LAS VEGAS — A couple of months ago, I wrote about the advice of risk-management guru Gordon Graham, who extols the virtues of rigorous, ongoing training as the key to preparing for “the unthinkable event.” On Oct. 12, 2000, Kirk Lippold discovered first-hand just how true that axiom is.

On that fateful day, Taliban operatives floated a raft filled with explosives up to the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy destroyer that was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden. The blast opened a 40-foot by 40-foot hole in the ship’s hull, causing catastrophic damage that created the real possibility that the $1 billion ship would sink. If that wasn’t enough, many of the crew had been severely injured. (The final toll was 17 dead, 37 injured.)

A year prior to the ship’s leaving its home port of Norfolk, Va., Lippold implemented a training program that was above and beyond the typical training program. His crew wasn't happy about it, as they were forced to give up precious time with their families. But when all was said and done, the all-enlisted crew was 100% qualified when the Cole set sail, something that had never been done before in Naval history — and hasn’t been repeated since — Lippold said during his opening keynote address yesterday at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials' annual conference.

He added that the extra training paid off on the day that the Cole was attacked.

"Little did they know that all of that additional training … would give us the depth and breadth of technical knowledge and leadership confidence that would let the crew step into positions and we could all work together to save the ship," he said.

Saving the Cole was no easy task. The ship was taking on water and the crew was unable to get auxiliary diesel generators fired up to power vital pumps. The crew started a bucket brigade, a rather unpleasant task given that temperatures were in the triple digits with 90% humidity. Then a crew member came up with an innovative solution: use the portable devices that normally are used to inflate the air packs used for firefighting drills to pump compressed air into one of the generators. Bingo — it fired right up.

I'm not a diesel-generator mechanic, so I have no idea why this worked. But that's not the point. Rather, the point is that Lippold trusted his crew to find a solution. Trust is one of his "five pillars of leadership." (The others include integrity, vision, responsibility and accountability, and competence.)

"A lot of people use the word 'empower,' but I like to say ‘trust and invest.’” Lippold said. “To me, 'empower' a lot of times is telling someone to do something without really giving them the tools, and then holding them accountable if they don’t get it quite right.

"Trusting and investing is more than that. You need to give your people not only the ability to succeed but to fail as well, because sometimes failure is the best teacher."

Given that he was speaking at a conference of public-safety communications officials, it might have seemed a bit odd that Lippold didn’t talk much about communications on that day. But there was good reason for that: there wasn't any communication because the blast had rendered the ship's antennas inoperable. Nevertheless, Lippold needed to find a way to communicate to fleet command what had happened. An attaché who had met the ship on its arrival into port offered the use of his cell phone, which happened to contain the number for the fleet command. Lippold said to toss it up — which led to what might have been his most stressful moment of the day.

"As I’m watching it tumble through the air, I'm thinking, when you're … in the [Naval] Academy, you play two sports — tennis and golf," Lippold said. Despite this, Lippold caught the phone and successfully made the call.

I often hear about the lack of training in the public-safety communications sector, particularly in the 911 emergency communications subsector. The most cited reason is money — cash-strapped agencies simply can’t afford to provide the ongoing, rigorous training that Gordon Graham prescribes to prepare for unthinkable events. But after hearing Lippold's retelling yesterday of the unthinkable event he encountered nearly nine years ago, I can’t help but wonder: Can you afford not to?

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.