Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Remain Calm (or not)

What do you think happens when a jam-packed Muni train suddenly emits a loud bang and then begins listing? Did you guess panic? If you did, you’d be right. Or maybe you were on the same Castro Shuttle that I was on when a big bang/listing event occurred in Civic Center Station during the morning commute. 

The panic was mild, as panics go, but still, folks were pushing to exit the train.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation in which a crowd panicked. I was once on a packed ferry in bad weather when a wave broke through the window and water started pouring into the lower compartment of the boat. But there was a big difference in that situation. Because the VERY FIRST THING that the captain and crew did, was to remind everyone NOT TO PANIC. Sure, cold water in the middle of the ocean on a stormy night is scary, but having a reasonable voice tell you, “Please remain calm” has the effect of calming folks down.
After that initial message, people were still afraid and cold, but nobody was bashing into other people. The guy who was ripping open the life vest box set about his work more methodically. The crush of people on the stairs to the upper deck eased as people came to their senses. We all remained safe from the water, the weather, and each other. 

This morning was nothing like that. After the loud bang, the listing car, and the big dust cloud that looked like smoke, nobody said, “Please remain calm.” In fact, the train could have been driverless, given the level of intervention. Even as passengers began to shove against one another in a rush to exit, the driver still didn’t say anything. Nor did he fix it so that the doors stayed open. He did nothing. 

Nathaniel, when I exited the train, I noticed the driver chatting with a security guard who had arrived on the scene. The driver had a wry expression on his face. The two men continued to chat as passengers streamed out of the station, seeking other means of transport to work. My fear and concern gave way to rage, as I watched this bemused driver sit there chatting. Did he not notice the crying children, the panicked passengers, the big dust cloud that looked like smoke? More likely, he did notice, but he just didn’t care.

You know what would be really good, Nathaniel?

A simple statement. A tiny piece of information. Something that could calm passengers down. Clearly, the driver was not alarmed as he chatted with the security guard. Just as clear was his disregard for his passengers. That driver felt no sense of duty or responsibility for us. 

A sense of duty and responsibility costs nothing. It happens when organizations instill a specific cultural point of view in their employees, partners, and customers. How about if you give it a try? Ideally, before a real emergency occurs.

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