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The Four Fire Engines principle

The Four Fire Engines principle

 
The fire alarm once went off in the block of flats I was living in.  We all assembled on the pavement outside.  Realising that one flat was not spoken for, we assumed the owners were away.
   
No-one had seen any fire or smoke.  But it wasn’t safe to assume a false alarm – perhaps there was a fire getting going in the empty flat.
   
So I called the fire brigade.  I took care to explain that we didn’t even know if there was a fire, but because the fire alarm was ringing we needed the fire brigade to check the building out.
   
A few minutes later four fire engines turned up.  The team leader sized up the situation and within a few more minutes had sent three of the fire engines home.  He and one engine remained to do the detailed checks on the building.
   
Therein, ladies and gentlemen, lies a powerful lesson for any crisis manager.
   
Hit the crisis with a fully-resourced team from the outset.  Even while you don't know how big the crisis is.  You may find you don’t need the full team, in which case you can soon peel away what you don’t need.  But if you do need it and don’t have it, the situation may get out of control before you can bring in the team that might have calmed it down.
   
The fire brigade has evidently learned that if you only send one fire engine to a possible false alarm - and it finds there is a fire - then in the time it takes to bring in reinforcements you may lose the building.  So they routinely send a big team.  There’s no harm done if most of it soon heads home.
   
In a sudden-onset humanitarian emergency, or a war, we should do the same.
   
Instead the various nations and international organisations usually set up a small team to begin with, then build it up as the scale of the crisis becomes clear.  In the meantime the team is often overwhelmed.
   
It must be the case that large numbers of people die as a result.
   
Like the fire brigade, it’s only if this becomes standard operating procedure, in nations and in international organisations, that the despatch of the equivalent of four fire engines will happen.  Once the crisis breaks it’s too late to start assessing what size of team you need – and you don’t have the necessary information anyway.
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