In this case, we have a situation where “smoke” was reported, but the "fire" that was verified was not precisely what was reported. Specifically, volunteers asserted four fatalities when only one was actually discovered. There is an important underlying message when, in the article, volunteer Mr. DellaVecchia states, “God help me, I never said I knew there were dead people there… [but] if [the] report caused people to get there… then it’s excusable.”
Our team’s interactions with the Hurricane Sandy Relief Volunteer Group revealed tremendous stress and outcry over perception of being ignored by officials charged with response. Rumor of fatalities among abandoned elderly stoked these flames. We observed a nearly identical sentiment in social networks involved in the Haiti disaster response effort as well. Again, a very common communication pattern to see post-disaster.
What is taken as operational reality, whether one is using online social media communication grids or not, is the problem with verification of claims. In general, people on the ground seek to “do the right thing” and report problems. In Haiti, we only rarely saw intentional deceit, where a community leader would attempt to exploit response organizations’ good will for additional supplies or funding. But this was the exception. We did often see differences in social tolerance of stress, where one community would attempt to manage a first-contact 12-fatality cholera outbreak on their own for several days before asking for help versus another that only had one fatality.
DellaVecchia’s sentiment is a common one, where all report of "smoke" must be investigated quickly before the spark becomes a wildfire. Reportedly, it took two weeks for a formal investigation to be instigated at Rockaway. One fatality is a problem, but there were other fatalities during Sandy in other locations as well. But examined another way, had officials walked in two weeks after notification to find a dozen bodies, the public response would have been politically crippling.
So, the terrible juxtaposition of “doing the right thing” and accepting the reality that you will have false alarm reporting versus defaulting to a “show me don’t tell me” approach. The former exposes the responder to potential embarrassment, whereas the latter exposes the responder to outcry of negligence.
We conduct our operations along the principle embodied in
the former. To use a surgical analogy, one must remove one normal appendix for every nine abnormal appendices because the thought of missing one could mean someone's life.