Lessons from Shiloh

Military history can be quite instructive, supplying many lessons on how to manage chaotic situations. In his thought-provoking book Ripples of Battle: How the Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, Victor Davis Hanson provides an in-depth analysis of Okinawa, Shiloh and the battle at Delium. One valuable emergency management lesson gleaned from the battle of Shiloh involves the importance of clear and reliable communications.

Hanson explores how General Ulysses S. Grant issued a critical command to General Lew Wallace in a confusing format through a messenger. He ordered Wallace to move 7,000 fresh troops to reinforce the withering Union lines. Because the command to Wallace was both unclear and unsigned, his troops arrived hours later than they should have, resulting in the slaughter of many Union troops. This simple but crucial error may have also forfeited an opportunity for the Union Army to route the Confederate Army and change the very course of the war. While there still is debate as to who should shoulder the blame for the miscommunication, it is clear that the manner in which Grant conveyed this incredibly important order was both ineffective and inefficient.

Wallace later became famous for writing Ben Hur, but he was never cleared of wrongdoing in the mind of the general public, even though the evidence demonstrates Grant’s inefficiency in crisis communications played a significant part in the deadly error.

Similarly, key instructions and requests early in a crisis can determine to a large extent how well the response will go. For example, when a hazardous materials incident occurs in a community, how quickly your crisis team is notified, followed by how promptly key decisions are made and how clearly and effectively they are communicated, can be paramount. A miscommunication by a university crisis team member could result in an entire academic building not being sheltered in place in a timely fashion.

Similarly, Gettysburg can teach important points. For example, many of the muzzle-loading rifles picked up from the battlefield at Gettysburg highlight the need to properly condition crisis team members in order to prepare them to function under extreme stress. Many recovered rifles were found to have been repeatedly loaded without being fired. Many of the soldiers were under such considerable stress that they skipped the critical step of placing a percussion cap on the nipple of their rifles each time they loaded. Without the cap, the weapon would not fire, but in the heat of battle, these soldiers were not aware that their weapon did not fire. Amid the thunderous and smoky volleys, these soldiers repeatedly loaded powder and bullets into their weapons without firing a shot.

Similarly, a poorly trained crisis team member who has not had the opportunity to practice under carefully simulated conditions will often perform critical tasks incorrectly under stress. For example, some people have repeatedly dialed 911 in frustration because the call would not go through, when, in the heat of the moment, they forgot to first dial 8 or 9 to access an outside line.

While campus emergency situations are rarely chaotic to the scale of even minor military combat actions, the similarities of key personnel operating under extreme stress are highly relevant. Just as police officers and firefighters train in certain manners to simulate stressful situations to avoid deadly errors in low-frequency/high-consequence events like gunfights and fires, institutions of higher learning should prepare in a realistic fashion — within limits. While it is not necessary for campus officials to induce the levels of stress faced by public safety trainees to obtain workable results, a certain degree of realism should be invoked. For example, requiring crisis team members to take emergency evacuation kits for each building outside during mandatory fire evacuation drills is a simple yet important way to ingrain in them to remember this crucial action in the event of an actual crisis. Thoughtful analysis can go a long way to make drills and exercises realistic enough without scaring people needlessly or creating dangerous situations.

In times of war, military leaders must become adept at rapidly assessing incoming information and providing prompt and effective directions to utilize available resources. Countless soldiers have died from simple, yet crucial, blunders, and it is a terrible mistake to fail to heed the lessons paid for so dearly by others. History truly does repeat itself in many ways. Let the voices of the past provide lessons to help you avoid potential pitfalls of emergency preparedness and response.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety and can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.