Source: The Sterling, Virginia, NWS Forecast Office (February 2010).

Avoiding the Three As: Apathy, Atrophy & Attrition

Emergency management is everything to everybody, but it often lacks the glue that is so desperately needed to manage catastrophic events. This is likely the result of two common pitfalls that the profession has long suffered from, pitfalls that can begin as soon as one walks out of the meeting or training room door: apathy and atrophy. Apathy can be defined as a lack of interest, passion, excitement, or concern. When not effectively addressed, apathy can then lead to atrophy, a long gradual decline in effectiveness. Such weakening is caused by underuse of key knowledge, skills, and abilities.

There have been shining moments such as the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia Recovery Mission across 300 miles of the southern United States or the 2007 I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These incidents showed that it is absolutely possible to manage personnel, resources, jurisdictions, and subject matter experts – and do it all while providing the public the relevant information. There was no existence of apathy or atrophy in these operations.

A History of Disaster

Looking at events that were rife with atrophy and apathy can be seen in the “snowmageddon” of 2009-2010. This North American blizzard began threatening days before, but it was not managed well and people died. The Washington Post headlined the 7 February 2010 Sunday Edition with “A Historic Mess.” A subtitle described how tens of thousands were powerless and stalled without heat and transportation for air, rail, and roads. Over a half-page photo of a disastrous street scape of downed power lines and an impassable road showed how communities were struggling to dig out.

Snowmageddon is aptly dubbed because of the end-of-world scenario that it created. However, emergency managers had been learning how to implement the Incident Command Structure (ICS) and manage existential-threat scenarios for many years prior to this event. This headline should have read, “City Crippled by Snow of the Century,” with a subhead “Emergency Managers Provide Life-Saving Resources and Shelter for Those Affected.”

Major exercises, written articles, catastrophic logistics, All-Hazards Incident Management Team training, Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) developments, and other professional works written – as well as an emerging post-secondary academia track – were creating an “age of enlightenment” in emergency management. Atrophy and apathy, though, ruled some aspects of this disaster.

Emergency managers regularly respond, manage, and organize disasters. Terror events like 9/11 in 2001 and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had shown what disasters could be. Yet, a snowstorm still incapacitated a region. Implementation of ICS up to that time archived 40 plus years as a part of the emergency management foundation. Although the National Incident Management System (NIMS) curriculum was a requirement of all emergency managers by 2010, emergency management systems still suffered apathy and an atrophy from a known emerging snowstorm.

Infusing a New Safety Culture

It is imperative that these terms are countered and defeated with exercise and the promotion of leaders that have vital cultural safety skills when it comes to disaster management. An atrophied limb needs exercised. Vitalizing the means to create enthusiasm, interest, and concern can make all the difference when the next local, state, or federal disaster falls upon the public.

A culture of safety must be infused in every aspect, at every level. Elected officials must be told, firmly, that information technology (IT) is not just a way to manage data. IT serves as a shield and sword that produces information sharing and a common operating picture with real-time data integrated from all stakeholders – public and private alike – when the next snowmaggedon is upon the region. Every aspect of an organization must have the safety culture engrained in it. Private resources that support public resources need to be resilient and collaborative and not operate in a vacuum. If a paralyzing storm, public health crisis, or other disaster is impending, there should already be collaborations for supply chain, safety, operations, information sharing, verifying contacts and tangible resources, and identifying gaps. There is no room for assumptions in emergency management.

Reality Check

Checklists have been developed for nearly every scenario, every position, every contingency, but they are not exercised. They sit unused, with no regular snowmageddon practice day executed. Everyone has been guilty of the apathy dance that occurs regularly with exercises. A tabletop exercise is scheduled for next month, all the stakeholders are identified, and there is an enthusiasm and a plan to exercise. The large conference room is scheduled, everyone ensures they will be there, and the one or two critical emergency support functions (ESF) are locked in. The IT group is ready to present how situational awareness and data can be merged in real time to handle a resource-heavy, vocation-wide management of the emergency.

Then, the day before the exercise, the other A word, attrition, rears itself. So, now the scramble is on as a critical partner drops out, one of the major response agencies has a critical personnel issue, the scribe is pulled away for a “priority” incident, and all the same members are there to conduct the exercise.

The Next Step

Here is what needs to be done:

  • Exercises need to be mandatory, no exception.
  • The leaders of the organization need to be present (not assign the 2nd in command to be the incident commander on the exercise claiming they need to get practice).
  • All leadership should be involved.
  • All main stakeholders and machinery that makes them work and can make decisions need to be included.
  • Finally, a “real” hot wash and after action/improvement plan needs to be conducted.

Doing this while avoiding atrophy of the department and reducing apathy is difficult but can be done by engaging someone other than the training officer to develop the exercise. It needs to be someone in the organization that can put vitality and concern into a meaningful exercise with fresh ideas. This will let the training officer concentrate on some of the ideas they have been wanting to explore to enhance the product. It does not have to be perfectly done with all the forms and documentation properly parsed out. It just needs to be done – scenario, participants, actions, goals, capabilities, analysis, hot wash, debriefing, and improvement plan. This can be accomplished on one page in an agenda-like format and should be realistic to what the hazard vulnerability analysis and risk assessment tool determine about the community.

This kind of exercise can help in countless ways to keep atrophy from creeping in, and apathy can be shunned and purged out of the organization. Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Department of Public Safety has conducted dozens of tabletop exercises for municipalities, response agencies, churches, colleges and universities, car dealerships, personal care homes, schools, hazmat, human services, and whoever else wants a straightforward, timely, and usable learning experience and tool that they can emulate or expand to foster the culture of safety through all strands of their operation. Sharing this knowledge and building relationships with all of these stakeholders will better prepare communities for all kinds of disasters and perhaps reduce the severity of the next snowmaggedon.


In the current “snowmaggedon,” COVID-19, the level of apathy, atrophy, and attrition before the outbreak contributed to the current level of preparedness and response for this often talked about, sometimes exercised, but never experienced event. Going forward, some formats may have to temporarily change (e.g., virtual vs. in-person tabletop exercises), but the concept and need to exercise using a whole community approach remains.

As of 2 May 2020, the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety has been engaged in a Virtual Emergency Operations Center (VEOC) with a full ICS executing its reworked 2006 Pandemic Response Plan. This VEOC has effectively interfaced every facet needed to effectively collect data, unmet needs, and immediate actionable intelligence. The planning “P” has virtually come to life on a video conferencing platform as tactics, strategy, and planning meetings create a congregate of thought for the next operational period.

This event has enabled data mining of over 40,000 9-1-1 calls to date and illuminated trends through the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) on a daily basis. This process helps responder awareness, hospital capability, logistics and procurement status, legal, and human resources safety and concerns, all of which are either addressed immediately or provided an interim strategy to be flushed out at the operational period planning meeting. This concept has identified needs in real time and has successfully brought the culture of safety that has been outlined for many years to all the stakeholders on the virus battleground.

This pandemic has reached every corner of organizational response capabilities and exposed the three As. Although many agencies have risen to the occasion, it is still critical to be ever vigilant and to not let the three As creep back into emergency management missions and purpose.

Christopher Tantlinger

Christopher Tantlinger is the deputy emergency management coordinator, Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety, Pennsylvania. He serves as chief of the county HAZMAT team. He has 27 years in the fire service, is past president of the Fire Chief’s Association of Westmoreland County, and is a proboard-certified HAZMAT technician. He serves as a rescue technician instructor for a rescue tool manufacturer. Activities include serving on the board of the Pennsylvania Association of Hazardous Materials Technicians. He is a cum laude honors graduate of Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA, with a BS in criminal justice and holds a professional certification from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. The author can be contacted for more information or to discuss collaborative ideas at:



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