Crisis Mode

crisis mode — A condition of continuous operational overload in which only the most important problems are addressed. During crisis mode, you are focussed on putting out fires, slaying dragons and rescuing maidens in distress and don't have time for such minor things as cleaning house and doing the laundry. As a result, the house goes to hell and the laundry piles up and never gets done.

Caseworkers from the Department of Family Services often operate in crisis mode. Every day there is a new crisis pushing aside lesser concerns, which might never get addressed. This is also the problem of superheroes everywhere: When you are always trying to save the world, when do you do your laundry?

Crisis mode is a period of intensive triage in a time of war. When the casualties start arriving, you have to deal with them quickly, and all secondary problems, like ordering new supplies and training new staff, have to be set aside. You can do this in short bursts, but when crisis mode continues over an extended period, it is detrimental to the system and eventually results in fatigue and collapse.

Over relatively short periods, crisis mode can be healthy and reinvigorating. Sometimes, it takes a crisis to get people focussed and to clear out the accumulated distractions that they don't really need. A forest fire can be good this way: It clears out all the dead wood and leaves space for new growth. You don't want a forest fire every day, however, since that would clear out both the dead wood and the new growth.

Superheroes face the problem of always having to rescue people. If these people might die if you don't do something, then this is powerful incentive for never doing your laundry. Still, do you want to be saving the world in dirty tights? Isn't your image, cleanliness and odor important, too? No one wants to be rescued by a stinky superhero!

Sooner or later, you have to do your laundry—and, frankly, people are going to have to die for it. Routine maintenance is an essential part of every superhero's day. You probably shouldn't tell anybody about it, given all the lives that are being lost, but, yes, you are going to take some time to do the laundry, clip your nails, take out the trash, and take care of all the other irritating maintenance issues that have accumulated over the past 24 hours. (Please don't paint your nails, however, since that's not worth losing lives over.)

Superheroes need boundaries to help protect them from operational overload. In Family Court, boundaries are defined by a person's role in the system. Judges, prosecutors, caseworkers, and public defenders each have their own assigned problems to worry about and aren't concerned with things that should be someone else's responsibility. As an overload becomes more intense, each person tends to view his responsibility as more and more restricted. This means, at times of crisis, that more problems fall through the cracks because no one perceives them as their responsibility.

Triage demands that you always direct your resources to the place where they are going to do the most good, which would seem to preclude ever doing your laundry. But it is also important to defend the holistic integrity of the system—both the system you are working in and the one you are working on.

Doing your laundry is an integrity project, as is returning phone calls and remembering birthdays. The cost of doing these things can be substantial—lives lost because you didn't help—but the cost of not doing them can even higher. A project without integrity—no laundry done, no phone calls returned—tends to disintegrate quickly, because you lose the emotional "glue" that holds things together.

You must deal with an acute crisis, like a fire in the engine room, with raw triage—by doing the most important things and putting everything else off. However, as soon as the initial crisis abates, you want to restructure yourself so the crisis doesn't happen again. You must redraw your boundaries and restrict your responsibilities to things you can reasonably manage (field of responsibility). Problems outside of your scope, you must decide, are not your problem. Problems within your scope are going to get your full attention, including relatively minor maintenance issues.

A common criticism of DFS and many of it caseworkers is that they are always operating in crisis mode, which means that you can't get them to respond to less-than-catastrophic problems like parental visits, routine information requests or completing any task without a specific court deadline. The system, of course, is overburdened with cases, so triage is the rule. Smart caseworkers cut corners intelligently, always making themselves more efficient and integrated. The dumb ones just do what they are getting the most flack about and blow off everything else.

The dumb ones, of course, just increase the burden on the system by failing to address maintenance issues at the early stages. Small problems are allowed to fester until they become big problems—full-blown crises of their own—which now take more caseworkers to address.

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