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.