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by Valerie Lucus-McEwen: Degrees, certificates and relevant research for Emergency Managers

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March 05, 2014

As emergency managers, we all know that emergencies can strike at any time; emergencies have their own flavors; they can be big or small, significant or not; and often based on the perception of those affected.  There is a different in the perception of 3-4 inches of snow in Georgia, compared to 3-4 inches of snow in Massachusetts.

We also know that once the crisis phase of the emergency is over - the waiting begins. That can mean days or hours waiting for relief to show up, the flood levels to recede, the lights to come back on, information saying it is okay to go home.

When I was promoting personal preparedness in the California Bay Area, the entreaty (that's what it was, given public apathy) was to make sure they had extra food, water, clothing, documents, medicine and so forth in their home and car.  I also advised them to have something to pass that waiting time - games for the kids, good bottles of California wine for the adults.

These thoughts came back to me, suddenly and in a very vivid manner, a few days ago in an incident that I didn't consider an emergency, but definitely was an emergency for the folks around me.

Amtrak train 777, enroute from San Diego to San Luis Obispo was stopped for three hours in the middle of Vandenburg Air Force Base because there were trees down on the tracks a few miles ahead of us.  Obviously the result of all that nasty weather bringing much needed rain.

The mood in my car went from disbelief to apprehension to irritation to anger and, eventually, to resignation.  And waiting.

Along the way, there were escape proclamations (in the dark, in the rain - wonder what the Vandenberg security would think about that?), demands to move the train backwards to the last stop (even though there were trains backed up behind us) and agonizing about taking the train instead of driving (which most did because of the nasty weather).  One woman managed her anxiety with alcohol.  Actually, the snack car sold a lot of overpriced beer and wine during those three hours.

The hardest part is that the train was stopped - not only in the middle of nowhere - but in the middle of a canyon and there was no - repeat NO - phone service. No phone calls, no computers, no tablets.  People couldn't believe it.  How were they going to communicate and entertain themselves? No email, no online gaming, no streaming music.  Just waiting.

These are my notes from that part of the 'emergency':

  1. Once the anxiety of the situation settles, and it is obvious nobody/nothing is threatened, people become irritated about being inconvenienced.
  2. It doesn't help to grill the conductor every time he walks through the car, even though he has assured everyone they are doing all they can, told everyone all he knows and will certainly pass on any updates.
  3. Oh, boy -- are we ever electronically dependent if we can't do without our devices for three hours.

After it became obvious nothing could be done about the situation, the mood gradually changed.  A micro-community developed.  Folks started conversations and shared stories. One woman, who had just auditioned for a musical, entertained by singing.  Another helped entertain a 4-year-old who was driving her parents crazy.  Those few folks with newer phones who could still send and receive text, offered to send messages for everyone else.

When the train finally started moving, there was a lot of commotion, cheering, smiling.  As the next stations came up, we all said sincere good-byes.  I doubt any of us will stay in contact, but I hope the memories and good feelings about coming together will stay with them for a long time.

That was the ultimate lesson for me, one that I know from working disasters, but had never really experienced myself.  Once the crisis is over and the waiting begins, people just naturally turn to helping each other.

What was I doing this whole time?  Why ... taking notes and writing this blog, of course.  :-)


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February 11, 2014

We are now four weeks into the Spring Semester and I am teaching one of my favorite courses: Risk and Crisis Communications.

During the first week, I ask students to articulate their understanding of emergency, risk and crisis communications. At the end of the semester, I ask them to revisit that answer – have they changed their mind after spending a semester studying it?

What they generally miss in that first description is the most basic concept: communications is an EXCHANGE of ideas. Doesn’t matter what you put out there, if your audience doesn’t get it and act on it, it isn’t communication.

By the end of the semester, the growth in their knowledge base is … awesome. Gratifying. Amazing.

Let me describe my students: This is a Master’s degree, distance learning program. The students who are attracted to it are generally older, already involved in public safety/service – most of them for many years – and working full time. (That isn’t absolutely true, of course, but it is a valid generalization.) They want this MS degree for career advancement, lateral promotion, a second career when they retire, or personal satisfaction.

First of all – despite its prevalence – these students wind up reassessing the effect social media has on what they do everyday, how much it has changed our world in the past few years and how quickly it continues to change it. Even our primary textbook, Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World (Haddow & Haddow) is the 2nd edition and the difference between this and the 1st edition (2007) is remarkable.

However, the lesson that seems to really make a difference in shaping their conceptual understandings of risk/crisis communication are Peter Sandman’s Risk = Hazard + Outrage concepts. The book he wrote in 1993 Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication was published by AIHA Press and was somewhere around $50. I bought a copy in 2000 for $65. It is now out of print, but there is one brand new copy available at Amazon for $4568.78. Plus shipping. There are four used ones going for $410. I occasionally wonder what mine is worth. Fortunately, the pdf is available to download free on Dr. Sandman’s website.

This is how Dr. Sandman explains his risk communication formula:

The most important fact about risk communication is the incredibly low correlation between a risk’s “hazard” (how much harm it’s likely to do) and its “outrage” (how upset it’s likely to make people). If you know a risk is dangerous, that tells you almost nothing about whether it’s upsetting. If you know it’s upsetting, that tells you almost nothing about whether it’s dangerous.

Based on this distinction, I categorize risk communication into four tasks:
[Note: The examples here are mine. -VJLM]

  • When hazard is high and outrage is low, the task is “precaution advocacy” – alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. “Watch out!” [Think: earthquake preparedness]
  • When hazard is low and outrage is high, the task is “outrage management” – reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. “Calm down.” [Think: vaccinations for infants]
  • When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the task is “crisis communication” – helping appropriately upset people cope with serious risks. “We’ll get through this together.” [Think: Superstorm Sandy]
  • When hazard and outrage are both intermediate, you’re in the “sweet spot” (hence the happy face) – dialoguing with interested people about a significant but not urgent risk.

Why does this information resonate with students? I believe it is because the concepts of risk and crisis communications are presented simply; because it emphasizes the role perception plays in that two-way communication model; and because it just makes sense. They have seen all of these behaviors, in their personal and professional lives. This gives them a concrete way to understand those behaviors and some idea how to manage for them.

If you have never seen Dr. Sandman’s work, or haven’t read it for a long time, maybe it is time for some self-education.

After all, Emergency Managers are lifetime learners. Aren’t we?


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October 29, 2013

A lot of folks have asked why I haven’t posted many blogs lately.  I have a great answer:  I haven’t had time because I retired!

I’ve lost count of how many Emergency Managers have retired and are now busier than they were before. Seasoned EM’s are so much in demand; there are so many opportunities to consult and present and teach. It is easy to stay very busy.

When I retired, I went the teaching route. My motivation was (still is) training the next generation of Emergency Managers – the ones that will be taking over. Passing on my knowledge and experience is very, very important to me.

I teach in the Master’s program at CSU Long Beach, educating a lot of mid-career people on the ins-and-outs and intricacies of our profession.  Before I retired, when I was hiring new employees, it was important to find someone with a strong background in Emergency Management – both experience and education. Many of the applicants were (or had been) in the military or public service. They knew a lot about response, yet didn’t know how to develop a risk assessment and create a mitigation plan for a small city. They could participate in a press conference, but didn’t who Dennis Mileti was, much less his work on emergency notification.  

Now, I see those same kind of people in my courses. I insist they have an understanding of basic emergency management theory, ethics in research with human subjects and some real-world experience to expand their understanding of our field. You know all those folks who wonder what we do when there isn’t a disaster? I want them to understand what being an emergency manager is really all about.

Risk and Crisis Communications is a good example. You might be surprised what some students hadn’t considered: being responsible for communicating with special populations in their jurisdictions; the importance of social media in response and recovery; Peter Sandman’s formula for Risk = Hazard + Outrage and its applicability to risk communication.

When I teach this course, there are two-person team projects assigned to work for real community partners. I ask my colleagues to help by providing real problems for them to work on. Students have:

  1. Researched outdoor warning systems and produced a summary with statistics for a emergency management agency in Texas.
  2. Wrote a comprehensive paper examining social media use on a university campus, with recommendations for current emergency plans.
  3. Described a general social media strategy, with SOP’s, for a State Emergency Management Agency.
  4. Developed a paper summarizing actions to stand up a global social media response organization, including a recommendation for adopting ICS principles.
  5. Drafted an Emergency Information Guide for a Ministry in Ontario, Canada.

Before students are allowed to graduate in this program, they have to complete either a thesis or capstone project AND defend it. Since these students are all over the U.S., they come up with some interesting projects. Some that are currently in progress:

  1. Continuing community resilience after federal mitigation funds run out; working with a couple local jurisdictions
  2. Mitigating disaster related stress in children through music; working with a national organization.
  3. Creating community resilience with community gardens; working with an agricultural program at a university.
  4. Discretionary decision making for Peace Officers during a disaster; thesis.
  5. Developing a white paper to integrate several special districts to create more a efficient law enforcement agency; working with a county Sheriff’s Department.

Here is my challenge for you: Instead of complaining about the lack of experience in newly graduated emergency managers – do something about it. Find a similar program and offer to tutor/mentor a student so they do have some real world experience.

Or send me an email; I am gathering information for next semester. If you have a project, I might just be able to help.

August 08, 2013

This blog is not so much about why or how to get a CEM® (Certified Emergency Manager), or even whether you should. This blog is about who actually confers it. 

I’m not talking about who sponsors the CEM®: the International Association ofEmergency Managers. I’m talking about the appointed Commission who does the work and decides who is qualified. More specifically – my experience as one of those Commissioners.

First, a short side note about the CEM® itself. The official website blurb says: “IAEM created the CEM® program to raise and maintain professional standards for EM.”

In 1988, there was an Advisory Council, funded by FEMA, and composed of 20 different organizations –FEMA and EMI (of course), but also ASPA, IACP, IAFC, ICMA, NEMA, NFPA. Altogether, a pretty impressive list.

They did what every Advisory Council does – they researched and analyzed and debated – and “determined that the best way to implement standards was to define professional benchmarks and provide practitioners with a certification program to document their qualifications.”

The first CEM®’s were awarded in 1993 to 211 individuals. A few years later, the AEM® was established to accommodate candidates who couldn’t yet meet the stricter CEM® requirements. As of June 2013, there were 1476 CEM®’s and AEM®’s around the world and there is a list of them here.

A lot has been written about whether the CEM® is worth getting – or keeping. An article in Emergency Management Magazine last year Professionals Debate the Need for EM certification captured the conflicting views pretty well: “Some say certification is a needed step toward emergency management becoming a more mature profession. Others say the work required to maintain the certification outweighs any benefits.”

Getting the paperwork together for the initial CEM® application is, indeed, a daunting task. All the experience, training, education, references and contributions have to be documented. The same holds true for recertifying after five years – fewer requirements, but everything still has to be documented. Those who value that recognition as a professional somehow figure out how to get it done.

My CEM® was awarded in 2001, which means I’ve recert-ed twice. Then, after applying for several years, I was appointed to the 2015 class of USA CEM® Commissioners (there are three CEM® Commissions: Global, Oceania-Asia and USA.). Was I excited? Yessss! I want to be part of giving something back to this profession; I want to participate in making Emergency Management more professional!

Did I realize how much time, energy, thoughtful consideration, spirited conversations and difficult decisions it would take?  No. No, I did not.

Because – just as it is challenging to get that initial or recert CEM® application done in the first place, it is challenging to be part of the CEM® Commission which reviews and evaluates the applications that are submitted. In some ways, it is like redoing your own applications – over and over again.

The USA CEM® Commission consists of 20 appointed members (and six ex-officio members), who represent different peer-related professions – like local and state government, the military, higher education and other public, private and NGO groups. They are appointed for a three-year term and can reapply once – then they retire. The chair and vice-chair are elected each year from the members.

The Commission meets three times a year. Let me tell you what we do at those meetings:

Each application is reviewed and evaluated –independently – by two Commissioners. They decide – independently – whether the application is complete or lacking in some area. If those Commissioners agree – the decision is finalized. If the Commissioners’ independent evaluations don’t agree – and they can’t work out their disagreement – it goes to a third Commissioner for review. All three collaborate on the final outcome – complete or incomplete. Letters are prepared approving the application or telling the candidate what is needed to complete the requirements. They have 90 days to send in the missing material, at which point, their application is again reviewed – independently – by different  Commissioners.

A few months ago, in early June, the Commission spent three days reviewing applications. There were 16 of the 20 appointed Commissioners there (along with four of the ex-officio appointments). We met until after 8 pm two of those nights and after 6 pm the third. We had one business meeting. We looked at 160 applications and approved 116 of them. That works out to each Commissioner reviewing an average of 20-ish applications. Over three days. 

Some applications aren’t complete … just maybe because the applicant didn’t think it would be reviewed so carefully - like using a supervisor’s form letter for the professional qualification of “awards or special recognition”. Then there are those applications to review that are delivered in several 2-inch binders. I’m not saying it’s impossible for something to slip through the review; but I will say it is darn near impossible. 

What surprised me most are the number of applications that are returned because of the essay: those candidates who don’t follow the directions – which are pretty clear – or they don’t use spellcheck, or are just sloppy in their formatting and grammar. Yes, it is graded like a college-level English paper.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. It is exciting, energizing and I always come home more intent than ever on making sure the courses I teach produce professional emergency managers. 

Getting a CEM® or AEM® is not easy, but it isn’t supposed to be, is it? If it were easy, anyone could get it, right?

The CEM® Commission makes sure those folks who are awarded a CEM® or AEM® really deserve it, and that it continues to mean something special. I'm tickled pink to be part of it.


June 30, 2013

Nothing is more important to an Emergency Manager than reliable communication.

The last time I drove across the Nevada desert, I compulsively checked my smart phone every 10-15 minutes to see if I had a signal. Yet. A few weeks ago, driving from western Washington State to southern Utah, my signal fluttered into and out of river canyons where that Verizon guy (“Can you hear me now?”) has never been.

As a culture, with wide-spread internet availability, we take dependable communication for granted – until it isn’t there. When that happens, when we lose the connectivity we have become accustomed to, it pings our normalcy bias

This is one reason major disasters can be traumatic and emotionally overwhelming: Losing the ability to communicate with our online worlds – especially family and friends – and the resulting sense of separation can be acutely distressing.

All this happens because the infrastructure necessary to provide transmission access points is easily destroyed or damaged, regardless of how permanent they are intended to be. When the transmission is disrupted, communication ceases.

Historically, platforms developed to strengthen transmission range from paid couriers to fixed orbital satellites.  Some only lasted for a few years – like the Pony Express – and some still exist – like bicycle messengers in San Francisco.  The Semaphore Line, used in the late 18th to early 19th century, used a chain of stations and a shutter technique to transmit messages over 100 km – and disappeared when replaced by the electric telegraph.

(As an aside, the very last telegram will be sent on July 13, 2013 from the only place in the world that still maintains it– India.)

None of those platforms were really long term or permanent solutions. In fact, much of their vulnerability exists because of attempts to make them permanent. Technology is subversive, however, in that it constantly attempts to overthrow the old and bring on the new. As technology scoots ahead, eventually everything is superseded by something fresher and more efficient. (R.I.P. Nextel. 1993 – 6/30/13, 12:01 am ET)

Where are communication platforms going next?  I’m guessing they might look something like the latest development from Google [x] – their “secret” R&D lab – aptly called Project Loon. Because - as Google themselves admit – the idea is kind of crazy.

The concept is a network of solar-powered, high altitude, constantly replaced balloons that create hotspots, allowing web access to places on the globe that haven’t had it – or lose it because of a disaster. Comments on the Google blog equate this idea to Sci-Fi magic – and a few checked to make sure the news wasn’t released on April 1st . But the concept of floating communication devices really isn’t new. 

The French military used balloons as reconnaissance platforms in late 18th century.  During the American Civil War, both sides used tethered balloons that could carry up to five people aloft. There are weather balloons, of course, and the U.S. Army has been experimenting with the use of balloons to enhance field communications.

And after that? How about space elevators?

In his 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise”, Sci-Fi writer Arthur C. Clarke introduced the idea of space elevators, ribbons that were tethered to the earth and platforms in the upper atmosphere. There is a company now, Space Data Corporation, already deploying tethered repeater platforms for the military. 

If you think space elevators are a far-fetched idea, take note that the International Space Elevator Consortium (I am not making this up) will be focusing on the technology in its upcoming conference in August.  Although, rumors are Google [x] is already working on it.

There are all kinds of advantages to technology like Project Loon. It could significantly decrease the need for new infrastructure and replace aging infrastructure. It could strengthen communication by creating a paradigm shift in the notion that transmission platforms should be permanent (and therefore more vulnerable). It would bring the internet (with all its pluses and minuses) to parts of the world that don’t have it now. Certainly there are obstacles – airspace access and control, for example, and concerns about unnecessary surveillance.

Google says solving these kind of obstinate issues requires looking at the problem from new angles. “The idea may sound a bit crazy …but there’s solid science behind it,” they say.  “(We are) hoping that the launch can start the conversation and begin to spec out how this might work on a larger scale.”

From my perspective, I can see this kind of technology benefiting Emergency Management in multiple arenas. Cheap, easily introduced and installed hot spots during disasters will help people and communities (not just responders) talk to each other. Global access to an internet platform means sharing preparedness messages with new audiences, and creating more knowledgeable and disaster-resistant societies. Distance learning academic programs could generate a new generation of global EM’s.  Disaster response and relief groups, like Crisis Commons, Crisis Mappers and Ushahidi, can only get better.

Meanwhile, Project Loon started by deploying 30 balloons over New Zealand earlier this month. Other countries are interested in being next in line, including India. To replace the telegraph, maybe.

June 07, 2013

One of the primary safety tasks in sailing is reefing the mainsail – lowering it partway in a heavy wind to make the boat easier to manage.  There is a classic sailor’s saying about reefing the mainsail: “if you are asking if it’s time to do it, it’s already past that time”.

I learned this lesson the hard way – on a short sail close to the California coast from Oceanside to Dana Point. The winds were brisk and steady. Fortunately, my husband, who is a much more experienced sailor, noticed the weather was changing and discussed reefing.  Then he quoted that aphorism, reefed the sails and when the wind gusted up we were fine.  But, this is a mistake lots of experienced sailors make – not denying the wind will come up, but denying it will come up so quickly that they can’t manage it.

This is part of “normalcy bias”; a mental state of denial when facing a disaster or pending danger.  Normalcy bias leads people to underestimate and minimize the possibility of a disaster actually happening. Until it does – and then they frantically try to reef their sails in heaving seas.  

We see normalcy bias a lot in emergency management.  Most recently, some of those folks in Oklahoma City, who finally decided to react to the impending danger (the disastrous tornadoes) and – against the strong requests from state and local officials to shelter-in-place and stay off the roads –spontaneously evacuated and gridlocked the freeways, which put a whole lot of people in danger.

I was reading some of the preliminary reports (lessons learned are still being sorted out), and thought about the blog I wrote earlier this year about evacuation behavior and evacuation zones around nuclear power plants.  It was about a report in which the NRC suggested large evacuations during an incident put the closest public at increased risk because of traffic conditions and delays as the public furthest from the risk evacuated – whether they were asked to or not. In Oklahoma City, the public was specifically asked NOT to evacuate, tried anyway, and put a lot of people directly in the tornado’s path.

Normalcy bias in evacuation behavior: denying or overreacting to a pending disaster, then acting inappropriately, thereby putting one’s self and others in danger.

This is frustrating because it is such an intractable problem. We can’t convince the public to be prepared; we can’t convince the public to follow directions when they aren’t prepared.

In an interview with NPR, Rick Smith the warning-coordination meteorologist for the NWS in Norman, OK, talked about warnings, information, and human behavior.  Smith allowed as this was a complex issue and tackling it would take a group effort by “people who understand — or attempt to understand — human behavior and messaging and all kinds of things.”

Good news! Some people have already done that! There is a lot of social science research, going back to 1990 (Mileti and Sorenson: Communication of emergency public warnings) and 1992 (Lindell and Perry: Behavioral Foundations of Community Emergency Planning). You can find these and more here.

The issue is no longer about understanding public behavior.

The challenge now is modifying public behavior.

What we need is a good, sticky message that targets normalcy bias.  Any ideas out there?

April 26, 2013

In the realm of emergency management higher education, the annual FEMA Higher Education Conference is the event that brings us all together. Usually held the first week in June at the NETC campus in Emmitsburg, it attracts over 400 people, both academians and practitioners.

This conference – more than anything else – has benefited the process of moving Emergency Management from a vocation to a profession. My friend (and fellow blogger) from the dark side, Lu Canton, described it best:

“… (it) provides an opportunity for academics, researchers and practitioners to come together in a collegial atmosphere to discuss our ideas for higher education curricula for future emergency managers.” 

I say it attracts “over 400 people” because I can’t get the exact number for last year. FEMA removed the past 15 years of conference proceedings from the Higher Ed website sometime before they cancelled the Higher Ed Conference for 2013.

Okay, they didn’t exactly cancel it; they moved it online, and shortened it, and now totally control the conversation. The official announcement says:

To maximize the use of technologies and for greater efficiencies, the 2013 Higher Education Symposium will be conducted via a series of 4 targeted, topical, focused discussion areas presented via an on-line, web based platform.  … These virtual symposiums will be held in lieu of the Higher Education Conference. 

I know.  It doesn’t sound all that appealing, does it?

The Higher Ed Project and annual conference have an interesting history. Back in 1994, Kay C. Goss then Associate FEMA Director for National Preparedness, Training and Exercises, and John McKay, the Director of FEMA Training, created the FEMA Higher Education Project. At that time, there were few higher education degree programs, and the idea was for FEMA to solve some of their educational and training challenges by partnering with colleges and universities. The venerable Dr. B. Wayne Blanchard was brought onboard to manager the Project and expand the program – which he did very well, indeed!

In 1997, FEMA began hosting an annual conference to bring all interested parties together.  The attendance that first year was about 80.  In 2011, it was over 400. That is a 500% increase in participation in 14 years, which is very impressive.

Over the past few weeks, there had been rumors going around that the conference was in jeopardy of being cancelled, that it was one of the programs on the FEMA chopping block because of the sequester. This was really odd because FEMA pays very little to host the Higher Ed Conference. Everyone pays their own travel and for the infamous EMI meal ticket.  The first to register get one of the dorm rooms on the campus, and the rest stay off campus. Volunteers help the small Project staff put together the agenda and program.  There are even student volunteers to record the conference proceedings!!

We were all hoping the Conference would survive.  But it didn’t.  At this point, the decision has been made.  It is too late to reinstate it.

My concern is the precedent.  Does this mean the whole Program is in jeopardy? Will the conference happen next year? What else does FEMA have lined up for the chopping block? The sequester is being implemented as a death from a thousand cuts.  Who knows what is next to be cut?

In this case, the decision to cancel the Higher Ed Conference was made by the current Superintendent of FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute, Tony Russell. I blogged about him when he addressed last year’s Conference, very shortly (11 days) after he was appointed to the position. He talked about creating an ‘ocean of predictability’ , balancing the barrier between practitioners and academia, and partnerships that benefit the profession.  

I thought about sending Superintendent Russell an email about how disappointing it is that the Conference was cancelled, because the only thing predictable now is how much more difficult it will be to balance those barriers.

I decided to write this blog instead.

April 21, 2013

There isn’t much left to say about what happened in Boston on Monday. As I write this, the manhunt is over, the lockdown was lifted, and the cities are adjusting to a new normal.

From an Emergency Management perspective, I believe this will turn out to be a case study for an efficient, coordinated and collaborative response to an unexpected event from every responder – especially the public, the medical community, local and federal law enforcement.

I watched closely for the first 5-6 hours; then I just listened occasionally and watched for official updates.  This is a personal lesson learned from being too closely captivated by disasters I wasn’t directly involved in.  The event will proceed whether I’m glued to my TV or computer screen, or not.

Emergency Managers, like others who deal with emergencies every day, learn how to distance themselves emotionally from the events surrounding a disaster.  That’s the only way to keep enough perspective to manage all the details coming into an EOC: communication, mutual aid, personnel, shelters, staging, triage, barricades, evacuation and so on.

As I watched the events in Boston, I realized that is exactly what I was doing. I was critically watching the videos for organization and control, listening to the news and sifting out the rumors, following the official – and unofficial – tweets. I appreciated the coverage on NPR, where Steve Inskeep (Morning Edition) kept reminding us that he was “collecting dots, not connecting dots.”

I’m not suggesting Emergency Managers aren’t emotionally affected by these kinds of disasters; that comes later, when we replay the decisions that were made and think about how our actions effect the safety and security of the people we are responsible for. We translate our experience into preparedness training - for ourselves and the public.

I wrote a couple blogs recently about disaster preparedness messaging.  One was about sticky messages and one about using the Zombies Apocalypse as a meme to create teachable moments – when it is possible for a teacher to break through the apathy and get a message across. We want people to prepare for the unexpected, but we struggle with how to get their attention and convince them.

The request for the public to shelter-in-place during the Boston Marathon Bombings is just such a teachable moment.

I would hazard a guess that a whole lot of people didn’t know what shelter-in-place meant before Thursday, and now it will become part the public lexicon. It’s different than a snow day (Boston has that one covered).  Shelter-in-place requests are generally limited – in time and scope.

Asking the public to shelter-in-place isn’t an unusual request, either – although it is more often used because of a chemical spill or, more recently, at schools during a shooter scare.  It’s a way to keep people safe – and out of the way – until the responders can contain the area or eliminate the threat.

The shelter-in-place request for the Boston region was from civil authorities, complied with willingly, for 12+hours, by over 1 million people, on a beautiful Spring day.

It was the epitome of a large-scale, unexpected, public event – one that could have been longer and more traumatic than it was.

What is the message we should be spreading about the shelter-in-place request in the Boston Metropolitan Region?

“This really happened in Boston. It could easily happen to you …

“… and it’s a good idea to keep some emergency supplies in your home, office and car just in case.  Here – let me give you a list to get you started.

The emotional impact of those videos, tweets and news reports will do the rest.

Teachable moments are rare opportunities.  This one is an entirely plausible, yet unexpected, event. It was a situation almost everyone can imagine happening to them. Taking precautions against it are not complicated, unreasonable or especially onerous.

I would like to see everyone be prepared for those catastrophic events we always talk about, to be independent for several weeks, and in a position to help their neighbors.

In the meantime, I would settle for everyone being prepared to spend a day stranded at home, work, on the subway,  or in their car.

Because … it’s a start.

April 03, 2013

Talking about sticky disaster preparedness messages is one thing; debating the best way to instill the message of disaster preparedness is another; cutting through the talk and actually doing something is rare. 

We all agree the best way to institutionalize disaster preparedness is to start with the kids. There are lots of attempts, some successful and some not.  Teen Cert is a good example of a program that has legs in a lot of communities. But even those are limited. Wouldn’t it be nice to have actual schools for younger students who wanted to begin training as future emergency management professionals?

Here are two examples: one national and one international.

I. In September, New York City will open 78 new schools and one of them will address their long-term response strategy to Hurricane Sandy: a public high school of emergency management. The documents filed at the Department of Education says the freshman class will be 108 students and will collaborate with FEMA, DHS, Red Cross, and others. It will offer students “one of three "majors" meant to lead to a specific career in the field: Emergency Management, Response and Recovery, and Emergency Technology Communications.”

II. The World Disaster Management Community College opened last fall in Kanana, South Africa with 32 students who graduated at the top of their secondary school classes and don’t have the means to attend University.  It is part of the “Every Child Is Ours Foundation” and has a major advocate: Kay C. Goss. They have an awesome blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and an email.  They are serious, dedicated and taking full advantage of this opportunity.

These are both impressive accomplishments.  It's a trend that could catch on …  

April 01, 2013

The blog I posted about Sticky Messages generated lots of great comments about disaster messaging and got me to thinking about a different kind of messaging: memes.

The term meme was coined by a British biologist, Richard Dawkins, using evolutionary theory to explain how ideas exist, change, live and die. He compared the life of a meme to biological evolution; the meme adapting and passing traits (ideas and models) to succeeding generations, which helped it endure – or not –  throughout time.

The concept was co-opted in the 90’s by the memetics movement, which immediately split into opposing camps about how to use them and the concept has since mutated into a staple of the internet – thereby proving Dawkins’ theory correct.

Sticky messages vs meme?  A sticky message is a building block of a meme: short, not very mutable. A meme is contagious and evolves over time as it passes from one person to the next. (Like the flu.) Sticky messages are picked up and discarded by the meme as it evolves, like pieces of DNA.

A meme can be a (hopefully) short-lived fad like Gangnam Style, or a ritual, like St. Patrick’s Day which went from a religious holiday to an ethnic celebration to an excuse to drink green beer.

A meme can also be sticky – in fact, the stickiness factor is the key to spreading a meme. And what is more sticky and meme-like than zombies? Zombies have evolved from a religious figure in an African religion to a literary creature then into movies, TV series and pop culture and, finally, (maybe) into a symbol for disaster preparedness.

That latest evolution for zombies happened back in October of 2009 at the University of Florida at Gainsville, when Doug Johnson, the assistant director for Learning Services, created a sticky meme.  He wrote an exercise plan about a Zombie Apocalypse as part of their H1N1 planning and posted it on the university web site. 

I remember how clever I thought the whole idea was, but before I could get a copy, the UF Chief Information Officer had it taken down because of the national media attention. It was reposted 14 days later. If you failed to get a copy then, you can get one now from the UF library.

Its real popularity, and what distinguishes it as a disaster preparedness meme, was a blog posted on May 16, 2011 by the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response for the CDC, Rear Admiral Ali S. Khan, titled Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The resulting traffic crashed the CDC website. The tweet had in excess of 1.2 million followers. Here is a snippet from the blog:

The rise of zombies in pop culture has given credence to the idea that a zombie apocalypse could happen. In such a scenario zombies would take over entire countries, roaming city streets eating anything living that got in their way. The proliferation of this idea has led many people to wonder “How do I prepare for a zombie apocalypse?”

Who is going to argue with the CDC?  If they could use zombies in disaster preparedness – so could Kansas and Ohio and Delaware and Maine and … DHS at the Halo Counterterrorism summit in San Diego last October. Brad Barker, president of the security firm, Halo Corp, said: "No doubt when a zombie apocalypse occurs, it's going to be a federal incident, so we're making it happen.”

Earlier this month, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina suggested that the obsession with zombies is (according to the TIME newsfeed) “part of a historical trend that mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval.”

I’m not so sure about that.  Take a look at zombieHunters.org.  This is a seriously funny prepper website based on the ‘zombie’ theme some Emergency Managers are becoming so fond of, with tons of really great information, forums, events and connections – all things that could be incorporated into your programs.

So start thinking about how to spread the sticky messages we need to incorporate into this Disaster Preparedness meme: 

  • You’re on your own for at least three days.
  • Water, Shelter, Food.
  • Mutual aid is as far as you can walk in a day.
  • If you can’t carry it, you don’t need it. 
  • Brains are just not a high energy food.  (OK - this last one is for April Fool's Day.)



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