OODA: Pushing Through the Emergency Management Freakout

What do disaster communicators and fighter pilots have in common?


[In the middle of a quiet shift… it got interesting at the very end]

It was late at night as my partner and I finished our shift on the quick response EMS rig at the festival with fifty-something thousand people having a good time. It had been mostly a quiet shift, with a few medical and trauma calls, but nothing particularly stressful on this clear and cold night.  We backed into the parking spot at the station, and Tracy and I unloaded our personal gear while we waited for our relief to show up. I radioed dispatch and put our unit out of service for crew change.  In addition to the fire and EMS vehicles, the station also was a drop-in BLS first aid clinic.  There were no patients at the moment, and the station staff of volunteer EMTs and RNs were hanging out, chatting among themselves and waiting for patients.  “Hey guys!” another pair of EMTs greeted us – they were assigned to the rig for that next shift.  Tracy handed one of them the keys, and I handed over radio for the unit … and they started to go through the vehicle doing the checkout before going in service. It was quitting time for us.  We started to leave the station…

And, just as if it were scripted that way, a car pulls up.  There are four people in it surrounding a woman who is laying in the back and yelling very loudly in pain.

And just like that, everyone within earshot freezes.  The station medical staff and their chatter.  Our replacement crew checking out the QRV. Tracy and I, off shift and in the middle of leaving.  There are quick glances back and forth.  For a few moments, nobody moves…

And then Tracy starts to walk to the patient, grabbing a trauma bag off the shelf.  I’m two feet behind her, putting on another pair of gloves on automatic pilot.  We start to work up the patient (obvious fracture near the ankle, and a whole lot of pain to go with it).  The other medical staff still stare at the scene, not engaging until we ask them explicitly for help.

When something happens suddenly and dramatically, instead of the panic behavior depicted in movies or television, what we learn is that often things get quiet.  People freeze.  Case after case of this behavior is documented in the book The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disaster and Why by Amanda Ripley.  It happens to those caught up in disaster.  It also happens to us as emergency responders.  That moment in the station may have only lasted for a few seconds before Tracy acted.  But it felt like a small eternity…

But there’s a difference… we have a duty to do something about the crisis we find ourselves in.  We can’t allow ourselves to freeze.  We’ve got to push through the fog of war (or “analysis paralysis” if you prefer) and get on with it.  The public (the patient!) is looking to us in their moment of need.  We’d better be able to rise to that moment.

You know who else has that same problem?  Fighter pilots.

How do we push through the fog of war and make decisions in time critical environments?    During the Korean War, US Air Force Colonel John Boyd realized that the speed at which modern jet air combat was occurring really shortened the time a pilot could use to make decisions. Colonel Boyd wound up creating a mnemonic known as the “OODA Loop.”  While created in the context of air combat, the OODA Loop has been adapted for use in business, academia … and I think it has a role in emergency management.

The four phases of the Loop are:

Observe: With the five human senses, survey the environment and gather information.

Orient: With the data one has at hand, develop the mental picture of the situation.  Convert that data to information.  Remain open to deconstructing pre-existing mental pictures of the situation, as the reality of the situation may have changed.

DecideBased on your mental picture and your available options to act on that picture, determine a course of action.

Act: Execute that action.  And then once you’ve acted, go back to Observe to determine the impact of that action, and adjust your course of action as necessary.  Repeat continually through the emergency.

(Admittedly, Col. Boyd’s OODA Loop is more complex than my casual treatment of it here – I encourage anyone interested to study it at a deeper level, it’s quite fascinating)

When I respond as an EMT, I may find myself walking through the OODA loop several times within a few minutes, continually observing the emergency scene, orienting myself within it, deciding what I need to do next, and then acting on that information… and then going back to step one.   This prevents me from falling into analysis paralysis (left-brain thinking common to engineers and scientists, you always want to act with perfect information which may never be forthcoming), and it keeps me from developing tunnel vision and failing to notice a changing or dynamic situation.

As a disaster communicator, the OODA loop is a useful mnemonic to ensure that you are providing effective communications support to the incident.  Emergencies scale up, they scale down, and the information may change in the blink of an eye… we may need to turn up new sites, or abandon a solution we deployed only a few hours earlier.   In air combat, “getting inside” your adversary’s OODA loop enables the pilot to make smarter decisions and ultimately gain victory.  In humanitarian affairs, it allows us to engage faster and more decisively.  Because we too hope to gain victory.



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