraid.  It's succeeding, in many circles.

I have been conscious of my own concern about terrorism since 1992.  Since the afternoon of October 30, 1992, to be precise.  It was a beautiful fall day at Simpson College, in Indianola, Iowa.  I was a sophomore in college at that time, studying international politics and environmental science.  I wasn’t hyper-focused on terrorism, but for some reason I noted that it was something to pay attention to.  Right there, in that moment.

I can’t say that I built my life around my newly-found terrorism concern, but I did make some deliberate decisions to build my own personal resilience after that.  I took a crazy job on an island, and learned to live without some of the things we have come to expect in modern society - like running water, electricity, and transportation.  I learned the basics of construction.  I trained to be a wildland firefighter.  I learned how to be self-sufficient - in the woods, with a fire crew. 

Sometime in the first season I was qualified as a wildland firefighter, I got sold on the need for both a national incident management system, and also for a national coordination system.  It happened on a mountainside in Middle Park, Colorado in 1996.  More to that mountainside story later, I hope.  There were firewhirls and gigantic bulldozers... and I showed up wearing a mini-skirt.  It's been an adventure of a life.  This is why I got a blog:  for the stories.  

My two take-aways from that wildfire:  

  1. It's good to always be prepared.  The crew from my home district grabbed my fire gear through an open window at my house where I'd left it just in case, since I had been on the other side of the mountain from home when the fire started.
  2. Wildland fire's National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS) and National Coordination System were the reasons that this incident - in the middle of nowhere - was super organized despite the spontaneous crazy fire behavior, and also that it had tons of aircraft, crews, engines, and heavy equipment on scene that appeared to have materialized from thin air.  These systems bring order to chaos - and fast.

Fast forward to 9/11.  I was living on the west coast in 2001, so it was still early in California when the 9/11 attack started.  Those of us who worked evenings during fire season were asleep. 

I got the 9/11 call on a brand-new old-fashioned-style Pottery Barn phone.  The call from my brother was the first time I ever heard that phone ring.  After he explained that not one but both buildings of the World Trade Center were hit and also the Pentagon, I started to shake.  I dropped the phone and ran to turn on the TV; stunned.  I remembered the day in 1992 when I first realized that terrorism was something the US would likely have to deal with. 

As the months after 9/11 unfolded, it was clear that there was some reason why I needed to pay attention.  There was work to be done.  I just had to figure out what my own calling would be, in whatever was to unfold.

I ended up following a hot track from the wildfire on that Colorado mountainside, in 1996.  I made it my mission to see incident management succeed in the US - by going after work on what later came to be the National Incident Management System (NIMS, with one "I").  It was clear that a national coordination system was also needed, and my hope was that both would develop. 

The Not-Yet-Created National Coordination System

The creation of a national coordination system never made it into law the way NIMS did - NIMS is in three federal laws.  A national coordination system idea did make it into the near-final drafts of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5:  Management of Domestic Incidents (HSPD-5) - the executive authorizing action for NIMS signed by President Bush.  The idea of a national coordination system was dropped before the final version of HSPD-5 was signed.

Why do we care?  Because to this date, there is no way to adjudicate competition for critical national resources in the case of a major national catastrophe and/or multiple major disasters.  There is no national mutual aid system.  When we need to move resources to respond to disasters and catastrophes, we do it through a set of multi-scale and overlapping coordination systems.  My former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) colleagues and I identified around 12 of these coordination systems

Each of these coordination systems competes against others.  Sometimes whoever calls first gets the resource.  Sometimes the resource goes to whoever can pay more.  Sometimes the order for the resource that is the most critical for saving life and property is in line behind orders for non-lifesaving resources, and does not get processed with priority.  This paragraph may be one of the first published documents to call this out.  It is a vulnerability, and it persists.  I have a friend who specializes in complex systems-level problem-solving.  He says that the problems left to us to solve are "wicked problems."  This is one of them.

This multi-scale and overlapping coordination system issue comes out in most disasters in the US, but emergency response people plow through the mess it brings.  There is not much choice, in the middle of a disaster.  Since 2003, I have sat in "after-action" meeting after meeting trying to deal with the ramifications of this.  Where it will really be noticeable to the public is in a catastrophe.  We've been lucky - the last US catastrophe was Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  We'll have another catastrophe, or more than one.  Hopefully not at the same time.  It's not a matter of if - but rather when.  It's in the nature of this place.

There’s more...

NIMS - The National Incident Management System

The NIMS as it was envisioned and signed into three federal laws and an executive order... doesn’t really exist.  It looks like it exists; to a point.  Lots of first responders, emergency management, public health, and critical infrastructure personnel around the US have taken NIMS courses, re-arranged their standard operating procedures, and made big changes.  More disciplines and jurisdictions are working together, and using common systems, terms, and approaches.  We have moved forward.

The emergency management crowd is full of intrepid people, and they will charge forward whether there is clear national policy or not.  And so they have.  They have made the best of the resources that are available.  There are consortiums and alliances spreading best practices and guidance where they can.  We are ahead of where we were on 9/11.

It's progress, but we can do better.

What we've got is actually not a consistent, scalable, and flexible National Incident Management System, as it was intended to be.  The wildland fire system that the NIMS was modeled upon upon took thirty years to build.  THIRTY.   And that was for one discipline - and a small one at that.  The NIMS was meant to be for the whole United States.

We’re coming on fifteen years since 9/11.  The trouble is that NIMS was meant to be a set of multi-scale and overlapping systems... for national mutual aid, for using the Incident Command System (ICS) and Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS), for public information coordination, for intelligence coordination (incident-related coordination for law enforcement and the intelligence community), for communications and communications interoperability, for incident information sharing, for operations coordination, for training, for exercises, and for credentialing of responders (including both identification and the development of qualificiations).  

It's just not there.  Right now, "NIMS" is pretty much training and a few policy and procedure documents.  And folks around the country making pieces of it work where they can.

There is a part of me that would like to tell this tale in much more detail.  One major reason for not doing that is that it's systems work.  Telling systems stories is complicated... and lengthy.  If you're not a response person, it would be even more technical than this post, and be exhaustive.

In the interest of due diligence, this post has noted the basics.  Should you happen to be a motivated fact-finder, you could track down more story parts through official processes.  Quite a bit of the story is a matter of public record.

To start, here is the NIMS legal framework:

More material for the NIMS story fact-finder:

  • Ask for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) history from DHS on the budget, staff, and contracts dedicated solely to the NIMS program since HSPD-5 was signed in 2003.  To be thorough, request this information for both the NIMS Integration Center (NIC pre-PKEMRA) and the National Integration Center (NIC ost-PKEMRA).  The NICs include the National Response Framework (NRF), Private-Sector Preparedness (PS-PREP), Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA), and other miscellaneous programs.  These offices and most NIMS activity have been in FEMA, which is within DHS.
  • Include in the FOIA request:  NIMS-related contracts, details on dedicated staff full-time equivalents (FTEs), position descriptions, and job (position) announcements.  Include any state and local government contractor partners under any form of special FEMA employment agreement.
  • Include specific requests for NIMS contracts, and the actual contract deliverables.  Many NIMS contracts include(d) provisions to collect, analyze, and process hundreds of hours of responder volunteer contributions into products created for first responders, and intended for publication and widespread adoption.
  • While contracts may not be available in the program office, federal records law requires that the original contracts be kept for a certain number of years.  These original contracts should contain Statements of Work (SOWs) indicating deliverables.
  • Analyze NIMS contract deliverables delivered vs. NIMS products and policy released on the FEMA website.
  • Analyze the FEMA budget allocated for NIMS provisions including funding for staff, think-tanks, partnerships, agreements, and contracts since 2003.  Cross-check that with actual NIMS expenditures.  This is not a small project.
  • Request NIMS-related email history for federal staff and contractors of all types, since 2003 - including any state and local government contractor partners under any form of FEMA employment agreement.  FOIA specialists may appreciate the targeting of email requests such as this to particular offices.  DHS and especially FEMA organization charts can help to determine offices and leadership of interest.  The NIMS program office has been within the National Integration Center at FEMA since the implementation of PKEMRA.
  • Analyze speeches of DHS leadership (especially FEMA leadership) for emphasis on NIMS and NIMS-related issues, approaches, and policy since the official creation of DHS on March 1, 2003.  HSPD-5 was signed the day before the DHS enabling legislation went into effect, which may indicate the priority of NIMS in the White House at that time.  Along with HSPD-5, the public laws noted above and the official NIMS policy documents released in 2004 and 2008 have the policy framework for content analysis.
  • Contact Us for more.

NIMS After-Action

After any disaster, response folks tend to do an After-Action Report (AAR).  These are sometimes referred to as "Lessons Learned."  That term is a bit contentious, though, because sometimes we haven't actually learned.

So, what happened to NIMS?  What can we learn?

A change in DHS leadership de-emphasized NIMS almost immediately after program development began, allowing the program office to be re-located deep within FEMA - rather than reporting to the DHS Secretary.  The program office's burial deep in FEMA was cemented by the third law that affected it - and by the implementation of that law (PKEMRA) within DHS.  The NIMS program office within FEMA was not even staffed until five years after 9/11, in mid-2006 (primarily due to the length of time it took for the laws and reorganization needed to stand up DHS).  NIMS staffing was almost immediately cut by half in 2006 - the year after Hurricane Katrina - diverted to work on a National Response Plan that was eventually scrapped.  Energy goes where attention flows, and attention was going away from the NIMS.  In the federal world, energy equates to budget, contracts, staff, accountability, leadership emphasis, and products.  And energy went to other places.


State and Local Government Perspective.  One reason involves DHS as a whole.  In the post-9/11 world, DHS represented a fresh opportunity (with strong momentum) for the federal government to deeply serve state and local government.  One way to succeed at doing that would be to bring state and local government personnel on as DHS leadership, staff, or detailees - on a large scale.  For NIMS and other programs meant to support first responders, that would have meant hiring police, firefighters, and emergency managers from state and local government.  In the federal world, this is difficult to do.  By the time DHS stood up, we were already a few years post-9/11, and folks were itchy to get things moving.  Hiring state and local people would have required deliberate strategy and action - and more time.  It was not a priority.  Hindsight is 20/20, and that kind of hiring strategy early on would have put DHS on a very different path than it has ended up on.

DHS Leadership.  DHS political appointees and middle managers brought their own agendas, priorities, and people.  Leadership and management did not clearly see - or perhaps understand - the vision for the NIMS that many first responders thought had been made clear after 9/11.  Or, leaders and managers had other priorities.  We all bring our own experience.

Expertise, System Complexity, and Non-Linear Thinking.  NIMS was modeled on multi-scale and overlapping national wildland firefighting systems, some of which were in also use in structural firefighting, law enforcement, and other emergency management systems when NIMS was created.  Leadership with expertise in the wildland firefighting systems that NIMS was based on were typically not closely tied to the long-term high-level NIMS decision-making process within DHS.  Staff and management with this expertise were limited in availability and were not heavily recruited.  Most of DHS' leadership did not understand the depth and complexity of the multi-scale and overlapping systems of NIMS - or the value that the creation and adoption of NIMS would bring to the US.  Non-linear systems-oriented work is difficult to understand and metricize, and therefore difficult to fund and implement.  The ramifications of this challenge continue to reverberate.

Federalism, & Departmental Priorities.  As the years since 9/11 have passed, DHS’ departmental emphasis has started to shift away from supporting first responders across the entire threat spectrum.  The emphasis on heavily supporting state and local government has faded as well.  The department has filled with leadership on all levels who have possessed a limited understanding of federalism and the domestic incident management process.  Federalism is critical as a cornerstone of the republic.  Effective support of state and local government within the framework of federalism can be difficult for leaders to champion if they have not worked at state or local levels.  Outside of direct disaster aid, DHS has shifted to focus heavily on terrorism.  The budget tells the story.  There is nothing wrong with funding security; although it is tremendously expensive.  But security isn't enough, because there is no way we can guarantee that we will mitigate 100% of risk.  The threat from natural hazards will continue to rise, because we have an increasing world population living in high-hazard zones.  Security approaches don't tend to address risks posed by natural hazards.

More on Risk

We all walk a unique path that no one else can see - not even those closest to us.  We each have our own experience.

My experience brought me to the heart and soul of incident management in the United States.  It brought me to the core of DHS itself.  I have worked in federal and national response, policy, operations, infrastructure, and cybersecurity.

My experience says that we have some vulnerability.  

We also have the persistent threat of terrorism.  We've got the persistent threat of mass shootings.  An increasing world population living in high-hazard zones.  A completely absurd and seemingly never-ending 2016 presidential election.  Climate change is here; it’s happening.  And system scientists who invented the field have told us that our growing world population and economy have overshot the limits of a finite planet.  It's physics.  They say we are in for a reckoning.  So what does that mean?

The Great Disruption 

On March 1, 2012, the Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet held a forum called “Perspectives on Limits to Growth:  Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet.”

It was a big day:  40 years to the day from from when The Club of Rome first announced its work in a book and a talk called “The Limits to Growth” on March 1, 1972 at the Smithsonian.  The original work became the foundation for the study of system science - noted above.  Systems theory helps us to understand super-complex things from supply chains to ecology.

Two of the three surviving authors from the initial Club of Rome work released in 1972 were keynote speakers at the 2012 event.  Dennis Meadows, one of the study’s original three authors, noted that the models had again been updated to best use the latest technology.  Now, 40 years later, the models showed that we had already overshot the limits to growth on a finite planet.  Dr. Meadows said it would take some time for us to see what this means in reality.  No one could predict the specifics of how this would manifest, due to the complexity of systems factors such as feedback-loops and interdependencies.  He did not know when we would start to see the more severe effects of system collapse:  it could be a few years; as many as fifteen; or longer.  The rate of evolution of technology was also addressed across the keynote speeches - in terms of increasing the efficiency of productivity, etc.  The models did not indicate that technological evolution would be fast enough to offset the planetary overshoot.

Dr. Meadows stated that with this overshoot, system collapse would be inevitable.  The collapse would be of the ecological resources and systems that support our current society - as we know it. 

Given this, Dr. Meadows said that our great challenge would be to “manage the decline …of civilization."  He advised that our goal might be to try to have some semblance of any kind of civilization left when things settled down - apparently at some future post-apocalyptic point.  Not a sunshine-and-flowers moment.  I think the entire auditorium held its breath for some time.

Months later I found a book called “The Great Disruption,” by Paul Gilding.  The book is based on exactly the same science, and did include coordination with one of the authors from the original Limits to Growth work - Jorgen Randers.  I mention this book because I like the term better:  disruption.  It recognizes enormous change, but the word doesn’t bias the outcome against civilization itself.  It recognizes HUGE change.  It also allows for hope. 

We’ve got to create the space;  to allow for miracles.  For vision.  And for human resilience.

National Security

Lester R. Brown was the final keynote speaker at the Smithsonian event on March 1, 2012.  Mr. Brown recommended that the audience consider the following as the top five threats to US national security.  These are not in specific priority order:

  • Increasing competition for food
  • Increasing competition for water
  • The increasing number of failed nation-states
  • The increasing world population
  • Climate change.

This list of national security threats appears just as relevant now as it did in 2012.  The Counterfear Resources page in the Toolbox links to a few relevant articles on some of these topics, but is by no means exhaustive.  Check out the influence of the chaos in Syria (one failed nation-state) for another example; its influence on world politics (and terrorism) is hard to miss.


You might be ready right about now for one of those five-minute breaks that I highly recommend.  I swear:  this part is the wrap-up. 

I don’t know what’s coming in this world.  None of us do.  If we did, we would likely curse the knowledge… as Seers often do.

We have choices. 

We can be paralyzed by fear.  We can bury our heads.  Deny.  Wring our hands.  Lament, about times gone by.  Opportunities missed.

We can keep on going about our lives... as if nothing is amiss.  It is the easy choice.  It is the choice we default to as well, because we have kids.  And jobs.  Deadlines.  Things to do.  Life happening.

We can also create the space to do something different.  We can shift our energy toward dreams, and vision.  We can see light - and possibility - in our future.  We can let go of some of the heartbreak we carry - when we are ready.  We can just let it go.  It's okay.  It doesn't serve us; especially when we can Imagine something even brighter... and more amazing.

What would that look like?  How can we figure it out?

We start by creating the space to look into this.  If you’ve read this far, you may already be on your way.

We start by looking at the risk landscape.  Most of this post has described major parts of our risk landscape.  What is risk?  Here’s the formula DHS uses... because a formula saves a thousand words:

Risk = (Threat) + (Vulnerability) + (Consequence)

This whole story - all of this stuff above - it isn’t meant to cause fear.

One of the basics of countering fear is to look at it.  To recognize it.  To See.

Here’s the deal:  we are going to have some seriously rough stuff ahead.  If we manage to avoid major presidential election chaos, we’re still going to have to deal with a very divided country, the very present and ever-evolving conditions that climate change will bring, and the likely stagnation of a growth economy on a finite planet where growth could be a thing of the past.  

We’ll have more disasters; the story above shows that we could certainly be better prepared for them.  The national security context above indicates that terrorism is more likely to increase than dissipate.  Disease will increase with climate change.

We have risk.

From a pure risk perspective, it is realistic to say that we could see a “great disruption” in our lifetimes.  System theory notes that feedback loops cause change to happen faster than we might intuitively or conclusively expect.  The behaviour of arctic ice is one indicator that feedback loops are having unanticipated planetary effects.


The mission at Counterfear.com is to face risk, make change, and build resilience.  We do with community, connection, vision, and resilience.

This story has been about why

This story is meant for the universe-denters, the innovators, the leaders, the disruptors, the inventors, the change agents, and the champions.  It is meant for the parents, the grandparents, and the kids.  It is meant for leaders and connectors and followers and team players.  It is meant for the scrappy, the resilient, the tough, the dreamers, and the fighters.  We are going to need a full Team turn-out for this one.  

This is an all-hands-on-deck type of a deal, and it's pretty obvious that not everyone is ready just yet.  But you might be.  Others are.  Lots of folks are paying attention.  So what do we do?  Where do we start?

We are living in a time of great opportunity.  A time of disruption.  A time of evolution.  A time of change.

There's going to be a ton of stuff that we need to do.  This is going to be problem-solving at scale.  Big pivots are needed.  Everywhere.  We're going to need Team players.  Worldwide.  And Teams.

Here’s where you can start:

  • Look at risk.
  • Counter your fear.
  • Make changes that fit.  Ask for help.
  • Make big pivots.
  • Get connected.
  • Be part of a team, a tribe, a community.  Or many.  Consider leading.
  • Build resilience.  Figure out what that means for you, your family, your neighbors, and your friends. 
  • Help other people.  When things get rough - what we have is each other.

Get started with Counterfear Anchor Points, which are the basic Counterfear resources.  Find more in The Counterfear Toolbox or on Twitter, @CounterfearZone.  You can sign up for coaching, consulting, a workshop, or a speaking engagement.  Sign up for the Counterfear newsletter.  At some point, we'll start creating a Counterfear Community, to help facilitate Team-building, connection, community, vision, and resilience-building.  Or just call for help.

Finally, you can do one major huge thing.  You can do the work, and you can shine.  We call can.  SHINE

We'll need it.  All of us.



In Memoriam

On March 1, 2012, I attended the symposium noted above at The Smithsonian Museum.  It was the first time I would hear the results of the system science - an update on 40 years of research on the planet and human sustainability on it.  It was nearly 20 years since I started studying the same system science at Simpson College.  I remember recognizing in that same year - 1992 - that terrorism was something the US would have to contend with.  The Smithsonian event on March 1, 2012 was one block from FEMA headquarters.

On March 1, 2012, a dear friend of mine passed.  He passed at the end of a day spent training and mentoring first responders.

In March of 2002, that very same friend had reached out to me from FEMA after he learned from a mutual fire friend that I was interested in helping to build what would eventually become the National Incident Management System.  Working with this friend in the year after 9/11 was the beginning of an odyssey.

The odyssey continues, but it has shifted.  A new dream has arisen.  The world spirals, and dreams evolve.

Counterfear is dedicated to my very dear friend, and to so many others.  The champions of incident management will always hold a special place in my heart.  They are the dreamers who inspired me to chase a vision.

Counterfear is dedicated to the dreamers.  Dreamers will create the legacy we leave, for dreamers become disruptors, and in a disruption - those agents of change will blaze the path.

To my friend John P. Kimball.  I am grateful for the path you lit; you lit it on fire.  Thank you for holding that vision.  And for believing.

Godspeed.  It is a brilliant path indeed.


POSTED:  2016-0301
EDITED:  June/August, 2016


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NOTE:  This piece has become one of the anchor pieces in the story of getting ready for the great disruption that began in 2020 with the pandemic.  More pieces to the back stories are here, including a sort of update to this post on Why called The Great Transformation.

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