OR/MS Today - April 2006


Red Adair's Parable

By Doug Samuelson

The two O.R. analysts were enjoying what is, for many, the best part of a professional conference: having found their common interest in a session they attended, they were now continuing the discussion in a nearby bar. This particular bar was a neighborhood place that seemed to attract many of the locals, a bit of a change from what the conference hotel had to offer.

The TV set over the bar was blaring out the latest news about the congressional hearings concerning the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One of the O.R. analysts exclaimed, "Now there's a situation where O.R. would have helped, if only the policy-makers had been willing to listen!"

"Right," the other added. "We could have planned out the whole response, and how to do it at minimum cost. We could have shown them how to run exercises to get everyone prepared for whatever might happen. Why is it so hard to get good science into the policy process?"

The big man at the end of the bar had been quiet, calling no attention to himself, but now he coughed, seeming as if he might be suppressing a laugh. He was, on closer inspection, an interesting sight. The plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans and work boots, to say nothing of the massive arms and barrel chest, suggested that he had done mostly physical work most of his life. His skin was deep brown and weather-beaten; clearly he had spent some time outdoors in bad weather. Still, there was something about his keen gaze and his bearing that also suggested he might have had a good deal of authority, and perhaps his choice of clothing reflected preference rather than cost.

"So," the bolder of the two analysts asked him, "what do you think?"

The answer was immediate and direct: "You guys are doing it the hard way."

"What do you mean?" the analyst prompted.

Again the answer was short and direct: "Planning is overrated."

"How so?" the analyst inquired, surprised. "Obviously the plans were inadequate in New Orleans, weren't they? They called for an evacuation after the buses had stopped running, and the people without cars couldn't get out. Doesn't that sound like a foul-up to you?"

"Sure," the big man replied, "but you're missing an important event here. Agreed, about a hundred thousand people were left in harm's way. And these would be mostly people without good government connections, not a whole lot of money, not well-educated, probably not very smart, at least if you believe test scores. Right?"

The two analysts nodded.

"So," the big man continued, "how come there were about 1,400 killed, give or take, instead of more like 15,000? You know that's what a lot of the government experts expected, once they realized what was about to happen."

The two analysts nodded again, and looked puzzled. "What do you think?" one of them asked.

"To put it simply," the big man responded, "there was a lot of useful stuff lying around, and a lot of people who knew where to find things they needed. When all the government's plans failed, what saved a whole lot of people was that they did what you analytical folks call 'self-organizing.' Maybe what you should study for next time is what stuff had to be lying around for people to be able to do what those people did — and make sure it's lying around the next time, too."

"That's a great idea," the analysts chorused.

"I wonder whether anyone is studying that," one analyst added, looking at his colleague.

"It's a simple principle," the big man resumed. "Throw out the 500-page manual of policies and procedures for what to do in emergencies — no one will take time to read it in a real emergency, anyway. Make sure people know what's valuable, and tell them, 'If there's an emergency here, get out as fast as you can. But if you think of it, grab something valuable and take it out with you.' That could save your company a lot of important assets."

"Another great idea," one of the analysts acknowledged, with an attitude now approaching awe, "But how do you know so much about managing emergencies?"

"When I ran an oil rig," the big man explained, "it made no sense to me to take the time to make detailed plans and run exercises to be ready if there was a fire. The plan was to call in the best expert in the world at fighting oil rig fires, pronto — and that was all there was to it! At the time, that was Red Adair. So what I needed was to know that Red Adair was the guy to call, and how to get hold of him and get him to my rig in a hurry.

"So my recommendation is," he concluded, "just make sure people know what they need, and how to get what they don't have. That's the best plan you can make!"

Author's note: Paul "Red" Adair passed away in 2004, after a remarkable career fighting oil rig fires all over the world. One of his more noteworthy accomplishments was extinguishing, in less than three weeks, the more than 100 wells set ablaze in 1991 by the Iraqis as they retreated from Kuwait. His company lives on and is probably still the place to call if you happen to need an oil rig fire put out. Their Web site also displays a history of his life and accomplishments.

Doug Samuelson is a senior analyst with the Homeland Security Institute in Arlington, Va., and president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting firm in Annandale, Va. This column does not represent the views of anyone but those of the author.

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