Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Keeping your cool

If you can keep your head when all about you
     Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...

On this very day 45 years ago, a desperate life or death struggle played out across television sets across the country and the world. Three lives hung in the balance. Rival nations stepped to the fore to offer whatever assistance they could provide. Calls for worldwide prayer were made for a safe resolution of the situation.

Apollo 13's mission insignia

In case you were wondering, I am referring to the astronauts aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Fred Haise, Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell were on board the Lunar Module Aquarius, hauling a crippled Command Module Odyssey on a swing around the Moon, hoping against all hope that their supplies would hold out until they reached Earth. Hoping that their Command Module's heat shield wasn't damaged in the explosion that left them in this situation in the first place. Hoping that they could restart all of the systems in the Command Module so they could safely get home.

Yes, we have all seen the movie Apollo 13 featuring Tom Hanks. Director Ron Howard took a few dramatic liberties with the plot to build suspense, the actual communications on the flight director's loop were surprisingly cool and measured. In fact, you can hear the exact exchange in the loop here in this video.

Why would that be?

It's because that's the way flight control was built. From the early days of the Mercury missions through the successful Gemini program to the catastrophic loss of life on the Apollo 1 test, the mettle of men such as Gene Kranz was tested (BTW - I love this article about Mr. Kranz - TI). They uniquely understood that there was a razor-thin margin between a successful mission and a disaster.

So,when the oxygen tank in the Service Module exploded, there was no panic. The team members understood what was being requested of them, and what they had to do to get the astronauts home safely.

Now, what do we take from this as public information officers? Of course, the information we put out to the public is critical, especially during times of crisis. It could literally mean the difference between life and death. After all, will people get the word they need to evacuate before a hurricane makes landfall, or to shelter in place while a cloud of deadly chlorine gas drifts through their neighborhood?

Flight Director Gene Kranz working the situation
You will notice that during the communication on the audio loop was very deliberate. What do we know? What are we hearing from the astronauts? What was happening when we saw this anomaly pop up? How can we take very simple, easily reversible steps to fix what we are seeing before resorting to something more drastic?

It's only later in the voice loop that the more urgent communication spurring the crew to take refuge in the Lunar Module was communicated, and that was done again in a very deliberate manner to save as many resources as possible to ensure the crew's survival.

Now is not the time to show panic
As PIOs, we need to be aware that the tone we take with our voices and body language can communicate much more than what we say. There is a time for a lighthearted approach and winning the audience over to your point of view. There are times when a totally serious approach in the only one that can work. But, there is never a time where panic should rule your response. It may take a monumental effort on your part - or the part of the dedicated spokesperson - but it must be done.

None other than the legendary Gene Kranz postulated that the tragedy of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew was what saved the Apollo 13 crew. In his famous Kranz Dictum, he told everyone in flight control that the prerequisite for being part of the elite community were toughness and competence. And, in that vein, the flight controllers went to work, solving problem after problem that no one could have possibly considered.

For instance, the carbon dioxide scrubbers which kept the poisonous waste product from exhalation from accumulating used round canisters in the Lunar Module, but rectangular ones in the Command Module. Since the Lunar Module was only designed to hold two astronauts for the short duration they would spend on the Moon, this became a problem which was overcome with innovative thinking, imagination and just a little bit of duct tape.

To survive, it may become necessary to improvise
While we can plan for just about any scenario in our preparations, there has to be some ability to make adjustments as real world events play out. What if your computers go down, your relief crew can't make it to your location or the last drops of juice get squeezed out of your cell phone's batteries? Knowing what you have available to you and being able to adapt those items to your situation can make a big difference.

On April 17, 1970, the Odyssey safely splashed down southwest of American Samoa, just four miles from the USS Iwo Jima. Except for a urinary tract infection that plagued Fred Haise, the crew was little worse for the wear. It would be nearly a year before the next mission, Apollo 14, launched for the Moon, and the valuable lessons learned from 13's endurance test were incorporated in the new craft to make the trip safer.

The Apollo 13 crew safely aboard the USS Iwo Jima
While I am certain that whatever plan you have in place will be tested, and you will no doubt make mistakes once it sees an actual event. The key is to learn from those mistakes - and the mistakes of others - to help make your plan as strong and resilient as possible.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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