Heroic Improv: Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz

Alert – Accept – Focus – Move

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz brings improv to disaster preparedness with Heroic Improv, a method found in her upcoming book and workshop series.

Things happen fast during a disaster and that means officials must respond even faster. Traditionally, emergency professionals relied on “playbooks” to inform their choices. These scripts provide step-by-step instructions on how to respond to a variety of scenarios from chemical accidents to nuclear bombs. The problem: “Disasters are dynamic, not linear,” according to Mary Tyszkiewicz, PhD. Knowing catastrophes rarely play out neatly she has devised a solution: Heroic Improv. This technique uses improvisation to both train responders and respond to situations.

Tyszkiewicz, who holds a PhD in public administration and studies American Emergency Management, tried improv over 20 years ago and found it frustrating. “My analytic mind wanted to make the ‘perfect’ choice so I mostly ended up frozen in place,” she says. “It wasn’t much fun so I gave it up.” Yet she remained curious. Inspired by her mother, who participates in community theater, Tyszkiewicz gave improv a second try. Not only did she find herself enjoying it more, she realized its worth in training the gamut of emergency responders, from private citizens to professional responders to elected officials.

“The beginnings of a catastrophe are chaotic,” she says. “There’s a lot of confusion and one lone person cannot make a difference alone. To best respond to a crisis decisions must be made as a group.” Tyszkiewicz saw the parallel to theater improv immediately. “Theater improv in a group is closely related to catastrophic decision making. At first there is chaos, people are scrambling until they form a team that connects, chooses, and ultimately acts.”

The skills that make an effective improv team – flexibility, speed and creativity in the moment – are the same skills that Tyszkiewicz hopes to hone in emergency responder teams. And the best way to do that is face-to-face practice with all of the stakeholders. While professional emergency responders practice this decision making process all of the time, they are only part of the equation. Elected officials and private citizens are vital parts of the team, yet they hardly ever run though simulations. This makes initial group decisions harder. “Often an elected official’s first time learning about disaster response is during that first disaster when they are in charge,” laments Tyszkiewicz.

Heroic Improv promises to change that scenario. Starting with simple improv games, (yes, that means Zip Zap Zop) and moving to more and more structured exercises, Tyszkiewicz’s method would eventually simulate the chaos of an actual disaster where all of the stakeholders, from elected officials to professional responders to private citizens, could try out their plans. “It is important to get everyone together for the exercises,” she insists, “not proxies or subs but the actual decision makers.”

Tyszkiewicz bases her workshops on four concepts: alert, accept, focus and move. Alert is recognizing that there is a situation and using all the senses to take in what is happening. Accept means accepting the chaos of the situation, accepting the people who make up a team and trusting that team immediately. “Trust usually takes time to build, but in a crisis time is one thing you don’t have,” she says. “In this case trust is not earned, it’s given.”

Next is Focus, where the team decides where they will put their energy and expertise. It’s during this phase that a leader usually emerges; someone with a strong and specific skill that the other stakeholders can support. Finally the team Moves, making decisions and enacting plans. “As the team moves they should ask themselves, ‘if this is true, what else is true?’ just like in an improv scene,” says Tyszkiewicz quoting part of Occam’s razor. “The answer should guide them to the next step and the pattern will repeat.” As the team goes through the concepts over and over, new leaders will emerge based on circumstance and skillsets.

Tyszkiewicz tested the Heroic Improv concept while observing a group of youth volunteers during Hurricane Sandy last year. She tells of the youth being stationed on hard-hit Staten Island, at a section with no power. “Verizon wanted to help so they sent a trailer equipped with computers, lights and power. They set it up and walked away,” she reports.

The youth volunteers quickly mobilized to take advantage of this resource. “The volunteers knew how to navigate the FEMA application process on the internet so when survivors showed up they initiated that service for them,” she says. Eventually the trailer morphed into a donation center and the same youth volunteers took charge of organizing those resources as well. “None of this was written in the playbook, the youth volunteers improvised all of their actions. The reason it went so smoothly is because they trained as a group before the incident and were willing to improvise to respond to survivor needs.”

With disasters, both natural and man-made, a reality of life, preparedness remains key. And with plenty of examples of mismanaged efforts (read: Hurricane Katrina), now is the time for professionals, elected officials and private citizens to up their game. Will improv training lend the edge we need? “It is a powerful technique to train in as a group,” says Tyszkiewicz. “It allows everybody to explore a space outside of their ordinary lives and really understand what group action in chaos is like.” And it allows people to become the heroes we all need.

Dr. Tyszkiewicz presented at the AIN World Conference in 2012. See her presentation here.

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz was interviewed on August 29, 2013, by Patrick Short and Amy Milshtein of CSz-Portland. The article is by Amy Milshtein.


The Improvisational Response to Disasters

The recent flash floods in the Front Range of Colorado bring several thoughts to mind.

First, our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have lost or missing loved ones, and those whose homes and favorite places have been damaged. One flood seems like quite enough, yet the rains keep coming and streams like Boulder Creek, Four-Mile Creek, the St Vrain River, Big Thompson River and others keep roaring down toward towns, homes and businesses.


The above image shows Highway 36, just north of Lyons. Yes, that’s the main highway between Boulder and Estes Park.


Above is Highway 7, about 12 miles west of Lyons, up the canyon toward the Peak to Peak Highway.

Our family enjoyed a reunion week this past summer in Lyons. We stayed at the Stone Mountain Lodge just past Lyons, enjoyed hiking up along the Peak to Peak Highway and even rafted on the gentle St Vrain River. Today, Lyons is cut off from the world. No electricity, no water (the city supply was overrun and breached) and no passable roads in or out. I’ve seen these beautiful places minus the water, and my heart goes out to those affected.

How does a town / county / state / nation respond to a disaster of this kind?

Of course, there’s planning. Maybe even preparedness drills. But what if the assumptions all change?

  • a 100-year flood event
  • part of the deluge hits areas that burned in the last three years, so there’s a greater tendency for landslides
  • the rain keeps coming after the first wave of flooding
  • roads cut off – and we’re not talking about places where you can “go around the other block”
  • helicopters can’t fly in the continued bad weather
  • many of the mountain residents are completely out of reach; some stay out of reach in normal times

What skills would allow for teams to adapt to unexpected circumstances?

Yes. Improvisation skills, applied to emergency response. (You probably knew that was coming.)

It’s not possible to adequately respond to disasters with pure improvisation. Life is far to complex for that. (Just think about all of the different pieces of our infrastructure that must be accounted for.) But once the plans are in place, and a disaster occurs, the actions the teams take must have elements of improvisation to succeed. You can’t apply an evacuation plan with helicopters if the helicopters can’t fly. Even more important, how do you get disparate teams to work together under that kind of pressure?

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz has explored the links between improvisation and disaster response. She calls it Heroic Improv, and we’ll introduce you to her in a blog post very soon.

Patrick Short fell off of his inner tube in 4 feet of water on St Vrain River in July. That was on a rapid with a difficulty rating of maybe .25.