…I want you to figure out HOW we do something.
Those words spoken by President Obama today sent chills up my spine. I’ll explain why in a moment. He said them today while speaking extemporaneously to workers at the headquarters of the American Red Cross while talking about the recovery from the impacts of Hurricane Sandy. Here is more of what he said (the added emphasis is mine):
Obviously we are now moving into the recovery phase in a lot of the most severely affected areas. New Jersey and New York in particular have been pounded by the storm. [...]
This is mostly a local responsibility and the private utilities are going to have to lean forward, but we are doing everything we can to provide them additional resources so that we can expedite getting power up and running in many of these communities.
In places like Newark New Jersey, for example, where you’ve got 80-90 percent of the people without power. We can’t have a situation where that lasts for days on end.
And so my instructions to the federal agencies has been — do not figure out why you can’t do something, I want you to figure out HOW we do something.
The last part in bold is almost exactly word-for-word what Incident Commander Rick Gale used to tell his Command and General Staff. I heard him say it many times in strategy and planning meetings on incidents. Rick, who passed away in 2009, had been an icon in interagency fire management and in the National Park Service for decades. He was one of the first Type 1 Incident Commanders and Area Commanders, was Chief Ranger at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area north of Los Angeles, Chief Ranger of the National Park Service, and the National Fire Management Officer for the National Park Service.
Many firefighters have can-do personalities, and that defined Rick perfectly. They will figure out how to get things done — usually safely, and usually within the rules. But they will get things done if it is for the betterment of the public and the agency.
When I heard Rick say those words, it sent chills up my spine. I served with him for several years as the Planning Section Chief on the National Park Service’s Type 1 All-Risk Incident Management Team. We were only assigned to the largest and most complex incidents, and frequently we had to do big things on big incidents. Agency employees in Administration, Human Resources, and Procurement are not used to doing big things quickly, but usually we needed to get them done in a hurry. Road blocks were common, but Rick implored us and the folks we ran up against to make it happen — to figure out not why you CAN’T do something, but figure out HOW to get it done.
We had remarkable success in accomplishing big things quickly.
I remember it like it was yesterday. We were helping the four National Parks in south Florida recover from the effects of Hurricane Andrew which hit the Florida coast August 24, 1992 as a Category 5 storm with 155 mph winds. The exact wind speed was difficult to determine because the hurricane literally destroyed the National Weather Service’s anemometers.
We had many challenges to deal with of course, but one, for example, was restoring electrical power and telephone service to Flamingo (map), a remote area of the park that had a visitor center, employee housing, and administrative facilities 38 miles southeast of park headquarters at the extreme southern tip of Florida. The power and phone lines had been destroyed by the hurricane and we wanted to repair them, but Rick thought, well, what about the NEXT hurricane? Are we going to have to do it all over again? So we brought in experts to draw up the design and specifications for an underground power line from the border of the park all the way, 38+ miles, to Flamingo. And not only that, we threw in a fiber optic line as well, to provide phone and internet service, which would also be buried and hurricane-proof.
This could not be done cheaply, of course, and pencil pushers in Washington were telling us it could be many months or years, if ever, that approval and the funds could be found to do something like that. But Rick kept pushing everyone – do not tell me why you can’t do it, I want you to figure out HOW we do it. Marcia Blazak, the Finance Section Chief, was used to working with Rick, and the two of them were an unstoppable force.
It cost about $9 million. And it was done quickly, in a matter of weeks.