Article Archive
Dave's Notes Sept - Oct 2008
Shortsightedness breeds crisis
Trying to regulate complex systems using simple ones
Volume 23, No. 5

What happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system? It seems simple for our political system to clear up problems with regulations. According to Columbia University Professor Andrew Gelman, a simple system operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society and society, in contrast, are complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven systems. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system the ultimate outcome can be unforeseen.

We live in a world today challenged by emergencies that we failed to envision despite our best science and reason. For example, in the HazMat column of this issue you will see how something as simple as compact fluorescent light bulbs have major unintended consequences. These are miniatures of full-sized fluorescents that serve as a more energy efficient alternative to the ordinary incandescent bulbs commonly used. CFLs are four times more efficient and last up to 10 times longer than incandescents.

All of this is positive as long as the contents of CFL bulbs stay out of the environmental waste stream once the bulb expires. CFLs contain toxic materials that may be released if the bulb is broken. Although household CFL bulbs may legally be disposed of with regular trash in most states, they are categorized as household hazardous waste. Apparently, the impact on emergency responders who encounter CFLs at a fire scene never appeared on the DOE or EPA radar screen, let alone the long term problems of placing this waste in sanitary landfills.

There are other examples of such loose thinking. Ethanol sounded like a good idea until food prices started going up. Some experts maintain that the Americans with Disabilities Act has actually resulted in lower employment levels among the disabled.

Lack of foresight in our drive to deal with environmental issues is creating other problems for emergency responders as well. Our choices with regard to diesel engines for fire apparatus will soon be severely restricted thanks to EPA intervention (See Coming Clean). We are accustomed to a wide range of choices about the engines we use in our fire engines. That is about to change dramatically. Soon there will be only one manufacturer left who is willing to take on the challenge in light of the new, more restrictive EPA emissions standards. Not only will there be a supply and demand factor at work, but the diversity of engine sizes and capacity will be severely curtailed. Engine cost is project to rise from about $15,000 to as much as $45,000 per engine. Thank the environmentalists for scoring another crunch on our economy by inhibiting the market and prohibiting firefighters from driving what we need and want.

Another area where best intentions do not always translate into better service is emergency health care. Starting with me, no one wants less than top notch care when we have a medical emergency. Hence, the push to improve the capabilities of EMS personnel from basic to paramedic. In many instances, this push has improved the level of care the public can access. However, there is a downside. Rural communities and industrial plants were formerly able to keep a few paramedics on hand by granting them the time necessary to get the required training. But with new training standards requiring more and more hours of training, the rank of paramedic in industrial plants has almost disappeared. People can not be away the number of hours needed for training to the new standards, particularly in the more remote areas where they are most needed. Once again, the unintended consequences generate results that reduce the quality of operations when the intention was to improve them.

These examples leads to an important question for emergency responders -- will the failure to think issues such as these through to their potential ultimate conclusion pose a greater danger in the future? The challenge is enhanced by today's emergency responders' more limited hands-on experience with the broad range of potential disasters that still rank among the less likely but still possible. Our planning and training must identify new emerging hazards, even from familiar sources, and thinking through "What if?"

As environmental issues become increasingly important it becomes more and more critical for both researchers and practitioners to understand what are these indirect impacts and the directions these indirect environment impacts will compel business and economies to move towards. It sets an agenda for future research.

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