Before I retired, the most difficult part of my job as an emergency manager was politics. You know what I mean – that competition for power and leadership. I managed, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.
There is something really sad about using disasters – or the possibility of disasters – as a token in a quest for authority. The same is true for those who use the lack of disasters as an excuse to cut funding for disaster-related programs.
There is a great article in the Boston Globe this morning about using the fires in Colorado as a political token. The Politics of Disaster by Juliette Kayyem. (Warning: The Boston Globe wants you to buy a subscription to see the entire article.) Kayeem makes a couple good points in her piece.
- One is close to my heart, she calls it “the sanity of building residential developments in areas prone to fire.”
- Another is the difference between politics and hypocrisy and used the example of the Colorado Representative who criticized the “generous use” of disaster declarations last year. This year, he is in line like everyone else, for Federal disaster relief.
- There is is the decreased funding for disaster response and relief, and the insistence that funding any disaster relief has to be offset by cutting something else that is "discretionary".
- This is the one that bothers me the most. Colorado is a swing state in the heated race for President. What gets forgotten, as Kayyem puts so eloquently, is that “disaster does not know swing states from the red and blue ones.”
What this really all comes down to is the argument about the role of the Federal government in disasters, and the problems inherent in defining that role by who is sitting in Congress or the White House. Kayeem puts it like this:
Federal relief, like any social contract, promises those who are overwhelmed by losses outside their control that there will be support for them. It is an insurance policy against tragedies that can occur in any corner of the country.
Using disasters as a political tool is just gambling with people’s lives and livelihoods. Last time I looked, gambling was illegal in Washington DC.
On the other hand, Emergency managers know it usually takes a disaster to prompt enough interest in disaster management to cut through the politics that keeps us from doing our jobs the way we want to do them.
It just gets old after a while. You know?
The new Superintendent for the FEMA's Emergency Management Institute (finally appointed!) spoke in the opening session of the annual Higher Ed Conference this week. Tony Russell has been with FEMA since 2003 – most recently as the Region 6 Administrator. His talk was predictable for someone that new (his background, a couple jokes, so forth).
His goal in this new position was interesting – because it was kind of murky as far as the higher education cause goes.
Russell said his goal was to create an ‘ocean of predictability’, by training emergency managers to specific outcomes that are based on competencies that are, in turn, based on the elements of effective emergency management. The benefit of this approach, he says, is that we have people who can perform on-the-ground in a predictable manner. Predictability is important to Mr. Russell.
He really didn’t define what he meant by ‘on-the-ground’. I do hope he wasn’t talking just about the first responder community, but I’m not sure. He didn’t say how he envisioned ‘predictability’, either. I’d assume it means knowing what you are going to do before you get there. There isn’t much flexibility in predictable, is there?
What troubled me a little was that he didn’t talk much about the difference between training and education, and it wasn’t clear that he saw a difference between them. And aren’t those kinds of semantics responsible for some of the conflicts between practitioners and academia?
However, he did recognize there was a barrier between the practitioner and academia. That barrier is going to be important, he said, “once we can truly cross it, because right now it isn’t balanced.” He didn’t mention which side he thought was unbalanced. That might be interesting.
He did talk about partnerships. We need a partnership to work together for the benefit of the Emergency Management profession, and Russell wants EMI to be a full partner to make that happen.
Then he characterized academia (everyone in the room) as those “on the boundary”, who can see those things people in the field can’t because academia isn’t so “captured by the immediate” or “dealing with the pressures.” On the other hand, he thinks emergency management academia is the epitome of the ‘whole community’ concept – because academia trains all levels. There is that word again: Train.
I’m probably over thinking all this. He had only been there 11 days.
(Part 3 of 3)
Emergency managers, like Pascal Schuback who is the program coordinator for the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management. have to be flexible, inventive and … somewhat sly. They understand drastic budget cuts and personnel reductions. They know how to find resources when they are really needed. They have a purchase order for that new equipment in the top desk drawer waiting for the next disaster.
Clouds are one of those resources emergency managers can take full advantage of without breaking the budget. You can find training – like FEMA’s Independent Study program; or situational awareness tools – like the NWS or USGS or NHC. There is a daily opportunity to collaborate with other colleagues – like the IAEM listserv. There are cloud-based incident management and hazard notification systems; meeting coordination and management tools. And then there is Crisis Commons and SMEM – Social Media in Emergency Management Initiative.
Schuback is a big fan of cloud computing, especially as it applies to managing his EOC, because clouds make a more effective use of limited resources. The emergency manager can have minimal services running in his/her program on a day to day basis and then – in true ICS scalability fashion – ramp those services up or down when they are needed.
“Cloud computing and virtualization allows us to expand our capability and then contract it immediately,” says Schuback.
He thinks of it like an accordion door separating a conference room. If more space is necessary, the door is pulled open. The power is already there, the phones are already there, the data ports are already there. When you leave, the door is pulled closed behind you.
For that matter, using clouds does away with the need for a dedicated EOC, or even a physical EOC. A virtual EOC can be established anytime, anywhere. Decision makers can work from their kitchen tables in the middle of the night. And the EOC manager could coordinate everything from a beach in Hawaii. J
All that is possible NOW, and Schuback believes it is preferable to paying maintenance and operational costs when the EOC is ‘sitting dark’ because it isn’t being used.
“The best part is that clouds are available to everyone, regardless of their budget and we can really reduce our operating costs,” said Schuback.
Here is my favorite part: The cloud lets you do away with all those binders full of plans, resource and contact lists, policies and protocols. “I can synch all that to a cloud,” said Schuback. “I don’t have to carry binders around with me – I can get it on my iPad from anywhere.”
Just imagine ...
(Part 2 of 3)
Emergency managers use corporate clouds every day to check a smartphone, read the IAEM listserv, catch up on the news or check the weather report. The challenge is to convince emergency managers that clouds have a place in individual disaster preparedness.
When emergency managers talk to neighborhoods, small businesses or families about disaster preparedness, they often use the material from Ready.gov. (Another cloud, by the way). It’s important that everybody be prepared and they can do that by (1) being informed, (2) making a plan and (3) building a kit.
The list of items for a basic disaster include water, food, a can opener and so on. There is also a list of additional emergency supplies to consider having, and one of those is about important papers. This is what Ready.gov says about those: Keep “important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container.”
Ready.gov also suggests using the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit supported by FEMA and the Citizen Corps. If you haven’t seen it, this really is an awesome resource – a tool developed by HOPE Coalition American (HCA) to help with family disaster financial preparedness.
HOPE recommends gathering all original family documents, making copies and reviewing on a regular basis to keep it up to date and keeping in a safe place, like “in an off-site safety deposit box and be sure to keep this key in a safe place.” In addition, they suggest folks “… keep a copy at home in a fireproof/waterproof metal box or safe.”
This is wonderful advice. It really, truly is. But like all advice, it comes with some caveats. Like: having or getting a safety deposit box; having or getting metal box or safe. How many young families do you know who have safety deposit boxes these days?
But what is all those important documents were in a family cloud?
How much easier might it be for a family to scan all those important documents – as well as all their family pictures – and then store them in a family cloud? If all those deeds and birth certificates and passports and medical records and insurance policies were copied in a cloud, they could be downloaded anywhere there is internet access. Wouldn’t that make applying for disaster assistance – or anything else – a lot easier?
With the right software, a family can protect any kind of digital media by storing it in a cloud and there are lots of companies out there promoting consumer cloud storage: Dropbox, Microsoft, Amazon – Google just got into the market – and there are more coming on the market every day. Some of them cost a little for additional storage, but it is still less than a safety deposit box.
This is an easy, almost free tool emergency managers can use to help individuals and families become more prepared. So … why don’t we?
I don’t expect there will be a mad rush to change all the literature and recommend family clouds as a disaster preparedness tool. But I predict there will be.
Some emergency managers are already doing that. Pascal Schuback, is the program coordinator for the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management. He says, “I have all my family’s stuff in a family cloud – documents, policies, passports, pictures, genealogy reports.”
Schuback also uses the cloud to full advantage at work. But that is next ...
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(Part 1 of 3)
A couple years ago, I walked into a meeting at work and announced that the future was in cloud computing. Most of the folks looked at me blankly, some looked puzzled, but the IT people just nodded wisely.
Now, just a couple years later, almost everybody is talking about cloud computing and what it can do. In fact, Emergency Management Magazine just published are article about How Cloud Computing Can Benefit Disaster Response. (Spoiler Alert: I wrote it.)
There are a couple ideas within the cloud computing model that I feel strongly about –simple ideas that I believe are going to make a big difference in emergency management.
One is kind of new: the family cloud. The other is something I’ve been promoting the last few years: the virtual EOC.
First, in an attempt to still the sea of doubters out there, let me set the scene with a little history. Remember the 1957 Spencer Tracy-Kathryn Hepburn movie The Desk Set? Hepburn was the research librarian for a major news department and Tracy was the guy bringing in his new-fangled computer machine complete with blinking lights and magnetic tape.
The company wanted to automate mundane tasks like research: he couldn’t explain what he was doing and she thought his machine would eliminate her job. It’s a battle of wits that all ends happily. Everyone keeps their job; the value of machines and humans are both endorsed; and Tracy ends up in Hepburn’s arms. Or visa versa.
The work Tracy’s computer did was accomplished with a “dumb terminal” – nothing more than a screen, keyboard and modem. The operator typed questions and commands, but all the data and applications were kept on that big, blinking mainframe computer which sat in a corner and took up a lot of space.
Really smart computer engineers learned how to leverage their own computing machines by connecting to others outside their domain. When they created engineering diagrams of all this, they used the symbol of a cloud to represent those other domains. Eventually, the cloud symbol became synonymous with the internet itself.
The dumb terminal model didn’t last long and for good reason. The communication bottlenecks were legendary. Eventually computing was decentralized by bringing software applications – remember Word Star? – and data onto individual desktops or laptops. Connections to data center mainframes (which eventually shrunk and evolved to servers) were only used to access services like enterprise-wide applications (payroll!) and to back up data for the users.
When the internet exploded, those individual desktop computers could connect to a massive, public access spiderweb of computer networks. The other side of those connections were lots and lots of servers consolidated into “server farms.” which were owned and operated by companies like Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL – and eventually Google, Amazon, Bank of America, The Library of Congress and all the others. With a desktop computer, one can access services to research the latest products, balance a checkbook or buy a book.
The advantage of accessing services held on a huge server farm is that they don’t require an individual user to have anything except a screen, keyboard, modem and … connectivity. In a way, we are circling back to the ‘dumb terminal’ concept, with the internet thrown in for good measure.
That is all cloud computing really is: services accessed through the internet. It’s sort of like a subscription to cable TV – you pick and pay for the services you need.
Although some data is maintained on a hard drive (for now, anyway), eventually data storage will be just another service to rent.
NOTE: There are heated discussions about where the term “cloud computing” came from, but the story common to all the arguments refer to the chairman and CEO of Google using the term in a 2006 conference. http://www.google.com/press/podium/ses2006.html
Emergency managers use corporate clouds every day to check a smartphone, read the IAEM listserv, catch up on the news or check the weather report.
The challenge is to convince emergency managers that clouds have a place in individual disaster preparedness.
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One of the major headaches for Emergency Managers is getting the public involved in preparing for a major disaster. We run the public apathy gauntlet from “it won’t happen to me” to “I can’t do anything about it.”
In response, we print and distribute flyers and booklets, create clever refrigerator magnets, sponsor CERT training, set up booths at community fairs and visit schools. We deliver sermons about hazards, preach the value of seismic retrofitting, encourage family preparedness plans.
And how is that going for you? Not very well? Here's a thought ...
As an assignment for a recent lesson, I asked my students in the CSULB Emergency Services Administration MS program to find websites that used Peter Sandman’s concepts of precaution advocacy to promote disaster recovery. One student came up with one I wasn’t familiar with. Although, living in earthquake country, I should have been.
Totallyunprepared.com was launched in August 2011 as a multimedia campaign for California about preparing for earthquakes. It has a website and presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, tumblr, digg, reddit – even an RSS feed.
What is great about the campaign is that it isn’t top-down and it doesn’t preach. It tells stories, creates videos, apps and games, and answers question from ordinary people. For example:
- On the opening page is a one minute camera phone video – “Carolyn’s Kitties Are Totally Prepared”, – shot and sent in by a fan. There is a chance to win prizes if you send in your own video featuring your own cats.
- There is a page suggesting you can personalize your earthquake kit by including coffee – “Don’t let a caffeine headache spoil your post-earthquake day.”
- “So Many Earthquake Kits to Choose From!” is a short summary of what should REALLY be in your kit, reminds people to look at what they already have, and says it helps you recover, not just survive.
- There is a video of a guy in Virginia filming a live commercial in his small business during the earthquake on August 23, 2011 on the U.S. East Coast. He is shown actually responding to the shake with “duck, cover, hold”.
- There is a very interesting interview and video from a filmmaker about the first few minutes after the February 22, 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.
- Oh, yeah – there is also a page about “What’s Wrong With The ‘Triangle of Life’ Theory”. Perfect for the next time someone asks you about it.
The whole campaign centers around a couple reality-type television series being released on YouTube. One is answering “will it shake” questions from fans using the seismic shake table at UC San Diego. The best back-story was creating their own ‘wine’ using a bottle, cork, label, water and food coloring because the engineer wouldn’t let them break real bottles of wine on “his baby”.
Who is behind this website? It is a partnership funded by the California Emergency Management Agency, the California Earthquake Authority and the California Seismic Safety Commission. It maintains partnerships with universities, other earthquake projects and a whole lot of California-based media outlets.
This is how the website describes the team who does all the work:
Totally Unprepared is what happens when you put forward-thinking state agencies, earthquake geeks, social media nerds, a web analytics genius, a professional filmmaker, a hot firefighter or two, and a bunch of unsuspecting Californians in a blender and hit frappé.
I now have it bookmarked. Thank you Adam Bragg. In addition to being a student, he is also a lieutenant for the Fulton-El Camino Park (CA) Police Department. Extra points for you. :-)
Lots of experienced emergency managers are retiring – like me. They aren’t disappearing; many of them stay in the loop by teaching, writing or (yep) consulting. In my case, this a great opportunity to spend more time on the elements of emergency management that I couldn’t before: professional associations like IAEM and CESA, causes like INWEM and EMPOWER, and projects like EMAP.
EMAP is an independent organization that evaluates and accredits emergency management programs against a set of national standards. They define a program as a system, not an individual office. They don’t evaluate your Emergency Management Department. They evaluate your jurisdiction’s emergency management program. A very important distinction.
I was an early EMAP supporter. I was in one of the first assessor training courses, and my Master’s Thesis was about an analysis of the EMAP baseline assessments for state programs between 2003 and 2004.
Not long ago, I was on an EMAP assessment, and spent some time with the other assessors discussing one of major findings in every assessment – lack of documentation. For purposes of program assessments (this one or any other kind), documentation of standards is critical. There really is a difference between doing something and writing it down. Why is that? Because one of these days, you aren’t going to be there, and somebody else is going to have to figure out how to activate the EOC, or how many generators you have and where to get more, or where we filed all those NIMS completion certificates?
What it comes down to is documenting institutional memory.
When I wrote my thesis back in 2005, I wrote about three issues that interfered with a jurisdiction’s ability to get accredited: leadership, financial support and this one. What I wrote then:
Very often, the knowledge of policy and procedure and the experience with implementing them are just not written down. They are in somebody’s head and passed along by word of mouth. They are part of institutional memory and not part of any formal documentation.
Referring to the clerk in the movie and television series M*A*S*H, who could find and acquire anything, (Steve) Charvat (University of Washington) said: “I call it the Radar O’Reilly factor. How do you document something like that?”
Because of programs like EMAP, documenting institutional memory is becoming more common – especially with the emphasis on having COOP and COG and similar mission/business continuity plans.
Which brings me back to retired, or retiring, emergency managers. How are you going to document YOUR institutional knowledge? When I knew I was going to leave UC Davis, I spent six months creating an administrative manual and put everything I could in it.
Was it helpful, Nick?
Snow Birds, Students and Black Swans
I’ve been in Florida for the past 6 weeks, staying at a place on the Atlantic Coast, just north of West Palm Beach. Even though I am not working right now, I’m still what my husband calls a ‘disaster junky’ – although Claire Rubin would call me one of her ‘disaster divas’.
Being a California earthquake girl, I’ve been looking at Florida hurricanes and how their mass evacuations work. From what I can tell, Florida has an awesome system in place to support emergency management at a local level, encourage cooperation and coordination among the counties and a flexible infrastructure – like their toll roads built for counter flow traffic during an evacuation.
During the past week or so, I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon that I’ve heard about but never experienced: the arrival of the Florida Snow Birds.
This is not a trivial event for emergency management. One study out of the University of Florida estimated there were 700,000 snowbirds in Florida at the peak of the 2004-2005 season, which was something like a 4% increase in the overall population for that year.
I wondered how an emergency management program handles the sudden, dramatic increase of a transient population of special needs (or verging on special needs from what I’ve observed) people, who are not local and stay for an extended period of time.
This is not special event planning. It’s not ‘commuter’ planning.
I talked to Mike Faulkner who is currently with FEMA Region IV, but before that he was the Emergency Manager in Okeechobee County, a small, rural county in the middle of the state, with a permanent population of about 40,000. When the Snow Birds arrive, the population swells by about 15,000. That is a 37% increase.
Mike says the county can’t get additional funding for snowbirds, because they aren’t permanent residents, so they mitigate the effects with some of our standard emergency management tools.
One is to do as much advertising as possible during the Snow Bird season to encourage the use of the special needs registry that each county is required to maintain. Another is to build on the spirit of cooperation among emergency managers in Florida by developing specific mutual aid agreements with areas that might not be as badly effected. “If I had to send special needs patients to Orlando,” Mike says, “I’d send a couple of our public health nurses to help.”
Another is developing community resources to help out during an emergency. Mike talked about one community of French Canadians who had their own CERT team. After they took care of their own, he could dispatch them to other locations in the county.
All emergency managers have their own “unconventional” populations to deal with, don’t they? When I was working on campus, it was the freshman students. They were 18 or 19 years old, away from home for the first time, followed closely by ‘helicopter parents’. We did a lot of advising that first year, worked closely with Student Affairs, and tried to stay clear of their bicycles (most of them hadn’t ridden a bike since middle school).
Mike said the one good thing about the Florida Snow Bird incursion is that it is a known and marked season – and opposite of the hurricane season. The worse case scenario would be a Cat 5 hurricane in January, which is very unlikely.
Black swans, anyone?
Most of us have been involved in – or at least are familiar with – CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams). The 59th Annual IAEM Conference and EMEX 2011 in Las Vegas last week gave us an opportunity to hear Rachel Jacky, Director of the FEMA Citizen Corps CERT Program, talk about how the program has evolved into something much different than many of us remember.
"This ain't the same CERT that got started in the 1980's", she said. "It has expanded and grown while keeping it's original purpose."
What hasn’t changed is the fundamental concept of CERT (the first responders to any incident are the people who are already there) or it’s basic rationale (training helps keep them safe). The core skills that CERT teaches hasn’t changed, although they have been updated and overhauled.
The most important thing that hasn’t changed is the ownership. CERT’s are still primarily owned on a local basis. “FEMA can provide a lot,” Jacky said. “They can’t know what is the smartest and best way to involve volunteer responders in a community’s best interests.”
What has changed is that CERT has been around long enough to have a solid track record. This gives it the freedom to adapt itself, so it is more valuable to an ever-changing emergency management program.
Much of that is because there is now an agency (FEMA’s Citizen Corps) to keep records. Citizen Corps is the umbrella for other groups (like the MRC – Medical Reserve Corps), and is affiliated with others (the VFW, ARRL, CAP, and – my personal favorite – Girl Scouts), but CERT can certainly be considered one of the more resilient.
The CERT web page is impressive. There are links to find CERT’s in your community, stories of CERT’s in actions, training and video materials, and – most impressive – a place to register your local CERT so it doesn’t get lost or forgotten.
Jacky said there are almost 1850 local CERT programs registered, and in 2010, there were almost 430,000 individuals trained who provided 1.3 million volunteer hours.
“More impressive than numbers, and a terrific development in the life of CERT,” she said, “is its growing inclusiveness.” The majority of CERTS target their training for the general public, but there are also CERT groups targeted to faith-based organizations, businesses, teens, college/universities, special needs and military groups.
Recent statistics show that over 10% of the registered CERT teams have been deployed in actual emergencies over 10 times, but 30% have never responded. What are those groups doing? Some of them are new, but some of this is related to the expanding mission of CERT teams and how CERT teams are being every more consciously integrated into Emergency Management as a discipline.
In addition to the activities you might expect CERT’s perform (neighborhood checks, staffing shelters, sandbagging) they are also supporting emergency management by doing outreach for emergency preparedness, fire safety or public health. “Who better to deliver that kind of information?” Jacky said. “The best messenger for preparedness is a neighbor who is already prepared.”
The CERT program has some lofty goals for the next couple years. Continued growth, of course, but also an increased emphasis on training effective CERT trainers. There are two courses taught at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute: E428 Train the Trainer and E427 Program Manager
Jacky said another goal is to train CERT members for their expanded functions by developing training modules to expand their skills in areas like animal response, crowd management, leadership or communications.
There is an interesting relationship between the VTC’s (Volunteer Technical Communities) I wrote about before and CERT’s – they are both self-organized volunteer groups. But that is for a different blog.
One of the best conference speakers I’ve ever listened to is Gordon Graham. Fortunately for me, he was the key note speaker this morning at the 59th Annual IAEM Conference and EMEX 2011. And in his normal, passionate, eccentric and engaging style managed to captivate the audience talking about something that would normally put everyone to sleep – or paying more attention to their smartphones.
He talked about risk management.
He did so with more expressive theatrics and graphic sound effects than I recall. I especially enjoy how he channels Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Titanic”, undulating his body to Celine Dion’s title song, “My Heart Will Go On.” Hard to explain, you really had to be there.
He was using the story of the Titanic as an example of the difference between 'proximate' cause and 'root' cause. “If you ask 100 people what caused the Titanic to sink, 99 of them will say … the iceberg,” he said.
Certainly, the iceberg was the proximate cause that sunk the Titanic. What was the root cause? “When it was designed, it was fatally flawed!” he thundered. Fingering the iceberg as the reason the Titanic sunk is akin to treating the symptom and not the cause. It doesn’t matter how many iceberg-detecting devices you build, a poor design trumps mother nature – or human stupidity – every time.
There is a reason tragedies (like the Titanic) happen over and over again. Identifying the most obvious cause and developing control measures to mitigate the most obvious cause overlooks what Adam Weiner in his great book Don't Try This At Home calls, “a little pride and a lot of bad engineering”. This is what he says:
The Titanic was designed so the hull’s 16 separate buoyant compartments, divided by watertight doors, would stay afloat even if four of its compartments were breached. The iceberg punctured six compartments. The bulkheads dividing the compartments came up to 10 feet above the waterline, beyond which water would flood adjacent sections even if not breached. "If the compartments had been completely watertight, that is, if water could not spill over the tops of the bulkheads, the 'Titanic' would not have sunk," he said.
You know, I’m sure I’ve read something similar about a different tragedy recently. Oh, yeah. It was how the defences at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Japan were built to withstand the largest expected tsunami waves - 5.7 meters. The largest waves were 14 meters. The IAEA report says that "... although tsunami hazards were considered both in the site evaluation and the design of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP as described during the meetings and the expected tsunami height was increased to 5.7 m (without changing the licensing documents) after 2002, the tsunami hazard was underestimated."
The point being: There is always an iceberg. The real challenge is looking behind it.
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