“Today is D-Day”

As I’m writing this, word has rocketed around the world that the 12 soccer players and their coach have been safely rescued from Tham Luang cave. We are awaiting word that all the rescuers themselves, including one of the doctors that had spent time with the boys since they were found, are still on their way out.

Unfortunately, one former Thai SEAL diver, Saman Kunan, who had rejoined his former teammates to help in the rescue, lost his life. This tragic outcome should not be forgotten, nor should it cast too large of a shadow on the amazing success.

What I want to talk about though is not the cave or the rescue operations, but the decision making progress. The title for this post comes from Narongsak Osottanakorn’s statement several days ago when they began the evacuation operations.

 

The term D-Day actually predates the famous Normandy landings that everyone associates it with. However, success of the Normandy landings and their importance in the ultimate outcome of WWII has forever cemented that phrase in history.

One of the hardest parts of any large scale operation like this is making the decision on whether to act. During the Apollo Program, they called them GO/NO GO decisions. Famously you can see this in the movie Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz goes around the room asking for a Go/No Go for launch. (it was pointed in a Tindellgram out before the Apollo 11 landing, that the call after the Eagle landed should be changed to Stay/No Stay – so there was no confusion on if they were “go to stay” or “go to leave”.)

While I’ve never been Flight Commander for a lunar mission, nor a Supreme Allied Commander for a European invasion, I have had to make life or death decisions on much smaller operations. A huge issue is not knowing the outcome. It’s like walking into a casino. If you knew you were always going to win, it would be an easy decision on how to bet. But obviously that’s not possible. The best you can do is gather as much information as you can, gather the best people you can around you, trust them and then make the decision.

What compounds the decision making progress in many cases, and especially in cave rescue is the lack of communication and lack of information. It can be very frustrating to send rescuers into the cave and not know, sometimes for hours, what is going on. Compound this with what is sometimes intense media scrutiny (which was certainly present here with the entire world watching), and one can feel compelled to rush the decision making progress. It is hard, but generally necessary to resist this. In an incident I’m familiar with, I recall a photograph of the cave rescue expert advising rescue operations, standing in the rain, near the cave entrance waiting for the waters to come down so they could send search teams in.  Social media was blowing up with comments like, “they need to get divers in there now!” “Why aren’t the authorities doing anything?”  The fact is, the authorities were doing exactly what the cave rescue expert recommended; waiting for it to be safe enough to act. Once the waters came down, they could send people and find the trapped cavers.

The incident in Thailand is a perfect example of the confluence of these factors:

  • There was media pressure from around the world with people were asking why they were taking so long to begin rescuing the boys and once they did start to rescue them, why it took them three days. Offers and suggestions flowed in from around the world and varied from the absurd (one suggestion we received at the NCRC was the use of dolphins) to the unfortunately impractical (let’s just say Mr. Musk wasn’t the only one, nor the first, to suggest some sort of submarine or sealed bag).
  • There was always a lack of enough information. Even after the boys had been found, it could take hours to get information to the surface, or from the surface back to the players. This hinders the decision making process.
  • Finally of course are the unknowns:
    • When is the rain coming?
    • How much rain?
    • How will the boys react to being submerged?
    • What can they eat in their condition?

And finally, there is, in the back of the minds of folks making the decisions the fact that if the outcome turned tragic, everyone will second guess them.

Narongsak Osottanakorn and others had to weigh all the above with all the facts that they had, and the knowledge that they couldn’t have as much information as they might want and make life-impacting decisions. For this I have a great deal of respect for them and don’t envy them.

Fortunately, in this case, the decisions led to a successful outcome which is a huge relief to the families and the world.

For any operation, especially complex ones, such as this rescue, a moon landing or an invasion of the beaches of Normandy, the planning and decision making process is critically important and often over shadowed by the folks executing the operation. As important as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (who all to often gets overlooked, despite writing one of the better autobiographies of the Apollo program) were to Apollo 11, without the support of Gene Kranz, Steve Bales, and hundreds of others on the ground, they would have very likely had to abort their landing.

So, let’s not forget the people behind the scenes making the decisions.

 

The Thai Cave Rescue

“When does a cave rescue become a recovery?’ That was the question a friend of mine asked me online about a week ago. This was before the boys and their coach had been found in the Thai cave.

Before I continue, let me add a huge caveat: this is an ongoing dynamic situation and many of the details I mention here may already be based on inaccurate or outdated information. But that’s also part of the point I ultimately hope to make: plans have to evolve as more data is gathered.

My somewhat flippant answer was “when they’re dead.” This is a bit of dark humor answer but there was actually some reasoning behind it. Before I go on, let me say that at that point I actually still had a lot of hope and reason to believe they were still alive. I’m very glad to find that they were in fact found alive and relatively safe.

There’s a truth about cave rescue: caves are literally a black-hole of information. Until you find the people you’re searching for, you have very little information.  Sometimes it may be as little as, “They went into this cave and haven’t come out yet.” (Actually sometimes it can be even less than that, “We think they went into one of these caves but we’re not even sure about that.”)

So when it comes to rescue, two of the items we try to teach students when teaching cave rescue is to look for clues, and to try to establish communications. A clue might be a footprint or a food wrapper. It might be the smell of a sweaty caver wafting in a certain direction. A clue might be the sound of someone calling for help. And the ultimate clue of course is the caver themselves. But there are other clues we might look for: what equipment do we think they have? What experience do they have? What is the characteristics of the cave? These can all drive how we search and what decisions we make.

Going back to the Thai cave situation, based on the media reports (which should always be taken with a huge grain of salt) it appeared that the coach and boys probably knew enough to get above the flood level and that the cave temps were in the 80s (Fahrenheit).  These are two reasons I was hopeful. Honestly, had they not gotten above the flood zone, almost certainly we’d be talking about a tragedy instead. Had the cave been a typical northeast cave where the temps are in the 40s (F) I would have had a lot less hope.

Given the above details then, it was reasonable to believe the boys were still alive and to continue to treat the situation as a search and eventually rescue situation.  And fortunately, that’s the way it has turned out. What happens next is still open for speculation, but I’ll say don’t be surprised if they bring in gear and people and bivouac in place for weeks or even months until the water levels come down.

During the search process, apparently a lot of phone lines were laid into parts of the cave so that easier communications could be made with the surface. Now that they have found the cavers, I’d be shocked if some sort of realtime communications is not setup in short order. This will allow he incident commander to make better informed decisions and to be able to get the most accurate and up to date data.

So, let me relate this to IT and disasters. Typically a disaster will start with, “the server has crashed” or something similar. We have an idea of the problem, but again, we’re really in a black-hole of information at that moment. Did the server crash because a hard drive failed, or because someone kicked the power cord or something else?

The first thing we need to do is to get more information. And we may need to establish communications. We often take that for granted, but the truth is, often when a major disaster occurs, the first thing to go is good communications. Imagine that the crashed server is in a datacenter across the country. How can you find out what’s going on? Perhaps you call for hands on support. But what if the reason the server has crashed is because the datacenter is on fire? You may not be able to reach anyone!  You might need to call a friend in the same city and have them go over there.  Or you might even turn on the news to see if there’s anything on worth noting.

But the point is, you can’t react until you have more information. Once you start to have information, you can start to develop a reaction plan. But let’s take the above situation and imagine that you find your datacenter has in fact burned down. You might start to panic and think you need to order a new server.  You start to call up your CFO to ask her to let you buy some new hardware when suddenly you get a call from your tech in the remote. They tell you, “Yeah, the building burned down, but we got real lucky and our server was in an area that was undamaged and I’ve got it in the trunk of my car, what do you want me to do with it?”

Now your previous data has been invalidated and you have new information and have to develop a new plan.

This is the situation in Thailand right now. They’re continually getting new information and updating their plans as they go. And this is the way you need to handle you disasters, establish communications, gather data and create a plan and update your plan as the data changes. And don’t give up hope until you absolutely have to.