Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Becoming Resilient: Finding the Meaning

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” – The Hobbit

Data are what you collect, information is what you use to make decisions.  As the quote above implies, the signals – the raw data – from even the best of “sensors” require interpretation if they are to act as reliable triggers for action.

The interpretive process can be considered to consist of receipt of signals from community sensors, interpreting the collected signals, and delivery of that interpretation – Information! – to the community’s leaders for action as shown in the graphic.

There are three criteria for our interpretive process:

  • Timeliness.  “A stitch in time saves nine” is as true for a community as it is for an old shirt.  If we know that failure of a bridge is imminent, or that we are about to be hit by the latest “Storm of the Century,” or that a riot is about to break out, our community can take action to forestall the crisis and avert a catastrophe.
  • Accuracy.  Community leaders need accurate information so that they can take appropriate actions.  In more technical terms, we want the interpretive process to accurately reflect the actual state of the environment.
  • Trust.  Community leaders need to be able to trust the translation of the data into information.  The information may be delivered rapidly, it may be accurate, but if it is not believed, it won’t trigger appropriate actions.


There are several factors that determine how well our community’s interpretative process meets these criteria.  One of the most important is the inherent tension between timeliness and accuracy.  One way that some communities assure timeliness is by compressing the process.  Many communities do this by empowering an individual or a group to take action as soon as the signal is received. A community in Missouri might empower the county EMS to sound alarm sirens as soon as there is a report that a tornado has been spotted.  However, many of those injured or killed by the giant Joplin tornado of 2011 did not heed the warnings because they believed that the sirens were sounding for another tornado that had hit just outside the city about an hour earlier.  In other words, the compressed process led to swift initial action but was inaccurate and ultimately contributed to the disaster.

This example also touches on another factor – those who receive the signals must be able to accurately interpret them. Many of the townspeople in Joplin misinterpreted the sirens’ warnings, not imagining that there might be more than one tornado assaulting the town.  They had no experience with multiple tornadoes to help them better interpret the signal.

Probably the most important set of factors affecting how well we interpret signals revolve around what it means to be human.  Our experiences, our beliefs, our cultures and our personalities all interact with the signals we receive; sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively.  If we don’t believe that housing values will ever go down then we will ignore signals of weakness in the housing market – until we have a Great Recession.  If, like the Navajos, we are culturally conditioned to never speak of the possibility of bad things happening, we may actually shy away from signals of impending crisis.  And if, like Gandalf, we take perverse pleasure in pedantically pointing out the imprecision of the signals we receive, we may so admire our own cleverness that we never take action.

In a very real sense, the Past is prologue to future performance.  We can alter how we receive and interpret signals through planning and exercises.  In response to my last post, Pat Longstaff – a person I greatly respect (even if she is a lawyer!) asked how a community could effectively cope with a crisis that came out of the blue.  I answered her that conducting exercises is the key.  An effective exercise program provides experiences that help the community better interpret incoming signals.  An effective exercise program forces the community to plan for what might happen.  As a result of an effective exercise program, the community will develop “muscle memory” to more effectively deal with similar crises.  An effective exercise program can also help to develop trust among those in the community who must deal with a crisis.

A caveat, though.  To be truly effective, an exercise program should test the community’s resilience against every type of crisis the community may face, not just natural disasters or pandemics. We use different “muscles” to deal with natural disasters, financial crises, social unrest or a lone gunman in a school.  As I’ve written elsewhere, disasters have direction – their initial points of attack on the community will vary, leading to potentially very different cascades of consequences.  And that means that each type of crisis may well have different members of the community receiving and interpreting signals, and taking action.  Each must learn how to interpret the signals they will receive.

In the last post in this series, I will look at this idea of a learning community from the perspective of a community’s leaders.

As a postscript, today is Memorial Day in the US – the day we honor those who paid the ultimate price to protect our country.  Wherever you live, I hope you will find a way to honor those who protect your families, your homes and your communities.