“Suicide Mission”

I once read of a particular combat unit assigned a difficult mission during World War II.  Their commander called the men together and announced this mission could be very dangerous with the possibility of only one survivor.  Then he called for volunteers, preferably orphans or those who had no known next of kin. At that, the men looked around the room, then every hand went up.  Upon completion of the mission, (there was more than one survivor) the troops were debriefed. When asked why they would volunteer for such a dangerous assignment, many replied, “I looked around the room and thought to myself, “I sure am gonna miss these guys.””

It is human nature to think we are exempt from disaster, or at least some of the inevitable consequences of disaster.  But in reality, that train of thought is a bit of a fool’s errand. To be in denial regarding the outcome of pending disaster is to experience the phenomenon of Normalcy Bias.

Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, identifies common response patterns of people in disasters and explains there are three phases of response: Denial, Deliberation and the Decisive Moment. With regard to the first phase, described as Denial, Ripley found that people were likely to deny that a disaster was happening. It takes time for the brain to process information and recognize that a disaster is a threat. In the Deliberation phase, people have to decide what to do. If the person does not have a plan in place, this creates a serious problem because the effects of life-threatening stress on the body (e.g. tunnel vision, audio exclusion, time dilations, out-of-body experiences, or reduced motor skills) limit an individual’s ability to perceive information and make plans. Ripley asserts that in the third and final phase, described as the Decisive Moment, a person must act quickly and decisively. Failure to do so can result in injury or death. She explains that the faster someone can get through the Denial and Deliberation phase, the quicker they will reach the Decisive Moment and begin to take action.

Stress has a way of slowing the way the brain processes information.  When the brain cannot find an acceptable response to a situation, it will sometimes focus on a singular and sometimes default solution that may or may not be correct.

Perhaps the very first survival skill that someone could build is to eliminate their normalcy bias or at least make a plan to direct their actions during an emergency.  All first responders have plans to direct their behavior during emergencies. The realization that your comfort zone can change, and change rapidly, is the first step towards being adaptable. It is impossible to think about or plan for disaster if your mind cannot accept that it could actually happen.

As always, send your comments and questions to  Previous columns can be found on my blog at  Dave Robinson is an author, pastor and freelance writer.  He is the author of “Disaster Prep For The Rest Of Us”, available on, barnesandnoble and other online booksellers.