Ten Rules for a Crisis

Or what to do when your Father-in-Law’s house burns to the ground

On Thursday, May 3rd 2018, my wife and I got a call from her Father that started with, “where are you?”

He was calling to tell her that he and her brother were OK, but at 1:00 in the morning the home my wife grew up in had burned to the ground. The home Leon had spent more than 40 years in was gone.

In the 5 years we’ve been together, my wife and I have gotten more than our fair share of bad news. We’ve lost loved ones (my Grandfather, her Mother, her childhood friend), pregnancies (3), jobs (2), physical capabilities (a herniated disc), housing opportunities, and a bunch of money trying to keep on keeping on during what we have been calling the, “poorer, sicker, bad times” of our wedding vows that we’re clearly trying to get out of the way.

So even though Thursday was the beginning of the weirdest week of our lives, some of it felt familiar. Like pulling on your boots for the 10th morning of multi-week backpacking trip—you’re tired; you hurt; but the pain has pruned your focus; and the only way out is to keep walking. And to keep learning better ways to put one foot in front of the other one.

So here’s what we—an Eagle Scout, business tactical husband and the Femme Tomboy Drama teacher he’d follow into the Zombie Apocalypse—did and what we learned during Week 1 of, “what to do when your childhood home burns to the ground.”

Immediately

Ignore your Father/Father-in-Law when he says, “he’s fine” and “there’s nothing you can do.” When you’re still wearing the flip-flops the Red Cross gave you, you might not have the necessary footing to make that call. So if you live within driving distance, gather the following items:

  • 1 Orion Labs Onyx per person, plus as many others you can get your hands on.
  • 1 extra pair of underwear per person
  • 1 extra pair of socks per person
  • A warm layer for each person
  • Work gloves, at least 1 more pair than people in your party
  • a multi-tool
  • food bars
  • 2 flashlights
  • extra batteries for the flashlight
  • the biggest external battery you have
  • every lightning and micro-USB cable you can find
  • 2 more wall chargers than you think you’ll need
  • a laptop you can part with
  • as many click-top pens as you can grab
  • pocket-sized notebooks
  • at least 5 water bottles; more small ones are better than a large one
  • all the cash you have
  • spare house and car keys

Look at all that stuff on your floor, then grab a backpack that will hold all of it and still be less than half full. Now change clothes. Put on:

  • Dark pants you can spend hours sitting in and that you don’t mind being ruined
  • boots, or shoes that you can do anything in then throw away.
  • a t-shirt
  • a shirt with the biggest chest pockets you can find
  • A fanny pack / hip belt / field pouch

You’re going to be putting lots of things in lots of places and you’re going to need to be able to get to all of them one-handed while standing, sitting, walking, talking on the phone, and carrying lots of other people’s shit. If you’re more of the femme persuasion, I might suggest today is the perfect day to work on your Drag King act. The Pocket-ocracy is a conspiracy to prevent femmes from taking their rightful place as the real “People in Charge” so steal some jeans from a cisgendered boy and grab a flannel shirt from your favorite butch lesbian.

Today is the day for pockets.

In the Car, before you move

Get in the car and immediately start obeying Coach Stevo’s Rules of Crisis Management.

Rule #1: Always Be Charging (“ABC”)

Plug in both your phones. Plug in your Onyxes. Plug in as many external batteries as you can. Just be charging everything because by the end of the day, you’re going to have been on the phone for hours and given your batteries to the people who just lost everything.

And before you put the car in drive, start obeying

Rule #2: Always enter the address in Waze / Google Maps / Apple Maps

Let me explain: for the next week, the name of the game is information management. The person at the heart of the crisis—the “Person-in-Crisis”—is going to be presented with more information to make more decisions with more emotional and physical distractions than they ever have before. My Father-in-Law is a retired surgeon, was a Major in the Army, and did his surgical residency in the Emergency Room of Detroit General Hospital during the Detroit Riots. And he said the week after his house burned down was the most chaotic of his life.

You are about to drive right into the heart of that chaos, and you cannot make the decisions for the Person-in-Crisis; you have to help them manage the information overload. You aren’t the surgeon. You’re triage. And very soon, you’re going to be completely overloaded yourself unless you start prioritizing your attention. Getting into the habit of letting Waze guide you to your destination—even if you’ve driven there 10,000 times—means you’re less likely to fall prey to habit-intrusion or getting lost when you’re following someone who forgets they’re leading and goes through a yellow light.

Yes, you’ve driven there before. But you’ve never driven there on the day your childhood turned into ashes.

In the Car, as you move

Whoever is driving is the Driver. The Driver does not text. The Driver does not make phone calls. The Driver drives, and the Driver talks only to the Passenger.

Rule #3: The Driver drives; the Passenger talks.

The Passenger is on your phones. They are emailing bosses / customers to tell them that life just happened. They are texting family and friends. They are answering phone calls from both phones. The Passenger writes down every new name they hear on a notepad (these are “New People”) and turns every 1–1 text conversation into a group thread with the New People, the Person-in-Crisis, and the Driver.

Rule #4: Write down every new name
Rule #5: Make every 1–1 text conversation a group chat

On the first day, the Driver might feel constrained by only being able to drive and to talk to the Passenger. They may feel like they can “do more.” But as the days stretch on, driving will be the only mental break from the chaos and even the Driver will come to appreciate Rule #3.

Together At the Scene

When you get to the Person-in-Crisis, a magical thing will happen—a leader will emerge. It will either be you or your partner, but it will be unspoken and the new “C.O.” will be obvious. And I don’t mean by background. Here’s my wife and I:

Me: CEO, Eagle Scout, former Marine Corps Officer Candidate.
My wife: Actor, Teacher, Socialist.

Within seconds, I knew my wife was in charge. She was CO (Commanding Officer) and without saying a word, I knew I was lucky to be her XO (Executive Officer).

The primary mission of the CO is to manage the available attention of the Person-in-Crisis to prioritize what actions need to be taken and to help the PiC take those actions.

The primary mission of the XO is to organize and prioritize information getting to the CO and to execute the actions the CO needs taken.

And everyone follows

Rule #6: Four ears are better than two.

The CO should be present for conversations between New People and the Person-in-Crisis, either in person or on speaker phone. This is not to be creepy; it’s because the Person-in-Crisis will probably not remember any of the very important Day 1 conversations on Day 2. With the CO present, the Person-in-Crisis can focus on making decisions, and the CO can focus on asking questions the Person-in-Crisis will be forgetting or is too embarrassed to ask because they should be obvious. The CO can also write things down, repeat New People’s names lots of times so the Person-in-Crisis can hear them more, and deliver tasks to the XO as soon as the Person-in-Crisis makes a decision than can be executed upon.

If you see someone having a conversation alone, ask them to tell you want was said. Write it down. Keep everyone involved who needs to be.

This stuff will be happening fast and as it dawns on everyone just how many things will need to be done, all parties involved will want to be going even faster. This is the perfect recipe for wasting time and energy on wild goose chases, which is why the CO and the XO need to remember:

Rule #7: Always reflect back what you think you heard.

Get into the habit of confirming everything you think you heard and all the decisions you think are getting made.

CO: “Do X.”
XO: “I’m about to go do X. Do I have that right?”

or:

New Person: “You can either do Y or Z.”
CO: “What I’m hearing is that the decision my Father has to make is between Y and Z. He can either do Y or Z. Is that right?

This will not be annoying. Everyone involved will appreciate the constant checking for understanding because it prevents misunderstandings and mistakes.

Finally, always make sure you’re following Kat’s Maxim to decide what tasks need to be prioritized:

Kat’s Maxim

  1. Does this need to be done?
  2. Does this need to be done by the Person-in-Crisis?
  3. Does this need to be done by the Person-in-Crisis right now?

If the answer to any of those 3 questions is, “no” then the Person-in-Crisis shouldn’t be bothered with it. Oh, and the XO should ask the same questions about the CO.

Running Errands Separately

Most of the days ahead will be spent in multiple cars going to multiple locations to purchase multiple items. This where the Orion Labs Onyx shines. The Onyx is a Star Trek Communicator badge. You pair it to your phone via bluetooth, create a “group” in the Orion Labs app, then press and hold the Onyx to send short voice messages to everyone in the group. It’s (nearly) hands-free and (nearly) real-time push-to-talk available anywhere your phone has internet access. And as anyone in emergency services or the military will tell you, there is no better medium for team situational awareness than the good old-fashioned two-way radio. This means you can keep everyone updated on what’s happening, who’s doing what, where people are, and how long things are taking without anyone having to take out their phone and read a text. It means that people can be in conversation with one person while getting updates about another errand or issue. And it means that Drivers can drive without looking at their phones.

You also don’t need an Onyx to use the Orion Labs Network. If you have more people who need to be in a group an you have Onyxes, invite them to download the app and they can use Orion Lab’s “AppTalk” feature. This just lets them send and received messages by pushing a button on the Orion Labs app screen.

Orion Labs Onyx Tips

Many useful conventions have emerged from the last hundred years of two-way radio use that are useful on the Onyx.

  • Always do a comms check before you split off from the group. Just send the message, “comms check” and wait for a reply “I hear you, over.” If you don’t hear back, check to make sure that your Onyx is paired.
  • Start your message with who’s talking. If people aren’t looking at their phone, they might not know. So say “This is Stevo” or “Stevo here.”
  • Immediately announce if your message is directed to a specific person in the group so everyone else knows they can ignore it. “Stevo for Kat” works.
  • Keep your message short; deliver information or ask a question. If you’re just chatting with a single person, make a phone call instead.
  • When your message is finished and you need a reply, end the message with “over.”
  • If you received a message that was directed at you, reply with “roger” or “copy” to let the sender know that you received the message. If the message was a task or a request, reply with “WILCO” which means “will comply.”
  • Send messages to the group when you have arrived at destination, completed tasks, and are leaving places and headed back. These will be very appreciated because it prevents wasting time asking, “where’s so-and-so?”

The XO is in charge of Basic Needs

The CO and the Person-in-Crisis will be spending most of their time together and thinking about everything except their bodily and mental needs. This means the XO is the person who makes sure that everyone is drinking water. Way more water than anyone wants because it’s easy to forget just how dehydrated you can get from talking for 20 straight hours.

Rule #8: Always know where the water is

We are speaking from hard-learned experience: as you get more dehydrated, you get more useless. So always be refilling water bottles. Always be buying more water. And if at any point during the day the CO or the Person-in-Crisis does not have potable water within 15ft of their mouth, the XO’s new number one priority is to get that person water.

The XO is also in charge of thinking, “one meal ahead.” You cannot rely on your body to tell you it needs food when your adrenaline is jacked up to 11. No one will be hungry, but the moment people see food they will eat all of it. So the XO should set alarms to remind them to start thinking about how to feed everyone. And they should never ask, “what do you want to eat?” The CO and the Person-in-Crisis have enough decisions to make. Make a decision, then tell everyone, “I’m going to get X food. Is that good with everyone?” Then:

Rule #9: Always order twice as much food as you think you’ll need

It will get eaten and everyone will be surprised and grateful it was there. The XO should also just order the same thing for everyone (excluding dietary restrictions) because it’s one less thing to decide.

Finally, the XO is also in charge of monitoring everyone’s mental needs. The CO will want to push the Person-in-Crisis to get more done. The Person-in-Crisis will start making poorer and poorer decisions more slowly. This is when the XO needs to step in and tell the CO, “why don’t we eat the next meal sitting down at a table and facing each other?” Or, “why don’t we put the phones away?” Because unless there are breaks in the pace to sit down and do something normal, then people are likely to forget

Rule #10: We’re in this together.

It’s during the familiarity of shared meals, shared water-breaks, and moments of stillness that we get to reflect. To stop thinking about the new things that have to be done, and remember the enormity of what has been lost. If we don’t stop; if we don’t pour some wine when we tell stories about what’s happened; if we don’t look at each other’s faces when we say, “Holy Fuck. The house is gone;” then nothing will feel familiar in this chaos.

Without those familiar moments, we might forget: this isn’t a job that has to get done; it’s a family that is getting through this shit together. We aren’t punching a clock. We aren’t providing a service to a Person-in-Crisis. We’re a family that’s doing what families have done ever since the first fire burned down the first shelter that gave a group of Neanderthals a home.

We’re picking up what’s left and we’re making a new one.

So put on your boots. Keep walking. And when you learn a better way to put one foot in front of the other one, for God’s sake write it down.