Crisis Management 1: The Day After Tomorrow

There is probably no better movie in the world to look at crisis management and Hollywood’s lack of understanding than “The Day After Tomorrow”. This movie deals with a major catastrophic event worldwide and shows viewers the alleged reaction of the American government. Although it provides interesting drama for the movie, the way the American government reacts to the crisis is not only a poor example of crisis management, but also paints an unrealistic picture of the efficiency of the government and emergency responders.

From the beginning, the movie is a bit preachy about the environment and the American government’s unwillingness to listen to the doomsayers about the coming crisis. No one from the vice president down wants to hear what the government employed climatologist has to say about the weather. The first problem with this is that the climatologist is even trying to report to the vice president.

It is possible that in an extreme crisis situation, the chain of command might be broken to get more information quickly to decision-makers, but the main character does so before the crisis even hits the United States. If he had followed the chain of command, it seems more likely that crisis response teams could have begun developing scenarios for the crisis he was envisioning.

Evaluating the crisis response in this movie in many ways comes down to evaluating the response to several major crises leading up to the huge global cooling event.  The first event that affects the United States is a huge weather system, so-called super storms which ground air traffic and begin causing flooding in Lower Manhattan.  At approximately the same time, we see a series of huge tornadoes devastate Los Angeles and then we see the President declare a national state of emergency. However, not a single one of these crises were handled in accordance with crisis management theory or crisis management reality as it exists today.

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First we will deal with the super storm and the subsequent plane crashes. The first evidence that we as viewer have of the increasing storm activity is on the flight of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from Washington D.C. to New York for a scholar bowl competition. Sam, Gyllenhaal’s character, is supposed to be terrified of flying anyway, so when the plane hits turbulence the effect is supposed to be suspenseful. But from an emergency management point of view, it is evidence that the Federal Aviation Administration would have grounded flights long before the lightning got so bad that it was knocking planes out of the air.

The movie claims several major plane crashes occur before the FAA can get planes out of the sky. This is just hogwash. After September 11, 2001, the FAA has procedures in place to scramble to get planes on the ground. Tiny airports dotting the countryside are equipped for emergency landings and after the turbulence on one flight was bad enough to activate oxygen masks, the FAA would have immediately grounded flights flying through that storm.

The second major problem that the movie has with crisis management comes in the form of the flooding in Lower Manhattan. When the problem is simply a backed up sewer at a prep school, it is possible that the response would be to move the students to alternate locations in the city until the morning. However, these were high school children. There is no way that the school system would have allowed them to begin randomly moving around the city the next morning when the flooding had extended to the streets and made some roads and rail lines impassable.

In addition, major flooding on an island like New York is a major crisis event. The movie depicted the beginning of the horror in New York City as just another rain storm and showed no evidence of a crisis response from city officials. Even if the sudden cold snap had been unpredictable, the rain forecast wasn’t and city officials and emergency personnel would have been preparing in one way or another before the freeze hit.

This utter lack of regard for reality and crisis management strikes home again later in the movie when Sam and others have taken refuge in the library. For unknown reasons, the lone police officer in the bunch decides that it is better to encourage people to walk out of the city rather than stay in the relatively warm and dry library where they have shelter and some food.

While not all police officers are trained to handle a serious crisis, the idea that this one encouraged people to give up shelter and food to being an unknown trek is completely against any crisis management theory taught in the world. He had no reason to believe that people would not be safe in the library and should have, would have kept them there.

The response in Los Angeles to the tornadoes was also just ridiculous. The movie shows the country watching in horror as LA is destroyed, but no once do we hear the Federal Emergency Management Personnel begin mobilizing or calling their local counterparts or in any way reacting to the scene.  Given the nature of the disaster, FEMA officials should have been on the phone before the winds stopped mobilizing search and rescue teams immediately to secure the city and recovery teams should have been getting their alerts as well. Instead, the movie makes it appear that California was basically ignored as it was blown away.

Finally, the real tragedy of the crisis approach in the movie is that the movie makers failed to realize that this type of national event would almost immediately result in martial law. Doctors would not be allowed to wait around at hospitals to see if their patients were evacuated and private ambulance companies would not be the ones emptying the hospitals of the transportable patients as the country was evacuated. And, the president would not be allowed to refuse to move out of his office. He would be taken into some kind of mobile command center, against his will if necessary, for the preservation of the country.

Like any good “Die Hard” movie, “Die Hard with a Vengeance” involves bad guys and hostages. What makes this a classic crisis movie is the portion of the movie dealing with the hostages in a public elementary school in New York City. The basic plot of the movie is that Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson have to stop the bag guys and get the code to defuse the bomb in the school so that the hostages can get away.  The problem is that the bad guys have claimed that if they see anything indicating that the school is being evacuated they will use a remote detonator and set off the bomb as the children try to evacuate.

This movie does some things right as far as crisis management theory goes. School personnel, including teachers, are enlisted to help emergency personnel devise a plan to evacuate the building and the bomb squad is brought in to attempt to find and defuse the bomb.  Then, it wanders away from reality and never finds its way back. Detective John McClain (Bruce Willis) runs into a father with two children at the school. Zeus Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) refuses to take no for an answer and insists on helping McClain find the bad guys. Wrong! One of the most important theories of crisis management is to minimize the risk.  The police would never let an untrained civilian get involved in the operation. If Mr. Carter insisted, he would be arrested and held until the crisis was over.

The next step would be to remove the children from the location. Even though the bombers had threatened to detonate the bomb as soon as they saw any attempt to rescue the children, the first priority would have been to evacuate the children.  A large portion of crisis theory is risk management and despite the fact that we were dealing with children and the potential loss of life, those in charge of crisis management would have decided that it was better to attempt to get the children out of the building rather than leave them as sitting ducks for the bad guys to blow up at will.  The goal of the crisis management team would have been secure the building in any way possible and to prevent as much loss of life as possible.

Though they would understand the potential for second guessing if something went wrong, they would have also seen the potential for the situation to simply get worse if the children were not immediately removed from the building.  While the idea of having the children sprint away from the building as fast as possible seems sound, the reality is that it would not have been tried as the potential for injury there would be great as well. Real crisis management teams would have figured out when the bomb was and gotten the children to the exits farthest from it and then attempted to put in some sort of blast shielding to minimize the danger while removing the children from the situation.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the movie depicts the evacuation process as chaotic enough to allow two children to slip away from their teachers and law enforcement personnel to hide out in the school. In a real emergency, teachers would have checked and double-checked to make sure that every student was accounted for and emergency personnel would have been patrolling the building behind the evacuees to make certain that no one stayed behind.

Finally, there was only a limited effort to control the news media. In a major crisis event of this type, cellular communication with the building would have been terminated in an effort to prevent word of the hostage crisis from reaching the media and in the event that the media were made aware of the crisis, strict controls would have been used to keep them quiet about the crisis, including blackmail.

It is not unusual for crisis personnel to make it clear to the media in the midst of a crisis that cooperation during the crisis will lead to better access to stories once the crisis is over. And, the news media makes decisions daily when it weighs the public’s need to know against security. If the reporters were informed of the delicate nature of the situation and the potential for the loss of human life, most would have willingly gone along with a blackout of the event until after the children were safe.

The problem is that real crisis management does not necessarily make for good drama. Though the conflicts in decision-making procedures exist, they are not open discussions that anyone can participate in. In a real emergency, the crisis management is left to the professionals. It’s too bad movies can’t seem to understand that.

The beauty of the crisis situation in “Dawn of the Dead” is that the crisis appears quickly, but not instantly and it develops mostly over night. This crisis is also insidious in that people become infected and may not demonstrate their symptoms for several hours or even a day later. Worse yet, for crisis management teams, it is the worst type of crisis imaginable—the nature of the threat is unknown but rapidly spreading and the disbelief that we have trained into ourselves and our children works to prevent rapid response to the crisis.

The plague causing the zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” has the ability to take hold and gain strength because the first few times that medical personnel run into it, they disbelieve what they are seeing. Though it is important for emergency personnel to be skeptical, they c=should be willing to act based on observable facts even when the facts make no sense. That is the major failing of the emergency response in this movie. Otherwise, the writers largely got it right.

When it became clear that a major epidemic was facing the city, officials would first have warned people to remain in their homes and then, barring that would have set up emergency shelters. One of the good things about the use of emergency shelters in the movie is that they used traditional shelters like churches and a military base, an option that definitely would be considered in the event of a widespread event.

The fact that before the emergency broadcasts end, they have contacted officials with the Centers for Disease Control and that the CDC is in charge on the event makes a great deal of sense. The only thing lacking would have been a stronger military presence on the streets once the state of emergency had been declared, but at least the movie attempts to explain this too when it mentions later on that the Army base has been overrun.

Even more impressive than the outside response to the crisis, is the crisis management implementation that develops within the group of survivors. Though there is some initial posturing between the thief and the police officer, everyone quickly falls into roles appropriate to the situation and begins to work together to overcome their immediate needs: shelter that is safe from the threat.

The opening scenes of the movie show people doing what is necessary to survive, even when it contradicts what it their normal behavior pattern, a classic observation of crisis theory. People will do what they need to do in order to survive. This is true in the killing of the zombies and even the decisions to flee their homes.

Once they arrive at the mall, after the mall is secured and they have successfully risen up against the mall security guards, the group begins to settle into the realities of crisis management: they determine if they can meet their basic needs and then if there is an escape their condition. They put notes on the building roof to indicate the presence of survivors and they take up whatever pursuits help them get through the monotony of existence while the threat continues, including Steve’s incessant need for sex and the “games” of kill the zombie that they play from the mall rooftop.

Finally, the group reaches the point where it must investigate the threat and determine how to handle it. The movie does a good job of showing the learning process and the impact of all the stresses on the psyche of the people involved.  The group determines to leave the mall when it becomes clear that they cannot live their indefinitely and then they begin a very crisis management approach to leaving, setting up supplies ad making their exit as defensible as possible.  The only failure in their crisis management theory is the lack of available information with regard to other safe havens. It proves to be their undoing.

However, unlike the other movies I have reviewed, this one seemed to understand that theory.

1) Control or contain the threat

2) Seek Shelter

3)Seek other basic necessities.

I think many other disaster movies would be more enjoyable if they could follow his pattern and stick to reality.

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