The Titanic Had an Emergency Plan

Let that sink in—or how planning for disaster sometimes isn’t enough

Christopher Allan Smith

June 3, 2021

This series is about planning for the worst that can face us.

It’s jumping-off point is the National Institute of Standards and Technology publication, “A Case Study of the Camp Fire—Fire Progression Timeline,” an epic and thorough study about the wildfire that changed the lives of my family, friends, and some fellow Quality Digest associates in November 2018. That fire razed most of the communities on the Paradise Ridge in Butte County, California, destroyed about 19,000 structures—95-percent of the residences in Paradise—and killed 85 people.

I have come to see my part in my community’s recovery as voicing the lessons we learned—literally taking the awful and searing things we learned that are of some use before, during, and after a disaster—and passing them on to other communities so they may face their trials with some better measure of success and safety.

Part one of the series focused on the human tendency to ignore the danger you are in. This article is more about planning for what you may face. What our experience taught me is planning looks very different once you have put plans into action. As the military truism goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

After all, Paradise had a fire 10 years before the Camp Fire, and we had spent that decade working hard to prepare for the dangers of wildfires.

What I’m zeroing in on here is that plans are not sufficient. The act of planning is the valuable residue of thinking about the future and what it could bring. Even though the particular steps and sequences of the plan will probably be the first things that perish when calamity strikes.

Or put another way, although the word Titanic is synonymous with disaster, remember this: It did have lifeboats.

Remember Thomas Andrews

To set this scene, I want you to think about Thomas Andrews. Andrews was a naval architect during the late 1800s and early 1900s during the height of the British Empire’s supremacy over the globe’s oceans. Like a lot of builders (and almost everyone else) of that era, by now we should have expected him to fade into history.

But Andrew’s last project was for a trio of massive passenger liners: Olympic, Gigantic (later changed to Britannic), and Titanic. The ambition was to build the largest passenger liners in the world with the best that advanced navel communication and top-drawer luxury could provide.

In fact, the ships were so large they outstripped the governing laws of British shipping. By a quirk of the rules, the Olympic class ships were not required to carry enough lifeboats to safely evacuate all passengers and crew (you can see where this is going). In fact, history shows us that the Titanic sailed with only 16 lifeboats and four Engelhardt “collapsibles,” and we know the result.

However, Andrews was a moral man. He had thought through the possibilities of his emergency plans. He knew there is a difference in what the laws and rules require of us and what reality and morality require. So he advocated that Titanic carry 48 lifeboats with enough capacity to ensure all who sailed would have a seat in a lifeboat, should the unimaginable happen. But he was overruled by J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line.

When the Titanic sailed, Andrews and Ismay were on board. Andrews spent the last hours of his life helping passengers into lifeboats. Ismay spent his final moments on the Titanic stepping into one of the 1,178 lifeboat seats available and survived.

Andrews perished.

If you lose sight of why you’re planning, you miss something more than a line item.

What Andrews learned before he lost his life, and what I and my fellow Paradise Ridge residents subsequently learned, is that the forces that can buffet us look very different in the peace and comfort of planning. Dangers are theoretical when planning for them, while the work and cost of implementing a plan is immediate and often burdensome.

But if you lose sight of why you’re planning, you miss something more than a line item. Check your complacency. Even if you compromise, keep in mind all those worst-case scenarios you imagine and what you dreamed up to combat them. Because chances are you will need to implement some of those half-remembered scenarios.

Andrews died knowing he was right and that he had seen the future accurately.

Plan, plan, and then plan

So what are you to make of all this? Cast your mind ahead to what you may face, and think about how you should react. That’s all there is to it.

How likely are you to face a hurricane in Oklahoma City? Probably not likely. But tornadoes are a different story. Think about where you are, what disasters your community has faced, then start writing down what you might encounter and what you’ll need to face it.

Lesson 3: Make a plan that works for you

Paradise had nearly burned 10 years before the Camp Fire. Because of that we were keenly aware of the danger and the need to think ahead.

One of the big initiatives pushed by local officials, the Fire Safe Council, and distributed in local schools is called Ready, Set, Go.

Be ready. Think about what you need, think about where you’ll go, and think about how to get there. Make a plan. What important documents do you need? Where are they? What medicine do you need? What items are irreplaceable if you lose your home (historic photos, family history), or your business (accounting and HR records, process files)? A method we used are called go boxes. Most of our essentials were kept in plastic cases that could be grabbed and packed quickly.

Get set. Be alert to what’s going on around you. More on this in lesson six.

Go. Act early. When you’ve gathered your essentials (important documents, pets, medicines, clothes), get out of the area to a known safe place. As more than a few fire fighters have told me, if it occurs to you it might be a good idea to leave, the chances are good you have already passed the safest time to leave, and you need to go ASAP.

Bottom line: When it comes to making your plan, get ready, get set, and go.

Lesson 4: Know how to evacuate

So when I returned from taking my son to high school at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of the Camp Fire, I, my neighbors, and my town were prepared for a wildfire. Put more accurately, a wildfire as we had known them. But not for what was coming.

By then, the sky above my house was the color of oak bark and getting darker. In previous fire scares, we had hours to pack up and track down what was needed. But as I packed that day with my eldest son, there was not one fire in Paradise. There were dozens.

There were essentially four routes off the Ridge, three of which experienced burn-overs, according to my friends and the NIST report. That means at certain points, people had to drive through fire to use them. For some, it would take seven hours to get from their threatened homes to safety.

But as part of our preparation, with credit to all the lessons here, we knew where we would go. When we heard the propane-tank explosions, we decided to leave. A half-hour after arriving home for what would be the last time, my eldest and I got in our car.

Despite seeing the signs, despite hearing the distant roar of flames, denial still lingered. I still thought I would be back in a day or so, and my home would be there. So as we drove out, I did not even look back. I left like you do for work, eyes already on the day ahead because you know you will return.

Bottom line: Your first encounter with an evacuation plan should not be in the moments you need to use it. Find out your community’s evacuation plan and save a copy.

Lesson 5: Sign up for an emergency mass notification system

Most municipalities have evacuation plans in the event of some catastrophic disaster, such as a fire, flood, chemical release, or hurricane. Check your local listings. Often, they’re called something like a community evacuation plan.

For Paradise, our town was broken up into 14 numbered geographic zones. The idea was to know your zone and sign up for the automated alert system (we used CODE RED).

When a wildfire threatened, some zones would be advised of the possibility of needing to evacuate, some zones would be warned of the need to evacuate, and the zones most threatened would be ordered to evacuate. It was a way to manage traffic and the crush, to leave in a safe way. Those not threatened could remain home and not clog the roads for those in most immediate danger.

I lived in zone 11. During the half-hour I was home, I received two calls. One was a warning; the other, about 20 minutes later, listed the zones under an evacuation order. Those notices played a big part in focusing my mind and spurring me to move quickly.

It let me leave in time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was supremely lucky that day. I got out without driving through flames. I got out without seeing people running from walls of fire. But I was running against the clock.

According to the NIST timeline, everything my family owned or built in the previous 13 years that was not already in my car would be cinders and ash by that afternoon.

Bottom line: Sign up for CODE RED so you get emergency info when you need it.

Lesson 6: Train like your life depends on it

It becomes clear to any skilled leader that training is an essential element in improving an organization or maintaining excellence. The process of deciding on new methods requires people to try something out for the first time to get used to it.

Elon Musk is famous for building rocket bodies that are never intended to fly. They’re intended to shake down the building process of a new line or a new design.

Training serves exactly the same purpose, and bestows exactly the same benefits, when it comes to practicing your disaster plan. This is especially helpful when you first create your plan.

As anyone who takes a paper plan into the real world has learned, adjustments, improvements, and unanticipated details will emerge. It’s even more important in disaster training because the stakes are more than can be valued in a spreadsheet.

A catastrophe is not the time to give your plan a run-through.

Schools, high rises, and cruise ships practice fire, lifeboat, and earthquake drills (not so much earthquake drills on cruise ships, I admit) for a reason.

Bottom line: A catastrophe is not the time to give your plan a run-through. Schedule and execute training on your plan while you still have time to fix the issues you find.

Lesson 7: Plan for transportation

As mentioned above, staggered evacuation plans are smart and efficient. Unfortunately, some disasters make the need to get out much more urgent than patient planning allows.

When the roads are gridlocked, what will your escape plan be? How will you get to your designated meet-up location if your first, second, or third preferred routes are either destroyed or commandeered by disaster response officials? How will you escape, assuming you are on your own?

As CAL FIRE Chief David Hawks, who grew up in Paradise and fought the fire, reminds us: “Public safety officials will do all that they can… [but] there’s just too many people on a broad-scale emergency, developing that rapidly, to be there to help everybody.”

This means you should keep working and reliable vehicles handy, with tanks filled and road-worthiness verified. Many of those who fled the Paradise Ridge had to abandon their cars before reaching safety because they ran out of gas after being stuck in hours-long traffic jams. Others were forced into using cars that rarely drove or hadn’t been driven in years, and those vehicles, predictably, failed.

Planning for transportation may include the realization that you won’t be able to transport at all. There were some areas on the Ridge where the single road out was lost, and people were forced into Concow Lake as the fire blew over. Other areas, anticipating this problem, had created precleared open areas where people could shelter safely as the fire burned around them. These plans worked and saved lives.

So think about getting out, and what you would need to do to survive if you cannot get out.

Bottom line: Traffic during a disaster is extreme and very different than rush-hour or the bottleneck after a sporting event. Plan for how you and yours will transport yourselves in the face of danger.

Lesson 8: Think about your organization’s continuity

Considering how you or your organization will endure comes before the calamity. When events sweep away all you have built, how do you save what’s essential? How do you outsmart fate?

As with most of these tips, think ahead.

When you lose every physical thing in your life, it becomes clear just what is important.

When I think of what was lost for my family, what comes to mind are letters my wife wrote as 18th birthday presents for our boys, that she began when they were born. A set of audiotapes I had that contained my late-grandmother’s voice. A set of videotapes with my first films.

Everything else escapes my regrets not because they weren’t important, but because they can simply be replaced with money.

That’s why insurance is essential.

It may be a commercial tool, but in many ways insurance makes it possible to absorb a disaster’s blow without being destroyed. While it was a torture I can’t express to watch my family move through this experience, we were never destitute and never in danger. We had purchased good homeowner’s insurance and had money for living, expenses, and more within days.

I also had thought about how my business would endure. Running a film-production house, I considered what was essential to my business—the footage and files of myself and my clients—and created a robust on- and offsite backup system to ensure if the worst happened, my organization would remain. And it did.

I did not lose a frame of anything I had ever created for a client. I did not lose a family photo or video of my sons. What I did lose was lost because I didn’t follow my own procedures fully. But the business I had spent 15-odd years building survived.

Others weren’t so lucky. Paradise was filled with more than a few retired folks who rented out a house or two to supplement their income. More than a few of them did not get insurance. These are friends and neighbors, so I won’t go into their personal details, but several decided not to pay for insurance, found their homes and rental properties paid off but destroyed, and now have little in the waning days of their life. They will never be made whole.

I’m loathe to judge their decisions from the outside, but I can shudder at the thought of going through the emotional shock and trauma of an unprecedented fire while being reduced to ash financially as well.

Thinking about how your organization will cope after the smoke has cleared is a subject so important we’ll be expanding on it in future installments.

Bottom line: Cast your eye to the future and think about what elements are essential to sustain your organization. Then make a plan to protect and sustain those essentials.

Lesson 9: It’s not a worst-case scenario. It’s worst-case imaginable.

This article is meant to shake you from the comfort you feel now and help you realize the chances are very real that you will live through some disaster.

I close with the mirror image of that message: Think bigger.

One of the drawbacks of our planning on the Paradise Ridge was we did it through the lens of previous wildfires we had experienced. We considered their traits and dangers, features, and effects. Then we thought through what would happen if we faced a fire like those, but worse. Best leave ourselves a margin, right? If we plan for the worst case, our job is done, right?

But the Camp Fire wasn’t just worse than previous fires. It was exponentially worse. Outside commentators made mention of our clogged roads and close escapes as if they were a kind of earmark of our failure to anticipate. I admit my sensitivity here because it was those preparations that saved us. The toll could have been much higher. However, the truth is we didn’t anticipate how bad it would be.

Nothing anyone in the state’s history had seen, outside of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, came close to the Camp Fire.

Our situation was catastrophic, but it wasn’t unique. The U.S. government had been thinking about terrorism since at least the 1960s, but could it have anticipated a 9/11-style attack before it happened?

One way to do this that all the first responders and planners I interviewed agreed on: Imagine the worst thing you can, then imagine it as 10 times worse.

What plans would you make then? There’s an old rule of thumb that anticipates this, but it’s one we usually mention for humorous effect: Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will.

Bottom line: Never underestimate Murphy’s Law. Think about the worst event you can, then make it 10 times worse. Now plan for that.

About The Author

Christopher Allan Smith’s picture

Christopher Allan Smith

Christopher Allan Smith is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian and journalist. He is the director of the Emmy-nominated series, A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned From the Camp Fire. He lived in Paradise, California, until the morning of the 2018 Camp Fire, and now lives in Chico, California. Find out more at ChristopherAllanSmith.com.