EOC Technologies

An Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is central to coordinating the resources for a response to an emergency.  While the term can be used loosely throughout government, public, NGO and private organizations and modified to fit their specific needs, there is a NIMS definition.  From the National Incident Management System, December 2008:

“Often, agencies within a political jurisdiction will establish coordination, communications, control, logistics, etc., at the department level for conducting overall management of their assigned resources. Governmental departments (or agencies, bureaus, etc.) or private organizations may also have operations centers (referred to here as Department Operations Centers, or DOCs) that serve as the interface between the ongoing operations of that organization and the emergency operations it is supporting. The DOC may directly support the incident and receive information relative to its operations. In most cases, DOCs are physically represented in a combined agency EOC by authorized agent(s) for the department or agency.”

An EOC for a locality brings together the numerous agencies into one spot for communications and coordination.  While it includes the fire department and law enforcement agencies, it also includes public works, health, utilities, transportation, volunteer organizations active in disaster (VOAD) and representatives from different private sectors.  Each of these entities brings valuable resources to an emergency response.  The EOC provides a physical location equipped with the tools and people necessary to manage the external resources for an incident.

Incident Command System (ICS) uses the EOC as the point of contact for any needs outside what is assigned to the operation.  An EOC may serve in this role for multiple incidents simultaneously.  The facility that houses the EOC may also be home to other centers used day-to-day or only during large operations, such as the Emergency Communications Center, Joint Information Center (JIC), Joint Operations Center (JOC), Multi Agency Coordination Center (MACC) and so on.

The Building

Given the core nature of the EOC to both daily first-responder work and crisis / disaster response, the building itself must be designed to function even in the worst circumstances.  Multiple redundancies are needed to cope with failures of the primary systems.

Electricity is usually the first redundancy that is thought of so there are many options there.  Positioning the building between two major power grids will mitigate the failure of one grid (or substation).  This limits the physical locations of the building since finding a location that can be served by two or more power grids may be challenging.

Redundant power through an on-site generator is a very common method for backup power.  A power transfer switch is installed in the building that will automatically switch from the power grid to generator power and back.  The power transfer switch isolates the generator from the transmission line which prevents a very dangerous situation called backfeeding.  Backfeeding is when electrical current goes backwards through the lines.  An electrical line worker may think the power is off on the line being worked on, but a facility creating a back feed will energize the lines creating a fatal situation.  The transformers that normally step down the power down to lower voltages will work opposite in backfeeding situations and step the power up to a high voltage.  I’ve experienced where the power transfer switch failed, and it took three days for it to be repaired.  Meanwhile, the building was not able to operate on either generator or the power grid.  Look for all bottle necks and single points of failure in the system design.

On-site generators can have multiple fuel sources.  Diesel engines are traditionally viewed as better to run at constant speeds for longer periods of time then gasoline engines.  Propane is another fuel source.  The downside is the need to store a sufficient quantity of fuel on-site to power the generator.

Natural gas generators can be installed and these run off the natural gas system in the community.  Natural gas systems have a high reliability because turning the system off would require trained professionals to turn it back on at every juncture.  It is expected in earthquake and flood catastrophe planning for these to be overwhelmed, but no worse then any other utility.

Alternative energy, such as wind and solar, is a way to offset a portion of the energy usage required by the facility.  It is rare that these can meet the peak demand on the site for an extended period of time.

Water and sewer systems may not be required to run the technical systems in the EOC, but are certainly required to operate kitchens, sinks and toilets used by the people in the EOC.  Drinking water may be stored at the site as a backup.  Contracts may be put in place to arrange for portable toilets.  Keep in mind that commercial kitchens require running water by local health code, if the EOC is that equipped.

Telecommunications — last but definitely not least.  An EOC should be a hub and contain at least one of every communication type used in the community and agencies represented in the EOC.  This can include terrestrial, cellular, two-way radio, broadcast radio, and satellite technologies.  It is important to be able to communicate with individual units, other sites, as well as other counties, the state EOC and Federal points.  The main land-line phone numbers in the location need to be re-routable remotely should the site go dark.  Only being able to forward a phone when you are at the site doesn’t help when the site is a smoldering hole in the ground.  This is especially true of the public safety access point (PSAP) phone number where 9-1-1 calls are routed.  Ensure that you have the direct line to the office in the telephone company that can reroute a phone number somewhere else.  And test this.  Often.  You’ll also need verification information such as the account number, circuit number, authorization codes and so on.  Have those written into your procedures.  Yes, you need written procedures so any authorized person can pick up and make things happen.

In short, the building should be ready to operate as an island unto itself in the worst situations.  Once this structure with all the redundancies is completed, it needs to be replicated.  Ultimately, even the EOC could be in the path of destruction and require a backup.

A Dark Room

As a side note, when an EOC goes active and will be staffed around the clock for many days, consider where workers can take a break.  While I was at the Pentagon for the response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, a tent was setup with cots and not much light.  This was a quiet place away from the noise and sights where individuals could go to disengage for a few moments.  It was frequently used during the first week when many people were working long shifts.  This is also helpful for permanent facilities.  During the Hurricane Katrina response, a few cots were setup in an out of the way conference room that allowed staff to take a moment for themselves too.  Keep the human in humanitarian response.

Pretty Sparkly Things

Technology must facilitate decision making or else the value is limited.  Technology that slows down decision making hinders response.  All this occurs at the user interface.  The user interface is what the workers see.  Everything else is like the wizard behind the curtain — most people won’t even know it is there.

Consider for a moment how many EOCs (and similar facilities) have a large radar or satellite image of a hurricane, yet they don’t employ a weather forecaster who can interpret the image.  There is a certain amount of technology in an EOC that lends to the visual appeal, otherwise known as the theater of disaster.  Admit and accept the fact that some technology will be installed in an EOC to make it more appealing for tours and media.  One aspect of an EOC is to be a known location for media conference which helps tell the story of how they are helping the people in the community.  The works in the EOC know who employs them; the big sign on the wall with the location name and graphic is for the visitors.

Every permanent site should have a list of all technology being used in a rank-ordered prioritized list with the most critical aspects listed first.  Get this list approved by all stake holders.  When system failures occur, this list will be the order that items are restored at the site or brought up at the alternate site.  Having this determined ahead of time will mitigate some of the ways that you and your team will be pulled during system failures.  It provides a common planning sequence which allows independent operation when a leader is not there to give the orders.  Remember, technology doesn’t fail users; technology fails to meet the users’ expectations.  Set the expectations correctly and you’re more likely to be considered a success even when the technology crashes.

IS-775, EOC Management and Operations

Now is a good time to mention that FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute has a self-study course on EOC Management and Operations.  It is IS-775.  This course gets into more details about the role, design and function of an EOC.  The course can be found on EMI’s website at http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/is775.asp.

The Basics

At the core, the EOC needs to be equipped with systems that allows C3: Command, Control and Communications.

As mentioned earlier, the technology must assist in decision making and increase the effectiveness of a disaster response.  Therefore, the systems must be easy and efficient to use.  Success in this area is obvious because the system will be used.  Failure in this area leads users to make work-arounds, after-the-fact data entry, or simply not using the system at all.  A good user-interface is critical for data to be accurately input, and the right information to be returned at the right time.

The system should be able to identify trends in real-time that lead to failures, and provide notifications with recommendations so timely action can be taken to mitigate the failure.  This could be anywhere from a critical failure of life-safety services to the “minor” issue of accurate records.  Automation of data collection can create robust data sets that can be used for analysis and ease the burden on the workers.  These systems become the “system of record” that will be used during audits and legal proceedings so ensure the information is captured consistently and accurately, and then backed up using current best practices.  It must produce the documentation that may be requested after a disaster to assist with any sort of claims, reimbursement, and research.

Systems kept behind glass with “break in case of emergency” writing will fail when used.  Odds are good that the users will not be familiar with the systems or know when to shift from the daily systems to the crisis systems.  Require the system to be scalable so it can be used on routine daily events and grow to the massive response.  The system will need to track multiple incidents at the same time using resources from the same resource pool.  A process that will allow the same unit to be dispatched to different incidents at the same time creates confusion and therefore increases risk.

Sharing the data will be important when other governmental units get involved.  For instance, allowing data to pass to the financial systems will make it easier to capture costs, categorized accurately, adjust budgets and handle overtime pay.  Passing data to the maintenance section will highlight which resources have been used (abused) more than expected recently which could shorten the time to overhaul and inspection.

The data captured should be geotagged to allow analysis and view on a GIS system, and integrate with predictive models.  Example: capture the real-time location of all resources (facilities, people and equipment) using GPS or similar technology, then include that in all overlays of hazard modeling.  It will instantly show which units may no longer be in a safe zone and need to be relocated.

Make it mobile

Now that all the data is at the EOC — or the EOC is the hub for a community-wide network of information gatherers — it is time to push the data back to all the users.  How will this information be passed back to all the departments, units and individuals that need it?  Who needs what information?  There is a good chance that a lot of data will be transmitted wirelessly to vehicles with onboard computers.

Will it be a push model that data will be automatically pushed to the user’s attention, or will it be a pull model where the user needs to request the information?  The system will be both a push and pull in reality.  Life-safety and other critical data must be pushed out to the users as soon as it is known.  Other data may use a pull format so the user isn’t constantly streamed information when they are not ready to receive it.

A third way to handle data is with triggers.  When a particular action occurs then push the data.  For instance, when a unit marks itself as at the end of a shift, the system may produce a list of reports that need to be completed.  In another situation, when a unit is assigned to a particular type of response, a safety reminder specific to that response may be generated.

Make it virtual

The final step is to make it virtual.  If all the systems at the EOC are technologically based then it should be just a matter of programming to make the systems operate in a virtual environment.  With the right tools and resources, the EOC can go virtual and mobile in a command vehicle.  The Chicago Office of Emergency Management built a Unified Command Vehicle.  The “doomsday” scenario included this vehicle taking over the EOC responsibilities.  More often, this vehicle is sent to large events to bring some of the EOC capacity to the site and provide redundant communications to relieve the burden from the operators at the EOC.

Make it upgradable

When designing and selecting an EOC system, design an upgrade path.  Interconnected systems should not be over limiting to the future expansion of the system.  A few years ago, a T1 circuit was the gold standard for business connectivity.  That same circuit today barely covers the needs for a single small unit.  The FCC moves to narrow banding or shifting radio frequencies should not require an entirely new system.  Portals in the system should be compatible with various implementations of the national broadband plan and social media integration.

The rate of technical change today is rapid.  Purchasing a proprietary system with a single upgrade path dependent on a single company’s ability to keep pace is probably not the best choice.

GIS: Applications for emergency, crisis and risk management

Geographical information is often shared between organizations through ESRI shape files.  A shape file is a data interoperability standard developed by ESRI.  ESRI is the top dog in the GIS community.  Many geographical applications will create shape files so it isn’t limited to just ESRI approved software.  Another common file format is Keyhole Markup Language (KML).  This standard is associated with Google Earth, but becoming more widely used.  The National Hurricane Center provides their data in multiple formats on their website.

A virtual globe is a geographic data model that adds information such as elevation and the Earth’s sphere to give the impression of a 3D globe on a 2D screen.  There are over 30 different virtual globes and the list continues to grow.  Some of the current ones are listed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_globes.  Each one will have different features, such as: zoom, tile, rotate, overlays provided, custom overlays, queries, and analysis.

Google Earth is an example of a virtual globe.  Most of the data resides on a remote server.  Images are streamed over the internet to the client that assembles the mode.  The graphical information is limited to just what is show on the screen.  As the user zooms in, the broad low-resolution images are replaced with smaller higher-resolution images.  Blurry images that get progressively sharper are evidence of this process.

Geographical data forms the basis to create geographical models of damage.  Using accurate geographical data makes a large difference in modeling.  On the large scale, it is how mountain ranges impact weather.  On the urban scale, it is the movement of air between buildings forms and how it will speed up or slow down the dispersion of airborne particles.  Without the details of these structures, model would be less scientific and more guesses.

HAZUS-MH analyzes potential losses from floods, hurricane winds and earthquakes. Estimates of hazard-related damage are produced before, or after, a disaster occurs.  HAZUS can estimate losses in terms of physical damage, economics, and population.

Potential loss estimates analyzed in HAZUS-MH include:

  • Physical damage to residential and commercial buildings, schools, critical facilities, and infrastructure;
  • Economic loss, including lost jobs, business interruptions, repair and reconstruction costs; and
  • Social impacts, including estimates of shelter requirements, displaced households, and population exposed to scenario floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.

CAMEO is a collection of applications created by EPA’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office (NOAA) of Response and Restoration.  The primary purpose is to plan and respond to chemical emergencies.  The CAMEO system integrates a chemical database and a method to manage the data, an air dispersion model, and a mapping capability.

The Consequences Assessment Toolset (CATS) was developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).  It is available free to response organizations.  The suite of tools can be used during the entire lifecycle of a disaster to help create planning scenarios, analyze information during the response to help with decision making, and gather data after the response to for after action reporting and lessons learned.

Here is an important tangent.  Before you use a tool or model, it is important to know who designed it and for what purpose.  Adapted models or a model’s secondary use need to be used carefully.  Even with the primary use of a model, check the assumptions.  Assumptions may have changed since the tool was created.  Slight changes in the assumptions or input can have significant impacts when the output is logarithmically scaled from the input.

This PowerPoint provides some examples of how GIS information can help managers understand the risks of a current or future incident.  GIS_Applications slide deck.

Are you reaching the public or just sending notifications?

Public notification is successfully informing the public as to what is going on during an emergency.  The key to reaching people is to reach them timely; where they are; how they want to be reached; with positive actionable information; and in a culturally appropriate manner.

Timely: Information could be too late to be useful if it takes too long to reach them or the information is out-of-date.  Imagine if a building fire alarm took 10 minutes from the time the alert is sent to the time the alarm started to ring.  A building fire alarm needs to ring quickly to give people more time to evacuate the building.  A wildland fire evacuation notice is very similar; the fire moves extremely quickly and can change directions unexpectedly.

How they want to be reached:  Think of how you interact with your family and friends.  Some you will call by phone, some email, some text message and there may even be a few that you mail a real letter to.  You might even admit to have the crazy relative that you’d rather talk to their spouse and have the message passed along.  The public is the same way: all different.  This means that your message must use many different methods to reach all the audience.  Some will want text messages to their cell phone; some will want a voice call to their land-line phone; some will want an email; and there may be a few that are only reachable through the community or faith leader.

Each medium needs to convey similar information, but it need not be the exact same words.  Why should you limit the email to 140 characters just because Twitter is one of many mediums?  For convenience and speed, a message might have a long version and a short version.  The short versions could cover Twitter, SMS, and other short message forms.  The basic information would be shared, along with where to get more information.  The long version could cover email and voice calls.  It would start with the basics and then provide the additional information.

Many of the emergency messages that would be sent can be pre-scripted with blanks left for the immediate details.  Consider the weather watches and warnings.  These are scripted messages that contain all the ever-green information with spots to insert timely specific weather details.  Use the time before an emergency to word-smith the message and get necessary approvals on when it will be used.  Trying to get multiple approvals to send an emergency message is contrary to sending a timely message.

Where they are: This can refer to two places.  Where someone is geographically, and where someone is in the mentality of readiness.

A thing that bugs me is signing up for weather alerts by zip code or locality.  I still get weather alerts for there even when I travel elsewhere.  I want to sign up for one system that follows me.  It can already happen with weather alerts through mobile apps, but it doesn’t happen with local EM alerts.  I have hope that CMAS is changing this.

I live in Fairfax, VA and work in Washington, DC.  I’m registered for county-level alerts in Fairfax, VA; Arlington, VA; and Washington, DC.  Why do I have Arlington, VA alerts?  Because I commute through Arlington and this gives me information on my path.  This becomes amusing on metropolitan-wide alerts as I can see which system sends the information out first and which one takes the longest.

When I travel to another city, I do not get local alerts for that city.  I still get the other alerts from home which is fine so I can take actions to protect my family and property.  When travelling I could do my research, find the local alerting system and sign up for it; but let’s be honest, that’s too much work.  The capability exists today using a feature called “cell broadcast.”  An SMS alert message is point-to-point.  It originates somewhere and goes directly to the single recipient.  SMS alerting requires lots of individual messages all containing the same information which can bog down systems.  Cell broadcasts are point-to-area messages.  It originates somewhere and is broadcasted out to all the phones in a specific area, usually by cell tower.  This doesn’t overload the system because it is one message to many phones.  The technology is commonly used in Europe.  Use in the United States is very limited because it originally released as a way to do local advertising.  Pass the front of a store, and you’d get a text message with a coupon or ad.  People were naturally against this and cell broadcasting has been minimized in the US.  The feature is hard to find on most phones in the US, and defaults to opt-in with no channels loaded.

People also need to be reached where they are in their mentality of readiness.  Telling someone to use their emergency preparedness kit isn’t helpful if they don’t accept the fact they need to have one.  Someone may have a fatalistic attitude of there’s nothing I can do or it is God’s will.  The message needs to be crafted in a way to reach these people where they are mentally.  This leads right into the next point.

Positive actionable information: I chuckle when I hear someone say don’t forget or don’t panic.  How do you not do something?  Mentally, you must flip the message around to figure out what you need to be doing.  That assumes the person reading the message would know the opposite you’d expect them to know.  Craft the message to be a positive action message so the receiver will know what you want them to do and give them something to focus on.  The two statements above should be remember and stay calm.

I forget this all the time in parenting.  I tell my kids things like: don’t touch that, stop making that noise, don’t go over there; instead of keep your hands in your pocket, stay quiet and stay over here.  People should be told what to do, not what not to do.  Messages in a disaster should be simple and direct to be quickly understood and acted on.

Culturally appropriate: Being culturally appropriate starts with using the right language.  Keep in mind just because someone speaks another language doesn’t mean they are literate to read materials written in their native language.  A common mistake I hear is when people say they’ll make print materials in Spanish to reach a Spanish-speaking audience.  Reading and speaking are different things.  A native Puerto Rican told me that he’d rather distribute our materials in English then Spanish.  Apparently, it is easier to understand materials written in English than materials written in European Spanish because Puerto Rican Spanish is that different.  European Spanish— or Castilian Spanish — is commonly taught in academics and is the default Spanish when asking for a translation.  The lesson here is to ask someone from the community the best way to provide written or auditory materials to the community.  Translate to their specific dialect.

Culturally appropriate also refers to the sensitivities of the people.  Migrant farm workers are sensitive to the immigration status of themselves, their family or their friends.  Consider FEMA assistance to these workers before or after a disaster.  The workers will see the DHS logo on the materials.  Who else does DHS have?  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Do you really think that people who are sensitive to their immigration status want to engage with any DHS offices?

Some communities get all their trusted information from a community leader.  Information from other sources may not be readily accepted by the community and have less impact.  Public notifications to these communities need to involve and go through the community leader.  Individuals don’t have relationships with organizations; individuals have relationships with individuals who represent an organization.  Think about it for a minute: your best organizational relationships are likely to have an individual or series of people who you’ve built trust with.  That will be a key when we talk about social media: how do you make your organization interact with individuals on the individual level?

Next time you write a public notification, check off the points I listed above and see if you can improve the effectiveness of the message.

PACE and Interoperable Communications

Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency

PACE is a structure to build a communications plan.  The key to a good communications plan is that everyone has a basic idea of what will be attempted and when.  It makes no sense to be standing by a fax machine while someone is trying to call you on the radio.

Primary is the day-to-day communication system used.  This could be desk phone or cell phone for most businesses.  It can be the two-way radio system used in public safety.  Primary is the first way that you attempt to reach someone during routine times.

Alternate is the next-used system.  If you normally call a person at their desk and they are not there, the next step might be to call their cell, use a radio, page them, or call their home.  It could even be email, text messaging, whatever; there is no single right answer.  It will all depend on what systems your organization uses.  The right answer will be the consistent one that everyone knows.  This avoids the “Oh, I was listening for you on the radio; I didn’t think to check email” confusion.

Contingency is the system that you fall back to when the main methods of communicating are not working or not able to reach the person.  Normally, when this point is reached, it is obvious that something not routine is going on.  When including radios in your plan, make certain that predefined frequencies and modes have been agreed on and shared.  Saying generically that you’ll use amateur band or business band two-way radio is like telling someone that you’ll meet in Virginia and not be any more specific to the address.

Emergency is the system of last resort.  When nothing else is working, expect to pull this out.  There are two important things to note here.  Anything kept behind glass that says “break in case of emergency” will not work.  The equipment will not be tested and the users not trained.  Make certain that your emergency communications systems are regularly tested and used for highest impact during a disaster.  Second, sneaker-net is a valid communication system.  Setting up runners, shuttles or other ways to manually carry messages is fine.  Sometimes the best technology to use is none at all.

Interoperable Communications

Interoperable communications is not a technical problem; it is a political problem.  The technology exists today (and is widely used) to interconnect any number of systems to each other.  The political problem comes in when teams from different organizations are in direct contact in a way that bypasses the “normal” chain of command.  Regardless of how much interoperability exists, the Police Chief wants authority over all the police units and the Fire Chief wants authority over all the fire units.

Everyone wants interoperable communications but who do they really want to talk with?  Do they want the ability to do broadcast information that cross many channels, or is it for two-way exchanges between anyone?

Interoperability requires pre-disaster decisions to be made.  Who is authorized to activate or start using the interoperability channels?  Who has the authority to control radio traffic on the shared channel?  When units are engaged on the interoperability channels, do they have an expectation to monitor or check in on their normal primary channel?  The Incident Command Systems appears to resolve these problems but only within the scope of the incident itself.  These political pitfalls exist outside ICS.  Major incidents can be divides across a number of channels so interoperability isn’t just one channel but a whole suite depending on local plans.

Ten-digit interoperability: The phone system is a communication system, and totally interoperable.  You give me your phone number and I’ll give you mine.  It is simple and works everywhere in the US.  The basic telephone number is still the foundation of voice communication regardless if it is land-line, cellular, or satellite.

I like to tell people that I do INTRA-operable communication.  If I can get my organization to talk to itself, then most of my work is done.


Another tool in the tool box

The AIDF 2012 panel I was on generated the report: “Another tool in the toolbox.”  The report shares a series of outcomes.

  • Approach new technologies with cautious enthusiasm.
  • Partnerships involve giving too, not just taking.
  • If we agree to share, we can achieve more and save money.
  • Social media is a valuable source of information. Let’s take advantage of it.
  • Let’s innovate together.
  • Education trumps limitation.
  • Always be in preparedness mode.

The panel provided different view points because we were all at different points in technology with unique perspectives.  It was a pleasure to be on this panel and I look forward to next year at AIDF.

A Primer: Planning for a hurricane strike

At the bottom of this post is a link to a PowerPoint file that has the storm tracks to accompany this reading.

Hurricanes are a common occurrence in the Gulf and Atlantic basins.  Hurricane forecasts can provide a many day warning.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  Emergency managers face a challenge.  They need to meet the unforgiving expectations of the public they serve, and the news media that wants to sensationalize failures.  A local emergency manager who doesn’t take enough action ahead of a storm that hits the community will be tagged as incompetent; yet the same EM who mobilizes resources ahead of a storm that misses the community will be tagged as wasteful.

A good example of this is Hurricane Ike.  The forecasted track showed many possible scenarios five days out from the current day.  It started as Tropical Depression Nine on Monday, September 1, 2008.  The first few forecasts tracked the storm nearly due West toward Cuba and possibly into the Gulf of Mexico.

Wednesday, the forecast track started to swerve and it looked like it could track more North into Florida or even up the East Coast.  It is always best for a storm to make landfall late in the week when planning the mobilization of resources and public notifications.  However, this storm was different.  The timing was the worst in the week as the critical 3 days prior to landfall were over a weekend.  It is harder to contact government, non-governmental organizations, and private industry over the weekend, and even more difficult to get action taken.

Thursday evenings forecast provided some grim news.  Hurricane Ike appears that it will make landfall directly into Miami as a strong hurricane Tuesday evening.  The EM in Miami would need to start making arrangements on Friday expecting to work through the weekend.  The storm is so large that the outer rain bands would arrive Tuesday morning making travel more difficult.  Anything not in place by Monday would need to wait until after the storm passed.

Luckily for the EM in Miami, the storm’s turn to the North is shift farther West.  This means that Miami will get a glancing pass instead of a direct hit.  Imagine if the Miami EM started to mobilize expensive resources, and was calling for an evacuation of tourists.  There would be some unhappy politicians at the expenses, and businesses calling the politicians due to lost revenue.  Now the EM in Key West faces a similar problem.

Over the weekend, the track of Hurricane Ike keeps changing with a turn to the North shifting more and more West.  Alabama has a turn as the landfall location.  As does Mississippi and Louisiana.  The news on Monday morning reveals a straight shot to Galveston, TX with landfall the following weekend.  By Monday evening, the track shows landfall in Corpus Christi.

Consider that along the way, every EM of a coastal community has gone through a similar process of the Miami EM.  They had to weigh decisions on actions to take for what might occur four to five days away.  No EM wants to replay some of the catastrophes that occurred during prior seasons as the main character … or worse yet, the public scapegoat.

The track seems to be mostly consistent during Tuesday and Wednesday with a mid-Texas coast landfall on Saturday.  The storm will also speed up and move quickly across the Gulf.  It will cross the Western side of the Gulf in half the time of the Eastern side.  Note that the speed of the storm’s movement and the wind speed in the storm are two different things.  The wind speeds of the storm Tuesday evening were 80 mph, but the storm was only moving at 9 mph.  Just after landfall, the wind speed was 100 mph and the storm moved at 15 mph.

During this entire time, technology was used in many different ways.  The Weather Service was using computers to create forecast models, and then disseminate the information.  Both traditional media and social networking was pushing the information out to inform the public.  Emergency managers were using technology to plan for their response.

In this course, technology is used in the broad sense of the term.  It is any technology that is used to help make decisions, capture action, and connect.  It can be voice or data systems.  It can be stand-alone or networked.  It can be established or ad-hoc.  The key to successful integration of technology in disasters, emergencies and crisis is to think broadly and creatively on primary and alternate ways it can be used.

The needs around technology change from general hurricane planning, to the immediate planning in the days before the landfall, during the landfall when conditions are at the worst, and into the response and recover where the infrastructure may be damaged.

Hurricane Ike Track

Preparedness: Science + Outreach + Splash + Social + Mobile

Preparedness is the tough nut to crack because it requires the public to take on personal responsibility for their own safety during and recovery following a disaster.  If they don’t accept that a disaster will happen to them, they’ll never buy the concept of preparedness.

Peel readiness separate from preparedness for the rest of this.  Readiness is the internal actions that a response agency takes to be ready to response that I’m not touching on here.

The preparedness phase is characterized as the long period of quiet between disasters.  Preparedness missionaries around the country advocate for individuals to take action to prepare for the disaster.  Many forests gave their lives for the quantity of printed materials that have been distributed over the decades.  “Prolific” described the disaster education unit that I was in; meaning we wrote lots of content to be used by preparedness missionaries.  It remains tough to quantify the effectiveness of putting a brochure in hand.  Long ago, I was told that the non-impact of a non-disaster couldn’t be measured.

The public health education model was merged with disaster preparedness.  It shifted the model in two ways.  First, the concept of reaching people where they are, how they wanted to be reached, in a culturally sensitive manner became a mantra.  Public health educators know that there is a specific process (or steps) to reach people to create intent to change.  Measuring the intent to change was key to determining the success of disaster preparedness education.

Still, getting the information to individuals is a time consuming process.  Education is an individual or small group process; mass education is hard to do.  Mass media selling a concept is different though.  Marketing and advertising companies have millions (billions?) of dollars invested to generate highly effective programs that for-profit companies use to get people to believe in something and pay for it (think retail establishments).  Non-profit organizations and emergency management lack the funding and skills to launch a big enough program to compete with major advertisers.  There is a lot of noise yelling for individual’s attention.  Competing messaging is everywhere with advertisements being the most obvious.

Getting acceptance in someone’s mind and heart is all about repeated impressions; no silver bullet works.  If I was in advertising, there would be plan to always spread preparedness messages around to create regular impressions.  When the person was ready to buy my product, the action would shift to overdrive to surround the person with messages to influence the decision.  Disaster preparedness is really good at the general spreading of preparedness messages yet seems to be lacking in targeting the people most ready to take preparedness actions.  I believe that people are most ready to become prepared right before a disaster and right after a disaster.

“Selling” preparedness as an idea to the public has always been an uphill challenge.  Preparedness has never been as sexy a sale as response.  The cost and effort of response was easy to see.  Money spent nationally on preparedness versus response is probably preparedness pennies to the response dollar (although I don’t have specific data to support this).  Some days, I feel as if those valuable pennies for preparedness were not being effective, but there were no solid tools to reach people any other way.  That has changed with the emergence of social media, followed by social networking, and now social engagement.  Social tools now exist to reach people in new and effective ways.

Disaster preparedness needs a shift from only steady state of messaging with urgency all the time.  The new model is a relaxed steady state that shifts to overdrive immediately before and after a disaster.  The relaxed steady state should still be enough to catch those people who are ready to make the change and seeking information, plus those people who were on the fence and just needed a little nudge.

The overdrive mode would use social tools to reach people just in time.  More specifically, reaching the right people on the right medium at the right time with the right information to bump their preparedness better.  We are not talking about a silver bullet at the right time to sky rocket their state of preparedness, but instead just bumping them along the continuum of preparedness when they are motivated to make a change.

The future of disaster preparedness will be a blending of disaster science, public health outreach experience, advertising splash and social mediums with an eye to making it all mobile.

Disaster Life Cycle: Too Elementary for Reality

The disaster life cycle: Preparedness, Response, Recovery, Mitigation, Repeat.

That’s my growing issue with the disaster life cycle when applied to the public.  The cycle is flat and prescriptive implying that disaster will occur again the same way.  Life is a spiral.  Some days, the spiral the goes up and some days the spiral goes down.  But the spiral never puts you back to last week because your experiences have changed you.  We needs to reflect that life is constantly moving and doesn’t cleanly split into four buckets.

The right information at the right time will help people make better and more informed decisions on what immediate actions to take to be safer.  Just after a disaster, the right information at the right time will help people build back better.  If they take the wrong (or none) actions, the survivors will build back the same or at a lower state of resilience.  Either way, disaster survivors don’t return to a pre-disaster state; they move to a new normalcy.

People and communities are more than physical.  Disaster impacts people socially, politically, economically, emotionally and spiritually too.  These are not in lock-step together and do not move through the traditional disaster life-cycle together.  That’s another issue I have.  A house can be rebuilt quickly, but the emotion trauma can slow the house becoming a home again.  An injury or death may be physically handled, but the spiritual trauma to the survivors may be long lasting.

We need a way to explain pre-disaster, during disaster, and post-disaster on a continuum to reflect that every disaster is a major disaster to an individual, and that each survivor is on a unique recovery path of thing we can see and things we can’t see.

The possibility of 4G

It is important to take note of the possibility of 4G.  A T1 circuit is 1½ Mbit/s.  The minimum 4G standard of 100 Mbit/s is 66 times larger.  Take a look at the graphic posted on my blog at http://keith.robertory.com/?p=560 for a better understanding of this.  A cell phone running true 4G will have more bandwidth then an entire site serviced by a T1.  We are right on the verge of a major cellular service shift.  When setting up a site during a disaster, it is common to use one cellular data card (aka aircard) per computer.  With these faster speeds, we can use one cellular data card to be the head of the site’s network.

My team has already successfully setup a network in a disaster with one 4G aircard providing connectivity for 30 computers.  Granted it was rare that there were users on all 30 computers simultaneously surfing the net and streaming large files.  But, that’s the point during disasters — and really even day to day.  It isn’t about providing maximum bandwidth to each user all the time.  Instead, focus on load balancing to provide enough bandwidth to meet the combined average need ~90% of the time.  It is ok for the system to be a little slower during peak demand times.  Set the user’s expectations correctly, and your team will get through it.

A cellular connection could be used to back up a wireline circuit.  Advanced routers can handle multiple uplink connections with prioritization and failover settings.  This will provide redundancy.  It is better than two wireline circuits backing each other up when the backhoe cuts through the utility lines outside the building.  Redundancy is nice.  Diverse redundancy is better.

Your users in a disaster response will be on the computer only part of the time, with the rest of their time filled with other activities.  If a disaster responder travels to a location and spends the entire time behind a computer, then the question should be asked: could that person just stay in the office or at home to complete the same work?

If this interests you, take a look at this post.

IAEM conference summed up by Twitter

I’ve reviewed the tweets during the IAEM Conference in an effort to pull out the ones that best flavor the conversations occuring in the sessions.  This is a step beyond the capture that is documented here.  Instead of a normal summary of the conference that I’d provide to share learning with others, this time I’m letting Twitter do the talking.  Here’s my list of tweets.  Let me know if you think I missed some.

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