Those that know me know that I love movies. Something I realized quite a while ago is that movies make great “brain exercises”. It’s often said that the best tool you can have in any situation is a well-developed mind. One of the easiest things you can do to develop your “Readiness Brain” is to spent a little time playing with emergency oriented thought exercises – “What would you do is this situation” games. So for fun, and to get us all thinking in the right mindset, every so often I plan to take a movie and poke at it. Ask questions like, what did the characters do right? What did they do wrong? How might we have reacted in that circumstance?
The rules of this game are easy: We’re not here to critique the movie – let Ebert handle that. Nor are we here to consider the realism of the scenario.We’re limited to what the characters know about the situation and the ‘rules’ of their universe, however fantastic they may be. We’re also limited to what tools and supplies the characters have, though we’ll always what-if to consider some of our own basic kit. Note: I can’t/won’t promise a spoiler-free post, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it ruined, READ NO FURTHER!
The first movie I wanted to try this with is one of the more quintessential disaster flicks of the last several years: Cloverfield. If you haven’t seen it, it’s your basic “giant monster attacks the city” scenarios. If you’ve seen any Godzilla movies, you’ve basically got the gist of Cloverfield. The story follows a handful of late-20-something yuppie-types as they first try to leave the city, then try to rescue one of their own and finally, just survive. This is a great movie for our purposes because it uses something fantastic (a giant monster) as a metaphor for a real kind of emergency (terrorism) and focuses on the realism. Is it a good movie? Who cares; not our problem. For our purposes it’s great. So let’s look at some key scenes in the movie and see what we can learn and maybe brainstorm some better responses. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
The initial event:
The movie starts, in earnest, with some off-screen explosions. The camera takes us, along with a number of other people in the building to the roof for a better look. Eventually we end up down in the street where we see a large building destroyed, an iconic 9/11-style dust cloud and the teaser-trailer shot of the Statue of Liberty’s head in the street.
So, were their decisions good? Could we have done better? Honestly, I don’t have too many harsh things to say at this point in the movie, the characters just didn’t have any information. Their biggest mistakes were that they let fear and instinctual responses guide them and let the most recent tragedy (which to them was the 9/11 attacks) rule their thinking.
They did right by first getting the TV on. I would have added any radios that were available as well as the Internet. What makes good decision-making challenging at this stage is the lack of information. Do you need to leave? Seek shelter? You can’t know without information. However, while getting the news up was a good idea, they muddied the info-waters on the roof by engaging in rampant speculation with the other building occupants. All kinds of wild ideas were being tossed around and in a manner that only ensures confusion and fear. That said, if your area is hit by an earthquake (which is what the “official story” is at this point in the movie), communicating with your neighbors and making sure that everyone is safe? Definitely not a bad idea. People will need help and there is strength in numbers.
When chunks of exploded building start flying, that’s when things start going downhill rapidly. Every one is letting panic and fear take charge. They go from the roof to the street which isn’t really much of an improvement. Arguably, the street is even worse than the roof – yes, if their building gets hit they might be hurt, but on the street you’ll be dealing with falling debris from all of the surrounding buildings. A better choice, if it had been available, would have been a hardened stairwell or basement level to the building.
The Evacuation of New York
The city is ordered to be evacuated as quickly as possible. The roads themselves are, effectively, closed and everyone is fleeing on foot across the various bridges. Our plucky heroes march to the bridge, but are ultimately turned back.
So the first question: Should they have joined the crowd in the first place or tried to hunker down and ride out the storm? I can’t think of any example of a natural disaster (or unnatural for that matter) where evacuation was called for, but there wasn’t at least one person that decided to stay. Generally speaking, I’m inclined to say that if the situation gets to the point where a recognized government agency is calling for evacuation you should probably evacuate. They don’t make those calls lightly and usually have more information and more resources being put into things than you do.
This, by the way, is a textbook scenario for a “bug out bag”. You can’t stay in your apartment or home. You need to leave and you need to leave now. You don’t have the luxury of spending an hour packing nor is the use of a vehicle an option. The emergency kit bag is purpose-built for this kind of thing: it’s got the essentials and nothing else. It’s lightweight and won’t slow you down. You grab the bag, and you go.
Seeking Shelter and The Subway
Our protagonists are caught in a fire fight between the military and the monster. They seek shelter in a near-by subway station, then proceed to use the tunnels as a means of moving through the city.
Good moves or bad? All in all, seeking shelter in the subway station was a great move. At that point, they couldn’t safely evacuate and when you can’t evacuate the next move is to seek the best shelter you can. Subway stations are routinely built to double as shelter in times of emergency. This is a great choice for protection. Even using the tunnels to move around was actually pretty clever. That said, once you find shelter you should avoid leaving it until you’re sure it’s safe.
Going After Loved Ones
Most of the movie has been about our team trying to make it to the high-rise apartment of one of our own. She is known to be gravely injured, alone and “behind enemy lines”. The building itself is crippled and leaning against another building. The team goes up the intact building, get across to the roof of the damaged building and find their wounded friend.
This was an incredibly stupid thing to do. Also, incredibly human and at my best I’d be hard pressed not to do the same. Even at the most basic level of Red Cross training they will tell you to tend to your own safety first and foremost. Do NOT put yourself in harms-way to rescue someone else. All you will do is cause another fatality, but a bigger drain on rescue services and remove your special skills and training from the pool of resources. This was unequivocally a BAD idea on their part.
It sounds more than a little heartless, and I’d probably do the same thing in their place, but that doesn’t make it the smart move. But, okay, let’s say we accept that we’re stupid enough that we’re going to try anyway. What can we do to improve our odds of not making a bad situation worse? Well, for starters, and I don’t mean to repeat myself, but say it with me: Bug Out Bag. In even the simple kit we list here, you would suddenly add several assets: flashlights, water, good running shoes, etc. Even some basic tools for tending to injuries.
If you’re going to back into a disaster area, make a plan. A REAL plan, not just “let’s get her”. Think about where you’re going to go, how you’re going to get back, what obstacles you’re going to have in your way and how long you think this is going to take. If you can’t put together a good plan with the right equipment, that’s usually a good sign that we’re making an epic mistake. Leave this information behind with people. We’re stupid for going back in, but if rescue workers know where people are it makes it a lot easier to help.
A few final thoughts
So, how badly did they do? Honestly, I don’t think they did too badly for the most part. The biggest mistake was, of course, intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way. They make a few mistakes, mostly based on panic and fear, or other strong emotions. A common theme when it comes to disaster readiness is the importance of remaining calm and not panicking. And that might be our best lesson from this movie: remain calm, remain rational. Think, and THEN act.
If you think you have a good movie for this kind of exercise, by all means, let me know! I love a good movie…heck, I love a bad movie. 🙂