Thursday, March 23, 2023

BEMA Int, always outside of the box thinking "Fear is not real." PUBLIC SAFETY In Desperate Situations, Give ‘Crazy’ a Try (Opinion). EM Magazine. March 2023.

In Desperate Situations, Give ‘Crazy’ a Try (Opinion)

When faced with seemingly impossible situations and the world watching, leaders have turned to the “craziest ideas” to mitigate the situation even when the odds were against them. Oftentimes, they worked.

March 20, 2023 • 

Pete Gaynor, Former FEMA Administrator and Acting Homeland Security Director
(Left) Pete Gaynor, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Admiral Brett Giroir, former U.S. assistant secretary for health.

(Stefani Reynolds/Pool/DPA/CNP/Abaca Press/TNS)

I recently attended a daylong forum entitled, “Rethinking Resilience and Crisis Management” at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. A wide range of experts and practitioners were in attendance and the discussion focused on what we had observed (and hopefully learned) during the past few years. Between the pandemic, a host of record-breaking natural disasters, and other assorted crises, there has been an abundance of learning opportunities. The goal of the discussion was to brainstorm how we might chart a course to improve our national response and recovery policies, laws and strategies.

During this discussion, I recounted my experience leading the operational coordination efforts as the FEMA administrator for the prior administration. 

I shared a short glimpse into the lack of critical resources during the early days, weeks and months of the COVID-19 2020 response. 

The capacity to manage resources was a struggle, but even more of a struggle was managing the lack of resources. 

The term I used was “living on the resource ragged edge.” 

Everything was in short supply: personal protective equipment (PPE) of all types, critical materials to produce additional PPE, active pharmaceutical ingredients, the most basic supplies like hand sanitizer and cotton swabs, and more complex equipment like ventilators. 

On top of all the supply shortages, there were staffing shortages, including nurses and respiratory therapists. 

The global and national appetite for resources was insatiable, and demand exceeded not only what we had on hand but, more importantly, our ability to manufacture, procure and deliver needed supplies.

During our early response, I realized that our ability to generate new, innovative ideas to counter the lack of critical resources was fading. In some cases, it seemed like the harder we squeezed, the less and less “juice” we were able to produce. The more we realized the need for critical medical staffing, the harder it was to find. The struggle to generate novel ideas to overcome shortages ran parallel with our dwindling and hard-to-regenerate human resources. In July 2020, I issued a FEMA advisory aimed at relieving the growing burdens of medical staffing requests. This advisory consisted of 11 “ideas” for emergency managers across the country to consider and implement to improve staffing shortfalls. Thankfully, the list of ideas seemed to help alleviate the problem.

But what would have happened if those ideas proved to be ineffective or caused more trouble than the original problem? What, then, would be the next step? Some option that was “crazy,” far-fetched or implausible?

Let’s quickly review what we have faced in the last two and half years:

  • the pandemic;
  • record-breaking hurricane and
  • wildfire seasons;
  • supply chain disruptions; the
  • ongoing southern border crisis (including unaccompanied minors); the
  • resettlement of Afghan refugees; the
  • homeless crisis;
  • food scarcity;
  • political unrest;
  • monkeypox;
  • growing climate change mitigation efforts; and the
  • increasing loss of confidence in our government to effectively govern.

The drain on all types of resources has never been greater.

In retrospect, the question we were facing became painfully clear:

What happens when you run out of both resources and ideas?

This got me thinking about the history and process of generating innovative ideas under duress and during a crisis. More and more, emergency managers and crisis leaders are being asked to solve non-traditional problems. These problems range from complicated and complex to wicked, and our ability to solve them is dependent on resources and innovative ideas.

I wanted to examine this a bit more closely.

  • What can we learn from those leaders and individuals that have been faced with seemingly insurmountable problems?
  • When do far-fetched, unconventional or “crazy” ideas become innovative and — more importantly — necessary?
  • How do you sell that “crazy” idea to leadership?
  • Is losing not as badly equivalent to winning?
  • Are our potential decisions as simple as doing nothing, doing something, or doing something desperate?

As emergency managers and crisis leaders, do we need to develop the capacity to think about problem-solving in a different, more radical way?

In preparing to write this article, I did some rudimentary research and reading on the subject. Frankly, I did not find much. But what I did find is enlightening.

My reading list consisted of the following:

  • NASCAR driver Ross Chastain’s near-winning last lap at Martinsville Speedway several months ago, the
  • 2018 Thailand Tham Luang cave rescue of the Wild Boars boys’ soccer team, the
  • 1979 rescue of the six American civilians who escaped during the attack and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran (better known as “Studio Six” and “Argo”), and finally the
  • 1184 B.C. “mythical” Trojan horse that broke the 10-year Greek siege of the city of Troy. 

Quite a wide range of “crazy” ideas through the span of history.


For centuries, the story of the Trojan horse has endured and fascinated us. Some may say that it is a myth, while others claim it is history. Either way, Homer tells us about it in his epic poem, The Odyssey.

The city of Troy had been under siege by the Greeks for 10 years. The Greeks were desperate, yearning to return to their homes and families. Their greatest warrior, Achilles, was dead. The war was at a stalemate. Over the years of the siege, I am sure there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of ideas tossed about. After 10 years where nothing had worked, they’d probably given up hope. They were willing to try just about anything. And then Odysseus came along with a wild idea.

Imagine this conversation: “Men, I have an idea. I have figured out how to end this war. I want to build a big hollow wooden horse, with wheels, in which we secretly enclose 40 of our best Achaean warriors. We will roll the horse to the gates of Troy as a gift, then get back on our ships and sail out of sight of the Trojans, pretending to leave the battlefield. Once the enemy takes the horse inside the city, our warriors will pop out while the sentries are sleeping and take the city from the inside under cover of darkness. Our main battle force will return from our ships and walk through the open gates of the city. The war will end, and we can go home. Questions?”

When Odysseus proffered this latest idea to tired, exhausted warriors, did his peers roll their eyes, thinking this idea was so ridiculous it didn’t even deserve a comment? Or, in their exhaustion, was any idea, even a crazy one like this, worth considering, maybe even worth getting a little excited about?

No one will ever know.

But if we fast forward, legend tells us it worked. The morning after the Trojan horse was rolled in, the city was on fire and Greek warriors roamed the streets dispatching the enemy and stealing their treasures. The plan worked beyond anything they could have imagined.

Was Odysseus’ idea brilliant? Audacious? Lucky? Clever? Reckless? Desperate?

Would the outcome have been the same if he’d suggested it during the first year of the war? Or did the execution of the idea require their desperation, desperation that could only have been born during 10 long years of war? How fine is the line between success and failure? Is what succeeds and what fails just a random spin of the wheel? Is finding the right idea as important as picking the right time and place to execute the idea?


1979 was a challenging year for the Carter administration. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, there was a near nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, the Unabomber was on the loose, and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, was attacked, resulting in the taking of 66 American hostages.

For 444 days, every community across the country displayed yellow ribbons to show their support for the hostages. And on the eve of President-elect Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the American hostages were released. Their 15 months in captivity were littered with a trail of failed diplomatic initiatives designed to return them to the United States. These failures were punctuated with the epic and public failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. military’s attempt to covertly rescue the hostages in Tehran. In a meeting chaired by President Carter days before the attack, Carter asked, “What course of action will you recommend to me if the Americans in Iran are seized or killed?”

No one had an answer. The inability of the Carter administration to manage the crisis was beyond discouraging.

However, there was a bright spot during those 444 days. Six American embassy workers escaped capture during the early hours of the attack on the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. After a series of temporary hiding locations, they found more permanent refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran.

Enter the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Office of Technical Services (OTS) and Tony Mendez. Mendez was the Chief of Disguise within OTS. OTS was responsible for creating documents, cover stories, disguises and technical solutions that supported the CIA’s operational agents in the field. Their responsibilities included the exfiltration of agents and defecting foreign spies from hostile countries.

Their task in November 1979: exfiltrate the six Americans before they were compromised, captured or killed. According to Mendez, the U.S. government could take four general courses of action. Option 1: overt diplomacy (trying to engage with the government of revolutionary Iran). Option 2: military assault. Option 3: secret diplomacy. Option 4: covert action.

In the weeks and months that followed the attack, there was no shortage of ideas or opinions about how to proceed. Some people felt that it would work itself out in the end, so the best choice was to wait it out. Others campaigned for covertly exfiltrating the hostages or killing the Shah (who was hiding in the U.S.). Another suggested course of action was using a body double to make the Shah “go away.” Some advocated conducting a military operation to rescue the hostages out of the heart of Tehran (this would later become Operation Eagle Claw). Within the umbrella of performing a covert exfiltration, the ideas were also wide-ranging. Suggestions included using “black ops” to take the hostages out — either by overland means to the Turkish border, by air, or by smuggling them out on a ship. In Mendez’s exfiltration world, the options consisted of disguising them as unemployed U.S. schoolteachers looking for work in Iran, nutritionists who traveled to Iran to inspect crops (despite the fact that it was winter in Iran), or petroleum workers returning to the U.S. While there was no shortage of ideas, Mendez reflected that “not many of them were well thought-out.” None of the options or ideas seemed viable enough to solve the problem.

Mendez needed an idea that matched the gravity of the situation. After years of performing and supporting exfiltration operations worldwide, he understood that “cover stories were supposed to be mundane, but these circumstances were extraordinary, so why not create a cover story that was so fantastic that nobody would believe it was being used for operational purposes?” His idea was to create a Hollywood production team, called Studio 6, scouting locations in Iran for a Star Wars-like movie, called “Argo: A Cosmic Conflagration.”

Now came the hard part: getting the CIA headquarters bureaucracy, the CIA director, and the president to approve the operation. Mendez passionately believed this was the only viable option given the extreme circumstances and the ticking clock. He decided he “was going to create a crack in which to drive a wedge and get my idea through headquarters.” Before even asking headquarters for approval, he already put into action “the thing he was proposing to do,” leaving them with no option but to accept it (a fait accompli).

It worked.

According to Mendez, the Hollywood option was “so readily embraced” that he began to wonder if he had forgotten something. The plan’s implausibility didn’t get the pushback he thought it would. He went on to say that the idea “was too ambitious, too ballsy, too complex. In my mind, these were the very characteristics that would make it work.” Within hours of formally presenting the plan to decision-makers, the mission was personally approved by the director of the CIA and POTUS. On Jan. 27, 1980, 84 days after evading capture, the six Americans navigated through the Iranian border and immigration control points at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran and flew out on a Swissair commercial flight to Zurich, escaping under the noses of radical Islamists.

According to Mendez, the plan worked because of “its overall outlandishness. It was the proverbial too-crazy-to-be-a-lie story that was impossible to check. It was something that no intelligence officer in his right mind would ever choose as a cover story. And therein was its beauty.”

So, what can we learn? In times of crisis, do ambitious, implausible and outlandish ideas need to be openly embraced and seriously considered? As the originator of a “crazy” idea, do you inherently know more about it than leadership can possibly understand? Do you have an unwritten obligation to implement that idea, no matter the risk to yourself? As the Irish poet Oscar Wilde said, “an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”


The monsoon season in Thailand usually begins in July and lasts until November. On June 23, 2018, 12 players of the Wild Boars soccer team (ages 11 through 16, with their 25-year-old assistant coach) walked into the Tham Laung cave system in northern Thailand. They were planning on “just a short visit.” Soon after they entered the caves, the water rose, flooding the cave they were in and preventing them from exiting. Within days, Thai government officials, military divers, cave diving experts, police, medical experts and media from around the world descended on the location. On July 2 — nine days after they first entered the cave — the team was located alive and well. British cave diving experts, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, found them 2.5 miles inside the cave. Much of the route the team used to walk into the cave was now impassable due to rising flood waters.

Locating them was just the first step. Next came the hard part: rescuing the team before the rising flood waters completely flooded the cave system, including the location where the team had taken refuge. Everyone, from onsite rescuers to those scattered around the globe, started to develop a long list of options. Ideas ranged from the seemingly logical to very out-of-the-box. Maybe pumping the water out of the cave with powerful pumps or drilling a 3,000-foot escape hole from above would work? From halfway around the world, Elon Musk proposed building an “underwater air tunnel” or a “kid-sized submarine” to shuttle the team out. Other proposals included giving the team a crash course in scuba diving and having them swim out (though, to quote some cave diving experts on the scene, “cave diving is as different as snorkeling is from scuba; two entirely different skill sets, let alone mindsets”).

As the list of practical ideas continued to diminish, government officials and rescuers became increasingly desperate. The last two ideas were terrible. Terrible idea No. 1: Leave the team inside the cave until the flooding season ended (six months later). Proponents of this idea suggested that divers could bring them food, water and medical support to help them ride out the stay, and when flooding season was over, they could just walk out. The wild card with this proposal was that any excessive rainfall and subsequent severe flooding could drown them all. Terrible idea No. 2: Sedate them and have experienced cave divers escort them out unconscious. The problem with that? It had never been done. Why the need to sedate them? Panic underwater is deadly. Deadly for both inexperienced and experienced cave divers. The risk of someone panicking was too great.

Rick Stanton was one of the lead cave divers trying to find a solution to this seemingly impossible problem. Out of options and ideas, he decided to summon help. The global cave diving community is small; from it, Stanton summoned expert cave divers and doctors Richard Harris and Craig Challen, both from Australia. Harris was an anesthesiologist, and Challen was a veterinarian.

“Could you sedate someone and dive them out?” Stanton asked the new arrivals. The initial answer from Harris was absolutely not, citing the reason that it’s never been done before. But the world was watching and waiting, and minute by minute, the pressure of performing a successful rescue increased. After a great deal of self-reflection, after weighing the pros and cons and considering what was ultimately at stake — the lives of the team — with a feeling of dread, Harris conceded it could possibly be done. He recommended using ketamine.

Stanton later said, “we weren’t hunting for the perfect solution, only the best one. What’s better than this?”

The overarching fact of the rescue was that the final decision was to be made not by the cave diving experts or the doctors, but by the Thai government. The cave diving doctors had to “sell” this crazy idea to Thai leadership. Within 24 hours of deciding that this was the best option to pursue, the cave diving team met with the Thai prime minister. They presented the plan, allowing that there was one big caveat: They couldn’t guarantee any level of success.

Dwell on that for a minute. Are you ready to propose an equally “crazy” idea to your boss with no guarantee of success?

Fast-forward to July 10, almost three weeks after the Wild Boars first walked into the cave. That “crazy” idea worked beyond expectations. All 12 players and the assistant coach were successfully sedated with ketamine and escorted — unconscious — out of the cave one by one.

How close is a successful idea to an unsuccessful idea? A breath? A right turn? A left turn? Are you ready to tell your boss you are out of ideas? Or are you going to propose something “crazy” or unthinkable in hopes of solving that wicked problem? What would happen if the first sedated player died on the way out: Would you try again with another player?


If you are a NASCAR aficionado, you may have heard of Ross Chastain and the Trackhouse Racing team before the epic Oct. 31, 2022, Martinsville Speedway “wall-riding” episode. But many people only know of Chastain and his previously unremarkable racing team because of his season-ending “do or die” at the Xfinity 500. This race is one of NASCAR’s elimination playoff series, held at the infamous Martinsville Speedway, and is better known as the “Half Mile of Mayhem.” During the Xfinity 500, you either finish as one of the leaders (collecting enough points to move on), or your season will end unceremoniously. If you are unfamiliar with NASCAR racing, the basics are simple. Turn Left. Go fast on the straightaways. Turn Left. Slow down and get low on the corners. Turn Left. Wait for the checkered flag. Win. You get the picture.

Chastain was hovering in 10th place as the end of the race approached. He was desperate for a win and needed more points to move on. He didn’t have a long list of feasible options. He could wait for one of the leaders to make a mistake and exploit it for a win — but with only a few miles left, it was unlikely he’d get the opportunity. He could remain in 10th place and most certainly lose — an unacceptable choice. He could hope for a yellow flag and the disqualification of one or two of the leaders.

Or he could do something “crazy.”

Chastain decided to go with the “crazy” option. He broke the unwritten rules of how to race. Not only did Chastain go fast on the straightaways, but in the final lap, he chose to go high and just as fast in the corner as he did on the straightaways — record-breaking fast. According to Chastain, in the moment of his final decision, it was “fight or flight.” He chose to fight. In a post-race interview with NBC Sports, Chastain explained he “was too far behind to gain those two positions so he put the car into fifth gear on the backstretch, planted the Chevrolet against the wall, took hands off the wheel and let the wall guide the vehicle around the final quarter mile while flooring the throttle.” At a “cartoonish rate of speed,” he passed five cars between turn three and the finish line, earning him the points needed to move on to the championship race in Phoenix a week later.

Where did he get the idea? According to Chastain, his “wall-riding” move was inspired by a 2005 NASCAR game he played as a kid on a 2001-era Nintendo GameCube. On the surface, it may sound crazy to use a move from a video game in real life, but the idea was likely planted deep in Chastain’s gray matter while he was running thousands of simulated races (and virtual experiences) when he was a kid. Under duress, the “crazy” idea popped out of that gray matter at the exact right time.

A brilliant moment of inspiration or a desperate lunge? Either way, it’s another case where there are no feasible options or ideas left, and the person responsible for making the decision is digging deep, looking for any way out. Could a desperate rush into a difficult decision result in a different outcome? How do you separate inspired “crazy” ideas from desperate “crazy” ideas? In the moment, is there time to recognize the difference? Is there a difference?


We’ve covered Trojan horses, outlandish cover stories, sedated cave-diving, and real-life video game moves. So, what have we learned?

  • First, it appears that the birth of “crazy” ideas directly results from desperation and/or self-preservation under grave circumstances. When decision-makers are under extreme stress and duress, creative, innovative and sometimes “crazy” ideas bubble to the top.
  • Second, seemingly insurmountable problems do, in fact, have solutions. The solution or idea may not be ideal, but at the moment, it may be the only one with a chance to succeed. It’s important to look to unusual places for inspiration to solve these unsolvable problems.
  • Third, don’t be quick to dismiss a “crazy” idea; it may be the difference between success and failure or life and death.
  • Fourth, the idea must match the circumstances. Picking the right idea is as important as picking the right time and place to execute that idea.
  • Fifth, no “crazy” idea has any guarantee of success. Success and failure may only be separated by the smallest of degrees.
  • Sixth, don’t fear speaking up when no one is offering solutions. Silence in the room is a lack of moral courage: Have the courage to share your ideas. One of them may be the winning idea that changes the course of history.
  • And lastly, there may be a moment in time where, at significant risk to you personally and professionally, you may be forced to implement an idea, against the wishes of your leadership.
Difficult problems require thinking outside the box. Give the “crazy” ideas serious consideration. They might hold the key to the problem you are trying to solve —
if you are brave enough (and maybe desperate enough) to try them.

Pete Gaynor (Peter T. Gaynor CEM® | LinkedIn) is the former FEMA administrator and acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security



Washington, D.C.


bEMA International
Cooperation, Collaboration, Communication, Coordination, Community engagement, and  Partnering (C5&P)


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"It is my belief that the best results in business come from a creative process, from the ability to see things differently from everyone else, and from finding answers to problems that are not bound by the phrase 'we have always done it this way.' "  Wayne Rogers

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