Fairfax County Roundup

Here are my Fairfax Roundup Speaker Notes from the Fairfax Roundup meeting.  The meeting is a great local event to build the community relationships between faith and community based organizations and the local government entities.  There were five breakout sessions.  My session was about technology in disasters.

For those who attended, additional details on the topics I spoke about can be found in the following blog entries.

PACE: http://keith.robertory.com/?p=664

Social Media: http://keith.robertory.com/?p=802

Public Notifications: http://keith.robertory.com/?p=732

Radio Types and Bands: http://keith.robertory.com/?p=674

Cellular Communications: http://keith.robertory.com/?p=676

Feel free to email me if you have any questions.


Emergency resource identification and planning

An emergency manager needs to identify the resources that will be used in the community when an incident exceeds the daily norm.  There are many places to find resources that may be used in a disaster, but during a disaster is not the time to be seeking these resources and sharing business cards for the first time.

This does assume that the fire department, law enforcement, and emergency medical system are properly staffed to handle the majority of daily emergencies that occur in a community.  If there are not enough resources to handle the day-to-day events, then there is a much bigger problem for the community.

There are attempts to capture the information about the nation’s critical infrastructure into an open system so the data can be shared with authorized users yet secured so it doesn’t reveal too much information to those who don’t need to know it.  These systems can also feed real-time operational data in a way that shares a common operational picture of what is occurring.  One of these efforts is Virtual USA.  More information can be found at http://www.firstresponder.gov/pages/virtualusa.aspx.  Another effort to share information in a less formal way is through the First Responder Communities of Practice, found at https://communities.firstresponder.gov.

A commonly shared statement is that the private industry owns most of the resources and critical infrastructure that can be used or damaged during a disaster.  I believe it is a mistake to always tap the private industry with an expectation they provide their products and services free because it is a disaster.  Private industry needs to pay for their resources and their business model may not include giving away free stuff.  How important is a service during a disaster if someone says “well, if we can get the resource free then we’ll do it, but otherwise no”?  Only doing something because it is free shows that it isn’t as important as something you are willing to pay for.

The resources available in a community will greatly vary with the type of community.  An urban community will have less wild land firefighting gear then a rural counterpart, but is likely to have taller ladder trucks and better equipped for high-rise rescues.  Examples of how community need drives first responder resource can continue.  Fuel pipelines and storage tanks push the need for foam pumpers, but are becoming more common outside of industrial plants.  Large off-road areas push for special law enforcement vehicles to patrol those areas.  Large elderly and special needs populations push for more or differently equipment ambulances.

A common mistake is to look for FEMA for all the needed disaster response support.  While FEMA does own some assets, FEMA functions as a mechanism to gain access to assets located in other parts of Federal and state government.  FEMA uses mission assignments to request support from other agencies with an IOU that FEMA will reimburse the costs association with the mission assignment.  Any government agency can bring their assets to support a disaster relief operation, but only through a mission assignment will FEMA pay for them to be there.  As an emergency manager, you need to look out and identify these resources that may exist in your community.

A military installation in the community may become a valuable partner in disaster response because it increases the goodwill between the community and the base plus allows the base a way to support their members who live and work off the base.  On the flip side, military resources may not be available if the commander (or higher) determines that dedicating the resources to the response will weaken their level of readiness too much.

Look around your community.  Hopefully you will start to notice a relationship between the assets of the first responders (and their support teams) and the equipment, training and resources available for use during events.  The Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grants (http://www.fema.gov/government/grant/hsgp/#2) may have allowed your community to purchase equipment for major incident response.

An emergency manager should be engaging with the community before a disaster to get to know the people and organizations in the area.  The entry into the private sector may be through the local Chamber of Commerce, or even the business directory of the Better Business Bureau.  Providing information to help the community’s residents and businesses be prepared in advance of a disaster will also help the emergency manager make contacts that may be used during the disaster.

There are public-private partnerships that successfully exist in technology.  The most common one that emergency responders may see is the National Communication System which arose from the telecommunications industry and Federal government working together.  Through NCS, emergency responders can get priority access to landline and cellular phone systems, priority restoration of telecommunications systems and shared access to HF radio frequencies.  The companies engaged in this are listed at http://www.ncs.gov/ncc/gov_ind.html.

When a local or state response agency has significant communications problems, FEMA can be approved to provide assets to support them.  One of FEMA’s internal assets is the Mobile Emergency Response Support (http://www.fema.gov/emergency/mers/index.shtm).  They’re role is to provide communication support to the disaster responding agencies; not to the general public.

This is a really good time to bring up the important part that when requesting assistance from someone, be very clear who is being directly helped and served.  When engaging a resource, provide them as much information as possible so they can plan ahead for the situation.


Additional resources

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.

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.

Skip the annex, just be inclusive and flexible

I’m reading an article Children and disaster planning: The National Commission on Children and Disaster’s finding and recommendations by Emily Cathryn Cornette and Angelique Pui-Ka So in the Journal of Emergency Management (Vol 9, No 2, March/April 2011).  From the article:

The [National Commission on Children and Disasters] recommends that children should be categorized independently of at-risk populations because grouping them with other special needs populations leads to a lack of concentration on, and the eventually marginalization of, children’s needs.  The Commission feared that placing children in the all-inclusive “special needs” category would also encourage disaster planners to merely push children into the appendix or annexes of current plans instead of incorporating children’s needs into the body of the plans themselves.

Advocates that represent — or at least claim to represent — segments of the population want more specific attention to their cause.  The natural turn was to assume the disaster plans were for the mainstream population and this special interest group had special needs not addressed in the plan.  Appendices were added to the end of the plan to handle these “special” situation.  Advocates keep pushing for more special appendices which creates unwieldy plans with many very strict paths.  At times, it feels like the advocate is telling the EM “don’t worry, we’ll kick you in the seat of your pants if you’re wrong” and less like a meaningful partnership to help all.

When will the entire emergency management community and all special interest advocates recognize that we’re all in a segment of the population that needs special attention?  Nearly everyone in the population could fit in at least one the categories of children, elderly, disabled (visibly or not), economically depressed, under-insured, socially isolated, dependant on some form of technology, or just basically ill-equipped to response to and recover from a disaster. Continue reading Skip the annex, just be inclusive and flexible

Flood Humor

A local faith group held a disaster preparedness fair to encourage everyone to be ready in case the nearby river flooded the town.  One of the church going ladies said “No thanks. I have faith that God will keep me safe.”

Inevitably, the river flooded in the spring.  The mayor called for an evacuation of the area.  A truck drove by the chuch lady’s home to assist her.  She called to them, “No thanks, God will keep me safe.”

The river waters rose to her home, and she moved up to the 2nd floor of her home.  A boat came by to rescue here.  She turned them away, “No thanks, God will rescue me.”

The water rose even more.  She sat on the roof of her home and prayed.  A helicopter came down to rescue her.  She waived them off, “No thanks, God will save me.”

The water washed her away and she drown.  Standing before God, she said “What happened?  I put my faith in you and you let me down.”  God look at her and said, “I sent people to help get you prepared.  When the flood came, I sent you a truck, boat and helicopter.  You turned them away.”

Holiday mailing lists = disaster communications plan

I try to remind people every year that dusting off and updating the holiday mailing list is a good time to update their disaster communication’s plan.  Include on the list the names and toll free numbers for banks, insurance, loans, and utilities.  Don’t include the account numbers as you will probably know enough about your account that they can find the details for you.  These are recommended because if your house is burned down or swept away in floods, you’re still paying for the utilities until you close the account — even if the home is not there anymore.

Once you’ve updated all the information, print out a list of all your contacts and put a copy in each car plus one at home. 

I find the car’s trunk a good storage place for this type of information because I’m one of those that always has my car nearby.  Urban commuters that use mass transit should consider using a smaller, tighter font for a one pager that can be kept in whatever they carry.  People walk into my office regularly saying their phone didn’t charge overnight.  Once your phone battery is dead, any information stored there is useless.

My thoughts on Craig Fugate’s IAEM Keynote

It is always a pleasure to hear Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator, talk at conferences.  He has a no nonsense approach that is a breath of fresh air.  Fugate is not afraid to speak his mind and talk openly.  This write up is based on his keynote address at the International Association of Emergency Managers conference in November 2010.  You can view the blow by blow reporting by searching for #IAEM on Twitter.

At the IAEM conference, Craig Fugate made a point that has really stuck with me.  I would tag it as a perspective changer.  It isn’t a radical change that requires a huge effort to agree with, it only requires a person to look at something from another point of view.  Granted it can be easier to move mountains then change some people’s perspectives, and then implementation is a whole other step.

Continue reading My thoughts on Craig Fugate’s IAEM Keynote

NHC extending watches and warnings to 48 hours out

Hurricane forecast mapThe National Hurricane Center announced that they will issue watches and warnings for tropical storms 48 hours out, instead of the previous 36 hours out.  See the notice at http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100105_nhc.html.  The NHC states that this is possible due to an increase in forecast accuracy.  While I’m sure this has some bearing on it, also wonder about other reasons and unstated impacts. 

Continue reading NHC extending watches and warnings to 48 hours out