The neighborhood watch parable

Doug Samuelson

The community pool had reopened for the summer with the annual Memorial Day party, and the group of neighbors was catching up on all sort of topics. Although they lived close to each other, it seemed they didn’t chat much except for occasions like this one, or the rare time when some crisis called them together.

“Glad I wasn’t flying to London this week,” Tom spoke up. “Did you hear about what happened with British Airways?”

“No kidding!” Gladys chimed in. “You hear about terrorists killing a few people here or there as if it was the biggest news story of the week, but not the hundreds of other murders. And tens of thousands of people stranded for who knows how long? Not so much. I guess the video isn’t as dramatic.”

“Or the politicians can’t make as much out of blaming it on someone,” Bob interjected slyly.

“Not that some of them haven’t been trying,” Gladys laughed. “But once the follow-up news stories indicated that this probably wasn’t a terrorist hack, I guess it wasn’t as exciting.”

“Too bad,” said Jean, who they knew was an OR/MS analyst with national security experience. “Because in terms of lessons learned about what to do differently, the airline scheduling glitch is by far the more important story.”

“How so?” several people asked quickly.

“It’s a little early to be sure,” Jean explained, “but it definitely looks as if what happened was that the airline had outsourced some key components of their IT software to an overseas company. The components met specifications, but in view of the geographical and cultural distance, they just sort of economized on testing the integrated system before they went live on a busy weekend. And they showed once again why you don’t want to approach IT upgrades, or any other big project, that way!”

“Hmm, OK,” Tom acknowledged. “But what makes that story so important?”

“Companies and governments do this all the time,” Jean responded. “Remember how Mitt Romney’s get-out-the-vote software crashed in 2012, and it turned out they had never tested it at anywhere near the scale of operations they planned? Or you may have heard about defense spending cutbacks. What you don’t hear is that the first items cut are usually benefits, training and travel – especially training and travel for joint exercises. The idea is, just focus on improving each unit’s capabilities and everything will get better. Right?”

The others nodded, somewhat uncertainly.

“But we know from past military experience,” Jean went on, “that the joint exercises are the most critical! When they’re in a threatening situation they didn’t train for, commanders become much more cautious and less decisive – so, less effective – when they don’t know the commanders of the units operating near them. These joint exercises, including the little beer drinking sessions afterward that never make it into the wrap-up report, turn out to be extremely important to success! And that makes me really worried about this current doctrine of equipping units to be better and better at more and more tasks but spending much less time and resources training them to collaborate.”

Tom agreed, “We see that with emergency responders, too. The bigger the emergency, the more everyone needs to cooperate – know who’s doing what, know who has resources you need, know which other units you can rely on. And the bigger the emergency, and therefore the broader the cooperation you’ll need, the less likely it is that anyone wants to pay for the joint training exercise. Back during the 1990s, FEMA paid for a lot of joint training exercises with state and local responders, and they clearly helped quite a bit. As one local fire chief put it one time at a conference I attended, ‘When I’m in the middle of directing the response to a big fire, that’s not the time for the local FEMA director to walk up and introduce himself – much less introduce himself and then start telling me what to do.’”

“We see this at the hospital, too,” Gladys added. “Doctors, techs and even some nurses get more and more specialized, and they’re all very good at what they do, but once there’s agreement about a diagnosis and course of treatment, it’s easy to miss when something else happens – because people focus in on what they know best.”

“I saw this on an airline a few years ago,” Tom said. “I was traveling with a serious but manageable health problem. As I got back from a toilet trip, a flight attendant was crouching next to the passenger in the next seat, helping her deal with an asthma attack. The flight attendant told me I’d have to stand for a few minutes and then change seats. I didn’t get a chance to object. But then another flight attendant came up behind me, pushing a beverage cart, and rather sharply ‘requested’ that I get out of the way! He couldn’t see the other flight attendant and didn’t know there was a medical problem there – in short, no coordination between responders, and no idea of what to do if they had two sick passengers at once in the same row of seats! Not good!”

“So how do we improve this?” Bob inquired.

“We’re doing it, at least for crime prevention and emergency response in our neighborhood,” Jean replied, waving her hand at the gathering. “We get to know each other at casual events, so we react when we see someone unfamiliar acting in a suspicious way in the neighborhood, and when there’s a blizzard, we know who has the snow blowers and the four-wheel-drive SUVs. Community-building is underrated, but it works!”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va.