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Preparing for the Worst

by Marc Bergman
USA

Four years ago, I made what some called a risky decision to leave my job in a business consultancy in Tokyo, and move halfway around the world to Washington, D.C., to pursue a second graduate degree and a completely different career field, that of emergency management and international security.

Preparing for the Worst, by Marc Bergman, U.S.A.

My interest in this area developed in large part from many years of experience in heading up teams of people responsible for the safety and smooth running of large SGI meetings, while living in the U.K., the U.S. and Japan. These activities always involve cultivating a spirit of service toward people and protecting others. I took the final decision to take up a career that expressed these values following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, and in the midst of a family crisis that required me to bring forth a lot of courage from my life.

After completing my graduate studies, I began working in the field of disaster management and security for the U.S. government. Part of my job here has been to help coordinate my agency's participation in disaster and counterterrorism exercises. I also belong to the cadre of people on alert status to respond to actual disasters.

Creating cooperation and building relationships are critical components in this field. Without such collaboration, it becomes almost impossible to effectively help people when responding to natural disasters or preventing terrorist attacks.

An important aspect of our work is running large-scale exercises to deal with crises on a national level. A recent exercise dealt with the simulated response to the setting off of radiological dispersal devices, or "dirty bombs," in several American cities. At other times, the scenario has been a strong hurricane pounding the U.S. coastline or an earthquake crippling the nation's infrastructure. We have a saying about doing these exercises, which is to "play like you fight and fight like you play." The purpose is to "play" the roles as if it was really happening, so that when we do have to "fight" against these natural or manmade disasters, we are ready to respond in the most optimal way.

Central to this effort is building relationships with the people that you'll be working with and gaining cooperation with numerous other agencies on a national and local level so that as little time as possible is wasted and as few as possible obstacles exist when we respond to an actual crisis.

Lessons Learned

Many look to the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as an example of how not to do it. The truth is that a lot of people put everything they had into helping the victims of this catastrophic disaster, but the "system" on a local, state and national level broke down due in part to a lack of cooperation and a "perfect storm" of failures over a long period of time.

My Buddhist practice has had a big influence on the way I approach my work and has been a great advantage to me in carrying it out effectively. The words of Nichiren, the founder of this school of Buddhism in 13th-century Japan, to "be diligent in one's concern for other people," are a core inspiration, as is SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's consistent encouragement to pursue dialogue at all costs and to find common ground.

This has helped me in my efforts to develop cooperative and trustful relations, particularly in a recent challenging experience of liaising with another federal agency where people in both groups were expressing increasingly intransigent positions. Now, for the first time in years, we have been able to reach a degree of consensus on how we would work together during a crisis. This may mean the difference between a confused response and an effective response in any future disaster situation.

It's no exaggeration to say that I've had to deal with my own share of crises during my life, but the experience of being able to overcome these with my Buddhist practice has given me the courage and determination to protect people through my work. It has also equipped me with the strength required to do this and enabled me to face challenges with a feeling of joy throughout.

[Courtesy, April 2008 SGI Quarterly]

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