In tool and die making, everything that has been created or molded for mass production in the past century has been meticulously carved, milled, lathed, and mathematically designed so that the raw materials of metals and plastics can be molded into a commodity. Parts and pieces must fit and work flawlessly together and connect with minimal friction. There must be tolerances that allow the parts to work together. If parts and pieces were machined with zero tolerance, the tool would either not work or only work a few times until it becomes heated, bound, or simply locked up. Machined parts require that a defined and measured tolerance be determined to allow it to work thousands of times, maybe tens of thousands of times flawlessly. The tolerance may be 0.001 (one-thousandth) of an inch, which means that there is space. Zero tolerance does not function in the mechanics and geometry of things that need to work together. 

However, expectations when preparing for a disaster often include zero tolerance for: 

  • The loss of human life 

  • Needed but undeployed resources 

  • Improper shelter preparation 

  • Sub-standard housing 

  • Service failures 

Of course, zero tolerance should be the goal in the modern culture of safety, but it is not realistically attainable. Problem-solving in emergency preparedness has become short-sighted because zero tolerance in some circles has become a buzz-worthy phrase to define actionable solutions. Emergency planning principles that consider the zero-tolerance mindset can lead to policy failures

Unfortunately, zero tolerance has been adopted in many narratives. For example, China’s zero-tolerance strategy has made it harder to recover from the pandemic. Or consider the zero-tolerance campaign for construction workers in California, which was overarching, sometimes unreasonable, or created gridlocked restrictions. This campaign initiative required a union contractor’s pledge and nearly a dozen action items including a commitment to shut down a job if a perceived COVID-19 protocol was not being followed. Approaches for fluid work progressions should provide successful alternatives for solving problems and not burdensome stipulations.  

For example, the zero-tolerance policy conflicts with mitigating aggression and violence in health care. Many references within health care and nursing journals have shown that de-escalation techniques work much better than the use of restraints and a zero-tolerance approach. In fact, they are considered last-resort measures. It is important to have practical policies, protocols, and procedures in place to manage aggression and violence in the emergency department. An emphasis on training and skill development, particularly communication and negotiation strategies, is imperative for all health care professionals.

Determining Acceptability 

Zero tolerance is also a contradictory term. Zero means the absence of magnitude or quantity, literally nothing. Whereas tolerance is defined as the existence of opinions or behavior with which someone does not necessarily agree. However, the term zero tolerance has become so pervasive that it is often a measuring stick for determining acceptability. 

The conquest to arrive at zero tolerance becomes problematic because it formalizes the notion that data, policies, procedures, and lines of effort must be standardized to have zero tolerance, with the next precipitating issue also requiring zero tolerance. Despite the narrative professing zero tolerance, people may still be dying, resources misused, costs mismanaged, etc. 

When thinking about using this term, one must either define it or abandon it and define what tolerances are allowable. This will take more effort than saying there is zero tolerance but will explain more wholly what an operation should look like. For example, zero tolerance for persons to contract a virus or disease would require defining what one is willing to tolerate to avoid contracting something as organic and undefined as a microscopic killer.  

Zero tolerance is a buzz-worthy phrase, but is it an effective way to prepare for emergencies and build community resilience?

Accepting tolerances in emergency management helps reduce friction and factions, creating a more collaborative environment. Identifying risks and hazards more openly rather than just creating an exclusionary mindset of zero tolerance should drive policy. Comparative analysis, data collection, operational orders, and mitigation tasks must be realistic and attainable to determine what is causing the parts not to match up and find out what works together. Without this type of tolerance, issues become bound up and create heated friction. This was seen repeatedly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  

One cannot solve complex issues with the demand to “make the solution fit the problem,” and punitive actions rarely offer longstanding solutions. Merriam Webster defines zero tolerance as “a policy of giving the most severe punishment possible to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule.” Although emergency response should never be punitive, one 2022 study found that the global lockdowns and mandates used to reduce COVID-19 mortality rates had a punitive effect. Attempting to maintain societal norms by forcing an ideal that cannot be collaborative, compassionate, or collectively for the good of the whole of society will likely fail and possibly create a never-ending cycle of failures. 

Changing the Narrative 

Imagine removing zero tolerance from the discussion and coordinating the emergency management phases on the foundation of tolerance to see how close all the players can work together. Considering society has been faced with an emergency that has killed many people, events must be handled better. Take the challenge to use creative and critical thinking skills to progress through a problem and hone professional tolerances: 

  • Do not use demanding, punitive language to define a way through a problem or emergency. 

  • When planning, exercising, responding, or mitigating, reframe incident thinking, communicate, promote unity, and drive toward resilience rather than resistance. The development of community lifelines and their guiding principles to collaborate all the pieces will win hearts and minds. 

  • Decentralize old emergency management programming and create a new positive equilibrium of agencies with relevant partners and stakeholders. 

  • Visualize the exercise and discuss the intended consequences ensuring that the components are not relying on zero tolerances. 

  • Welcome legitimate opinions then discuss, debate, and decide promptly using tolerances that may elicit better decision-making. 

  • Remove dissension, debunking, and discrediting efforts in professional narratives. 

  • Challenge the team to prove an idea through tolerances. What the conversation reveals may be surprising. Try to provide at least three reasons why it will work and support it by citing meaningful research. 

  • Overcommunicate. Recognizing that communication is often a problem during incidents, define objectives succinctly and communicate them repeatedly. The cadence of the incident will be disrupted or derailed by zero-tolerance policies; remove them. With discretion and tolerance, the resolution will be closer than imagined. 

Improving the future requires working together and understanding tolerances to build capability and acceptance of core principles.

Christopher Tantlinger

Christopher Tantlinger is the deputy emergency management coordinator, Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety, Pennsylvania. He serves as chief of the county HAZMAT team. He has 27 years in the fire service, is past president of the Fire Chief’s Association of Westmoreland County, and is a proboard-certified HAZMAT technician. He serves as a rescue technician instructor for a rescue tool manufacturer. Activities include serving on the board of the Pennsylvania Association of Hazardous Materials Technicians. He is a cum laude honors graduate of Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA, with a BS in criminal justice and holds a professional certification from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. The author can be contacted for more information or to discuss collaborative ideas at: ctantlin@co.westmoreland.pa.us

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