Thanks to “Parks and Rec”

I saw this show at a crucial point in my life. As a kid and teen, I was CERTAIN I would never work in government because I was going to be a ✨ doctor ✨. The things that drew me to medicine were the same things that government lacked: using my intellect to do something not just anyone could do, being allowed to make decisions which helped people, working as a leader of a team, the dynamism of life and death situations…. But as I grew older, I realized that medicine wasn’t for me. It felt like being a mechanic for humans and I wanted to work with minds–no, not minds like a therapist–with lives. I wanted to make a profound impact on the daily lives of LOTS of people all at once, not helping people individually with a science I grew increasingly less motivated to study.

At last, I was introduced to and then fell in love with Emergency Management. It had all the benefits of being a doctor (helping people, being a leader, working in intense situations), but included more of my strengths: understanding big, complex systems, communicating well, and freedom to carve out my own path. But there was a catch. The largest employer of emergency managers is the public sector. I began to worry whether I could fit in with people who I saw as (forgive me) lazy or possibly stupid. (I’m so sorry; I was a biased youngster). At the time, I only ever saw the depressing disinterest of drones or the backbiting, heartlessness of politicians. I could only foresee myself as hampered and annoyed by the weight of bureaucracy and by jaded colleagues who didn’t care and who would, in the end, infect me with their cynicism.

Then I saw Parks and Rec. It was fun. Leslie Knope’s primary strength was her caring, supportive heart, which–until now–had been under-represented in media in general and absolutely missing from my concept of government, specifically. I thought, IS there room for a dedicated, hard-working, person of good cheer in the public sector? Is there room for sincerity?

Spoiler Alert: YES THERE IS!

I have been extremely privileged to meet and work with people who CHOOSE government work because–like Leslie– they love their community. They’re smart and competent and hardworking–and largely invisible. But they toil away sincerely dedicated to improving our lives. Are there bureaucratic nightmares? Of course. Are there jaded, stupid, and selfish employees. Yes, that’s true for any organization. But if you want to, you can find public servants worthy of the title.

And I would have missed it all– possibly missed my calling– if I hadn’t allowed Parks & Recreation to raise the question in my mind.


Microgrids: Resiliency Trend

At my new internship in the State Energy Office under the Washington State Department of Commerce, I’ve come into contact with a discussion surrounding critical infrastructure resiliency, especially in the energy sector. (By the way, I’ve come to learn that “energy sector,” in this state, refers specifically to electricity; petroleum products which are gasoline, diesel, and airline fuel; and natural gas)

Like California, Washington has begun looking at ways to invest in renewable energies as a way to combat pollution. In California, some organizers are encouraging “solar plus storage” which is coupling solar panels with batteries. They’re especially encouraging solar plus storage microgrids which are solar panels installed on municipal or community partner roofs coupled with some kind of financial incentive to encourage the hosts of these “behind the meter” microgrids to share their power with the local community. Proponents of microgrids argue that a) microgrids are easily installed in an urban environment and b) carry the electricity more efficiently over shorter distances instead of building big solar farms way out in the desert and losing a lot of electricity over transmission, and c) are more resilient because they’re redundant and scalable. Instead of relying on one transmission line from the dessert which could fail, you have a whole lot of little transmission lines which would hopefully limit cascading blackouts (where a broken line impacts customers far away from the disaster). According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, California is the largest generator of solar energy which makes up about 16% of their total energy usage.

Gif showing solar power being sent from a house to 
a battery in the day and being sent from the battery back to the house at night.
Battery extends the usability of solar panels. Gif courtesy of EnergySage

From my perspective, Washington has begun to take notice of solar plus storage microgrids. Seattle has launched a pilot microgrid on the Miller Community Center on Capitol Hill. It will hopefully keep the community center open as a shelter during windstorms and power outages and will be studied by the University of Washington to research and develop similar technologies and projects. The Miller Community Center microgrid will join other buildings in the area which already have solar panels like Harborview Medical Center, Seattle Central College, and Station 22 Firehouse.

Solar panels being installed on the roof of Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, 2017.
Solar panels being installed on the roof of Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, 2017.

But wait! You’re probably thinking, isn’t Seattle notoriously cloudy? Well, yes, but fortunately, solar panels are becoming increasingly more efficient in cloudy weather (they produce about 10% of what they normally would under dense clouds) and actually perform better when kept under 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, batteries are getting better at storing more power longer helping solar panels take full advantage of the good days. The Miller Community Center microgrid project is hoping to prove that the redundancy and cost savings afforded by solar panels are worth the installation.

Though solar-powered microgrids seem to be trending on the West Coast, multi-sourced microgrids are already seeing some success. In Nassau, New York, near Albany, all the town municipal buildings have been pulled entirely off the grid. After suffering a series of ice-storm-caused power outages which prevented the highway department from physically getting sand trucks on the road, Town Supervisor Flemming had enough. He’s helping the city move entirely to a combination of solar, wind, landfill gas, and battery storage by 2020 following the lead of Fairfield, Conneticut.

tall, angled solar panels shade parked cars on the roof of a garage in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Solar panels shade parked cars on the roof of a garage in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Coastal Fairfield built a microgrid to backup their critical facilities after Superstorm Sandy (2012) which caused prolonged and expensive power outages. Their backup grid is a combination of natural gas and solar which automatically keeps the emergency shelter, fire/police, cellphone towers, and water treatment plants running during a power outage. By comparing Seattle and Fairfield, we can see how microgrids can be customized and adapted to meet the needs and resources of a community. I like the idea of microgrids because they very nicely intersect the wants and needs of municipal daily life with community resiliency and disaster response. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

Further Reading

A downed power pole and power lines on a two lane road surrounded by dense, green vegetation.
Microgrids could provide redundancy to our power grid.

Day Job

Maybe you’re like me. Before I started working, I thought emergency managers were like firefighters–either responding to emergencies or sleeping (I suppose some are, i.e. FEMA reservists). But emergency managers are more like OB/GYNs or spies: they have a normal job until something happens.

Here are a few jobs that emergency managers do when they’re not busy “firefighting”.

Respond to new legislation or other directives. As I’m writing this, the Washington State Legislature session has just begun and already many of my colleagues are being inundated with new statutes. These new policies might change funding, or regulations (standards for behavior or rules of doing business), they might form new workgroups with representatives from many agencies and stakeholders (something else the emergency manager is required to add to their workload), they might even dissolve or restructure agencies.

broken wind turbine

At other times, the mayor, governor, or President might issue new policy, mandates, or a new list of priorities. For instance, last year, Washington State Governor Inslee stated he would like to see the state rely more on renewable energies. That statement about the Governor’s priorities effected the State Energy Office who is responsible (in part) for the safe transport of oil and maintenance of oil pipelines, shipping fuels, and partnering with utility companies. What if Washington State started building more wind farms? What kind of hazards might influence them? What kind of plan do they require?

Advocate for funding or policies. On the other side of the coin, emergency managers may recommend changes to funding, program structure, or policy by writing budgets, proposals, and opinions.

Run or participate in training and exercises. Like the Boy Scouts, we like to be prepared and force encourage other people to be prepared. Most emergency managers are required by either national and/or state law to run at least a few exercises a year depending on where they work. For instance, all Continuity of Operations Plans should be tested and updated yearly. Those who work in critical infrastructure (electricity, roads, hospitals, internet, etc) often have a few more exercises to run. On the West Coast, schools are required to have at least one earthquake and fire drill a year.

Running training and exercises can be a lot of work. Each one requires a packet explaining the scenario to the participants, documentation recording the results of the exercise, and an After Action Report or Lesson’s Learned Report that describes the results of the exercise and makes recommendations for further learning. For some large agencies or companies, this can be a full time job.

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) are good ways for you to get some training too!

Attend meetings and participate in groups. Emergency managers may be required by directive to represent their agency in workgroups which may be tasked to study issues or share information between traditionally siloed groups. Some emergency managers also voluntarily collaborate on special projects across agency, state, or national borders. Some examples of these types of projects that I can think of include public survey and education about a local hazard (hurricanes, tsunamis, etc), local exercises between utility companies (can we cooperate to get the power on faster?), researching teams composed of local and international researchers both studying the same issue.

Educate the public. There’s lots of ways to accomplish this including attending events, writing blogs (ahem), managing social media accounts… This can also be a full time job.

Write plans. Plans on plans. They range from high level vision to the nitty-gritty details of step-by-step procedures. They describe what hazards are around, what our vulnerabilities are to them, how to keep them from being so bad (mitigation), and who has what job when things do go bad, and then what should happen after the disaster to bring things back to a new normal.

A sampling of the many kinds of plans we write.

Bring the program up to accreditation standards. Not all emergency management programs are very mature. Emergency Management as a field is transitioning from experience-based to science-based and gradually expanding in areas. Emergency managers may find themselves in a hodge-podge environment slapped together out of necessity. Accreditation is a difficult, time-consuming job which involves connecting your program to stakeholders in a meaningful way, codifying planning and training procedures based on iterative and repeatable processes, and educating your decision makers, partners, and stakeholders.

Distant rain clouds near Denver, Colorado. courtesy of Haley Luna

These are just a few ways emergency managers work to better the world when not actively engaged in a disaster. They’re many, background activities help make your life better from day to day by their preparedness, dedication to being subject-matter experts, and advocating for community resilience (which helps during non-disasters too!).

Do you work in Emergency Management? What is your day-to-day like?

Recovering in/from the Dark

Today, I’m sitting in a tabletop exercise for state executives focused on recovery. Basically, this is a meeting of state agencies who are talking about what troubles they might have two weeks and longer after a catastrophic winter storm.

Semi trucks stranded by snow

This is an unusual discussion; most exercises I’ve seen are designed to assess the challenges of response which is hours to days after a disaster and is filled with activities most generally associated with a crisis: search and rescue, setting up shelters, fixing cell services and electricity, etc.

Emergency management breaks its work into four sections: Preparedness (or “protection” if you’re law enforcement) which includes policy writing and training (or tracking suspected attackers); mitigation which includes projects, insurance, and grant money to prepare a community’s vulnerable areas like a flood plain; response, which handles the actual disaster; and recovery which (hopefully) returns the community to a new economic and environmental normal. “Full” recovery is hard to pinpoint and can take many years. The Mt St Helens volcano recovery group just disbanded this year and in Washington, recovery activities are still going on for the 2014 Oso landslide.

Preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery cycle

Emergency managers like to say response and recovery occur at the same time, and there IS a lot of overlap and interdependence of activities, but listening to these executives wrestle with the exercise scenario, you begin to think the only difference between the two stages is electricity.

When the Department of Health is asked what their concerns would be two weeks out from a disaster, they immediately ask: is the power back on? If yes, then their major concern is connecting people with long term housing, insurance payouts, or other aid. If not, they have a much bigger problem. Take the WebMD stat that 55% of Americans are filling one or more prescription medications per month (the CDC states 48.9% have taken at least one prescription in the last 30 days). In our scenario, two weeks after the disaster sees several thousand people still in shelters and starting to run out of their meds. The Department of Health needs the power on or they’re still in emergency mode– working the problem through their many agreements with other states and providers (like nursing strike teams with experience working in mass care or pharmaceutical companies who can be persuaded to deliver emergency supplies).

Broken power lines laying in road after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

So what happens if the power takes a year to turn back on? What happens to your community trying to recover from a disaster then? This is what happened to Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico had long standing physical infrastructure problems that were exacerbated by a limping economy which caused the island- wide electrical system to become outdated, overcapacity, and vulnerable to the cascading effects of Hurricane Maria. When part of the system went down, the rest of the system quickly became overwhelmed trying to support the extra users and also went down. There just wasn’t equipment, money, or transportation infrastructure (at least initially) to fix it.

What happened next is told by 99% Invisible who interviewed an electrical engineer working on the problem at the time. So, so interesting.

Title page for 99% Invisible episode

(Click through to get pictures and news reports besides a podcast player)

No, President Trump can’t text you: All about Presidential Alerts.

A test of the Emergency Broadcast System via 1990

On October 3, 2018, FEMA and the FCC will be testing their Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) which is an expansion of the public broadcasting alerts you once saw on TV. (They’re still there, actually, if anyone watches cable late at night.) The IPAWS consists of traditional alert channels like radio and TV and new alert channels like cell data.

The announcement of the test has resurrected a 2016 rumor that claims President Trump will be able to mass text Americans directly. One of the kinds of alerts that exists under IPAWS is an un-opt-outable “Presidential Alert” which some news reports fear gives unilateral control to the President to push messaging out to our cell phones. This rumor is absolutely false for a number of reasons.

  1. The Presidential Alerts are not new and have, in fact, been tested before: twice under President Obama (November 2011 & September 2016) and once already under President Trump (September 2017).What’s new about this test is that FEMA is testing delivery of the alert over broadcast (TV) and data (cell phones) at the same time to make sure that doing both at once doesn’t break the system.
  2. It is extremely difficult to send out a national alert. There are both legal and technical requirements that must be met before an alert is able to be delivered. It is vanishingly unlikely that Trump would be able to or choose to send whatever messages he’d like as alerts. Additionally, there IS oversight of the process from thousands of stakeholders with a vested interest in keeping alerts trustworthy and professional. (See more below).
  3. It is true that you cannot opt out of the Presidential Alerts. By law, national alerts are incapable of being turned off. You may discover a way to switch off alerts in your phone settings, but in fact you will be turning off local alerts which–let’s be honest–are probably more useful to you than national alerts. If you’ve ever received an Amber Alert or a severe weather alert by text, that is an example of your local alert system. Those kinds of alerts originate from your county emergency management office or police department, etc. You can turn them off, but it’s not recommended. The national alerts you can’t turn off because they’re built into your SIM cards. But most importantly, the IPAWS is for emergency alerts only and is controlled by FEMA with support from the FCC. Trump won’t be texting you on a whim.
  4. Finally, I want to correct another mistaken rumor I’ve been hearing. The Wireless Emergency Alerts (the ones that go to your cell), do not collect any data. The system is designed to push data only. It does not collect location data or personal information. While it may feel like the alerts know where you are, in fact, it only sends data to the tower. If you’re near the tower, you get the alert.

Most of us live in a hazard zone. Sign up for alerts at your state’s Emergency Management website.

Let’s unpack these further:

First, it’s important to note that so called “Presidential Alerts” are not new. They have existed in every iteration of the national warning system since its inception in the 1950s. Even more importantly, they have never been used. Never, not once under any president. I note this so strongly because many of the reports seem to imply that the controversial Presidential Alerts are something that Trump made in order to more forcefully influence the public. That is false.

Here’s some history to help us see how:

36131365861_3c96b780fb_bIn 1951, President Truman established the Emergency Broadcast System (at that time, known as CONELRAD) which used AM radio to warn citizens of inbound nuclear attacks. In the ’60s and 70’s it was expanded to include FM radio and TV and developed further at the local levels. In the 1990s, it changed it’s name to it’s current one “The Emergency Alert System,” (EAS).

In 2006, in response to the difficulties surrounding Hurricane Katrina, President Bush signed Executive Order 13407 ordering DHS (Dept of Homeland Security) to modernize and unify the nation’s existing public alert system which was made up of these 4 separate systems:

A) The Emergency Alert System (EAS) This system sends text and audio based messages over TV and radio stations, cable, and satellite services. These messages are NOT relayed over the NOAA/National Weather Service radios which many Americans use in their preparedness kits.

B) NOAA Weather Radio is a 24-hour network of VHF FM weather radio stations that transmit directly from local National Weather Service offices. It’s especially used in the mid-west.

C) The National Warning System (NAWAS) which is an automated telephone landline-based warning system. While still in use, it is slowly being made obsolete as fewer and fewer households have a landline.

An example of what the Wireless Emergency Alerts look like via FEMA

D) And finally, the Wireless Emergency Alerts designed to issue warnings over mobile devices like cells, tablets, and pagers. This program was funded by the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006. It allows for automated messages (specially wrapped in software code) to be sent to cell carriers who in turn push the message via their towers to all cell phones in range. The three types of messages legally allowed are: Presidential Alerts, Alerts involving imminent threats to life safety classified as “extreme threats” or “severe threats” (most often weather and terrorism-related alerts), and AMBER alerts (child abduction emergencies). Presidential alerts have never been issued. The only use has been other agencies with access to the network like the National Weather Service and FBI.

These 4 systems were unified under the IPAWS  (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) platform which helps systems with different tech requirements share information between them.

A chart of how IPAWS works. Click for larger view.

Now for the legal requirements I promised:

Legally, IPAWS must only be used for emergencies (and testing, obviously). The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 specifically says:

Use of System.—Except to the extent necessary for testing the public alert and warning system, the public alert and warning system shall not be used to transmit a message that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.

Additionally, the FCC has various other established laws and protocols which reinforce the rule: emergency use only.

Finally, as I mentioned, there is also a body of stakeholders who monitor IPAWS use and read policy and technical updates. Here is the list which includes State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial government group members; the International Association of Emergency Managers (an independent certifying and research body); disability rights groups, and independent legal/policy, and technical experts.

2017_29_4_3And finally, the technology barriers behind it all:

It is far more complicated to send out an IPAWS alert than tweeting as you can see from this protocol guide. A protocol guide is the manual for IPAWS technicians which explains how to properly send out a message and how to troubleshoot the system. This one is mostly software code. In order to send out a message, you have to know how to code (among other things) the header and ender that bookends the message. Also, the message length is limited to about a sentence or several phrases. Therefore, I think it’s far more likely that Trump would choose to tweet–even if he could overcome the legal and technical barriers. Snopes agrees:

Although it is true that an FCC emergency alert system function enables any sitting president to send emergency texts to all Americans (and that only messages from the president cannot be blocked), any other information is pure speculation: nothing substantiates the idea that President Trump intends to misuse the system, or that the FCC would allow him to do so.

Further Reading

Featured Image: Woman standing next to air raid siren, WWII. Unknown origin, though possibly Toronto.

Follow Up 2 Years After Cascadia Rising

I can’t believe it’s been two years since the enormous multi-state full scale exercise, Cascadia Rising 2016. Since the initial, exercise, Washington State Emergency Management Division (and all its partners) have been busy assessing the lessons learned and planning discussions and smaller, issue- specific exercises like Fractured Grid (below). Smaller agencies, like WaTech (Wa State Consolidated Information Technologies or the agency which hosts all the other agencies’ data, phones, applications, email, and internet) are working hard on Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) which describes how the agency will continue to function if people in the chain of command, workers, or other operations are missing or inaccessible. The Feds and the State have been discussing new response priorities based on improved predictions after a couple of earthquakes and tsunami research and policy reports were (and are continuing to be) published. Planning and preparedness is never done as scientists continue to study geologic processes in the area, as responders in places with similar problems (New Zealand, Japan, Puerto Rico) report their own lessons learned and best practices, and as social and political advocates move the needle on the public’s opinions about agendas and funding priorities.

I’m attending today’s Fractured Grid which is a tabletop exercise designed to bring together utilities and critical infrastructure stakeholders for a mental exercise based on the Cascadia Rising scenario. Private utilities companies, FEMA, and representatives from many state agencies like Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, and Department of Public Health, have gathered in a (chilly) room at the Legislature building to talk to each other about how to coordinate information sharing and set priorities for restoration should a 9.0 earthquake strike our coast.

This more informal group thought-exercise is an important component of Washington State’s Emergency Management Division’s multi-year exercise plan–an improvement plan hoping to link lessons learned from Cascadia Rising 2016 to another test of our response capabilities coming in Cascadia Rising 2022 (hopefully). These long term, multi- year improvement plans are standard practice in the emergency management field and it’s likely your state, county, or city is doing the same in some unassuming conference room.

Sometimes, it can feel like nothing happens in government, like its a black hole filled with talking heads and useless meetings, but sometimes quiet work is being done. Little by little Washington State is working to prepare to serve the people in their time of need. There ARE dedicated, capable, and knowledgeable public servants. They’re not working in secrecy, only outside of the spotlight in a chilly conference room somewhere.

Hep A, Homelessness: An emergent crisis

In 1854, London saw yet another deadly epidemic of cholera. London was burgeoning under the influence of the Industrial Revolution, but it’s medieval (literally) sewers, trash heaps, gutters, and under-your-house cesspools were overflowing with slaughterhouse offal, grease-rendering run-off, and market animal excrement. The city began dumping it’s unwanted filth into the Thames river which became smelly and dangerous.

A political cartoon from 1852. See more here.

Many physicians, scientists, and politicians at the time believed that disease was transmitted by bad air–in particular, air putrefied by rotting matter (called the miasma theory). This wasn’t a totally stupid idea. Scientists of the time could observe fungus spores on their microscopes and could observe the close correlation between coughing and death. They could see the smoggy air out their windows and the filthy streets at their feet. Unfortunately, the cholera outbreaks continued persistently despite treatments of the time.

Dr. Snow’s epidemic dot map. Red dots and blue faucets are a modern addition to make it easier to see the patterns. See the original black and white here.

Dr. John Snow (not that one), had another idea. He theorized that cholera was spread through water tainted with germs (the germ theory). When an extremely bad outbreak of cholera occurred in Soho (127 people died in three days), Dr. Snow with the help of Reverend Whitehead carefully interviewed the patients and the community members. He was able to identify what each of the patients had in common: a water pump. He took samples of the water, but it was inconclusive. He asked the city to take the handle off the pump. They did so and the infection seemed to decline. (In his journals, he is careful to note that the disease was already declining because people had fled when the outbreak occurred, but that taking off the handle did seem to help reduce the infection rate.) He carefully drew a dot map of all those who had died from cholera in the neighborhood and noticed an anomaly which further supported his water-borne theory. None of the employees from the Broad Street brewery got sick. As part of their wages, they were given beer to drink. And the water for the beer is boiled–killing the germ.

And that’s how modern epidemiology was born.

Today, much of the epidemiology work is done by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Like Dr. Snow, they monitor disease outbreaks, make recommendations, and respond to emergencies with vaccines or other appropriate care.

In March 2017, the CDC recorded an enormous spike in another disease, like cholera, spread by the fecal-oral transmission route: hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is a viral infection which targets the liver. It is spread by fecal contamination and is completely preventable by good hygiene (washing hands, drinking clean water) and vaccinations. It is most often found in places of crises with developing or destroyed infrastructure. So why was it showing up in San Diego, Salt Lake City, Detroit, and New York City?  The Huffington Post reports the CDC’s numbers in this terrific graphic.

HuffPo crunched the numbers: hep A on the rise in 2017.

In San Fransisco, escalators were being shut down for cleaning. Excrement had piled up in the gears. In San Diego, feces on the sidewalks and streets were being dried and aerosolizing (becoming airborne). It became so bad that San Diego washed it’s streets with bleach and is scheduled to continue to do so every two weeks. Detroit saw a national record (post release of a vaccine) of 837 cases of hepatitis A–bad enough for the state health department to issue a travel warning. I could go on.

NPR reports street cleaners using bleach in San Diego to combat Hep A outbreak.

If Dr. Snow’s observations have taught us anything, I think it’s taught us to look at outbreaks as warning sign of a city in crisis. Sick cities make people sick.

In this case, as the Washington Post (and others) posit, the crisis is homelessness. Hepatitis A outbreaks correlate to cities with the highest homelessness and drug-user populations (people who shared needles used to be the highest population of hep A patients in the 90’s but that has now changed). Homelessness is caused by many factors, but many in the Bay Area argue that the rise in housing costs coupled with a decline in public facilities caused this particular issue. Others argue that an increase in spending on public services has attracted homeless persons to these areas. But whatever the case, it remains, that the streets are unhealthy.

Additionally, the outbreaks have been hard to stem because the vaccine for hep A is a two-part dose administered several days apart. It can be difficult for health workers to follow up with homeless patients to get their second shot. This allowed the hep A outbreak–which would normally be contained by herd immunity–to get large enough to enter the broader population (only briefly, and to no great harm thanks to quick-acting responders).

On the other hand, the hep A outbreaks are (at least in San Diego) causing vulnerable homeless populations to become even more vulnerable as the city is taking a more proactive stance on arresting homeless people. The justification is two-fold: a) they need to move so that the city can wash the sidewalks and b) they are disproportionately falling ill due to unsanitary conditions. It might be better to remove them to a clean area for prevention and treatment.  In the meantime, the homeless want to know what will be done with them and their possessions now that they have been moved.

Fortunately, there is some good news. As of April 2018, the CDC reports the following:

With the slowdown in reported hepatitis A cases across California, CDPH has demobilized the outbreak response and continues to monitor reported hepatitis A cases statewide.

There is similar news from all the infected cities. Thanks to a history of epidemiology and the quick action of health-care professionals, we have quelled hepatitis A in our cities. For now.

Dr. John Snow’s research into cholera helped to inform London’s city planners decisions over time. The pump at fault was drawing water three feet from an underground cesspit which had begun to leak. Because of this and other incidents, we know how to keep our water and sewage separated.

What will these modern hep A outbreaks teach us about city planning?

Further Reading


How to Census Homeless Individuals

Last time, we talked about how Emergency Managers can contact vulnerable populations–for instance, the homeless–with evacuation notices. We discovered that social connections which make communities more resilient as a whole make the homeless in those communities more resilient too.

But as an Emergency Manager, I know that resilience often depends on the effects of long-term, complex social issues. For instance, Haiti sometimes finds it more difficult to recover from earthquakes than it’s sister country, the Dominican Republic, because Haiti is poorer, has non-resilient infrastructure, and social policies which (debatably) prevent economic recovery. Similarly, in America, policy discussions centering around social-political issues like homelessness impact the long-term resilience of a community to disasters.

Policy discussions are important and they rely heavily on statistics. As you know, fair representation in a community means being accurately counted. How can policy makers and advocates make decisions about policy and funding without a careful understanding of the demographics and size of a vulnerable population? As you might imagine, counting a scattered and mobile population is extremely difficult. This article from the Seattle Times demonstrates how parsing the census data can greatly change the picture; depending on how you ask the question, Seattle has between the third and sixth most homeless in America.

The severity of Seattle’s homelessness crisis is different depending how you measure it — but no matter which way you look at it, we’re in the top 10 worst in the country.
Courtesy of the Seattle Times

So how do you count the homeless population in your town? In America, most cities choose to do an annual, night census of the homeless to get a sample.

Counting the unhoused once a year to get a sample.

Most cities have an annual, nightly census where volunteers physically visit known homelessness sites and gather demographic data from those sleeping outside. Sometimes this is accompanied by census data gathered from people using homelessness services. This method of data collection can be problematic for several reasons.

a) A yearly census may have data gaps. While it’s true a yearly census is good for trends over time, it gives only one snapshot of the homelessness situation on this night. Some argue that more frequent censuses would give granularity to the data.

b) Each jurisdiction and agency draw the geography differently. As the Seattle Time’s points out, because of the hodgepodge way each locale accesses funding, each city and county may count people differently. “New York City, for example, counts the homeless people inside its city limits while L.A. counts everyone in L.A. County except the cities of Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach…. Denver and Boulder group together and count all the homeless people in the six counties around them….” This can make comparing data nationally–or even regionally–a headache.

Pic courtesy of Associated Press

c) It doesn’t count those in shelters (sometimes, depending where you are). This isn’t necessarily a problem depending on what you want the census to tell you. Some cities, like New York are under legal mandate to house their homeless, so counting those strictly on the streets matters to them. But maybe your city wants to know more about how many people might need a certain governmental service. In that case, this statistic might not help you, beware.

d) It doesn’t count the “concealed homeless”–those living on a friend’s couch or in their cars. Like point c, this is a matter of semantics; neither good nor bad, but worth noting.

Pic courtesy of San Bernardino Point in Time Count

Is crowdsourcing better? No matter what you do, it’s hard to get a clear estimation of “hidden” individuals. Cities are big and individuals are small. Crowdsourcing has helped gather data on large, complex problems before, maybe–the thinking goes–it can do the same here.

New York City has tried just that with their 311 app. Designed to accumulate citizen complaints for a variety of municipal problems, it was expanded to allow users to help identify the homeless. App-users can take geo-tagged pictures of the homeless and tag them with statements like “NeedsMedicalAid” or “AggressiveBegging”. Unfortunately, some homelessness advocates feel this app has led to shaming and harassment (especially–in my opinion–given that the complaints can be viewed by the public). (View the story here.)

On the other hand, a competing app in New York named “WeShelter” has a gentler image. App-users “unlock” donations from sponsors which are given to several of New York’s homelessness organizations. Users have an opportunity to share their location with the app by clicking “I’m near a person who is homeless” and can also provide other information like whether or not the person needs non-emergency assistance. This is an interesting combination of location data gathering with activism. And there are many, many more apps with various methodologies out there.

GiveSafe Beacon. Pic courtesy of Smart Cities Council

In Seattle, an app called GiveSafe distributes beacons the size of a quarter to individuals in need. The beacon has a bluetooth that connects to an app on your phone. You can see the individual’s story as you pass them and also donate, if you wish to. The beacon holder can then spend the money at select merchants or non-profits. To keep the beacon active, the holder must keep in touch with a counselor once a month. It was designed hoping that donors would be more willing to donate if they could be assured that their money would be used to help with food (for example) and not vices. (See also StreetChange in Philidelphia & HandUp mostly everywhere)


Homelessness census data–like most statistics–are complex and variable. However, policy makers and municipalities rely on this data to distribute funding and reassess their policies. It’s up to us to make our statistics as robust and meaningful as possible in order to support that work. Often, that means gathering different kinds and sources of data to create a mosaic-like picture of the situation, and experimenting with data gathering methodologies.

Further Reading

How to Evacuate Homeless Individuals

How do you find and evacuate someone who is homeless if you need to?

It’s a question that’s been bothering me–and many city leaders–for a while now. Homeless people are often the most vulnerable and the most disconnected from “normal” information channels like TV and radio which makes them a population more likely to be hardest hit by a disaster.

I did some research and talked to some people and here’s what I found:

  1. The homeless are not as disconnected as I originally thought.
  2. Solutions designed to target other, related, homelessness problems can be adapted for emergency use (a pretty standard procedure for cities and states faced with limited resources)
  3. The most vulnerable of society (homeless and otherwise) will–no matter what–be the hardest hit during a disaster. But, the more prepared individual citizens and businesses are to take care of themselves, the more resilient the community, the more help is available to the most vulnerable of society when it’s needed most.

Connections Exist

According to the Atlantic, 75% of homeless youths use social media compared to 90% of their age-matched compatriots. While it is yet one tiny study, it led one researcher to posit that the Digital Divide may not be as large as we thought. Especially since the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has been working to narrow that divide since 1985 via it’s “Lifeline” program which subsidizes landlines and cell phones to low income consumers. (By the way, both Forbes and Snopes both debunked the myth that these phones are free or paid for by taxes.)

Picture courtesy of The Atlantic

Not only do some homeless have more access to cell phones and the internet (giving them a channel by which to receive evacuation notices) than I thought, but they are more socially connected than I imagined. This interview with Vacaville, CA Police Chief John Carl from the Armstrong and Getty Show shows how familiar the Police and other service providers get with homeless individuals. (I highly recommend a listen. It’s about 20 min long, but really interesting.) And some cities are working to make those social connections even stronger.

Connections build resiliency

Carli describes how his town created a “Homelessness Roundtable” to coordinate with private and public stakeholders/service providers. He also formed the “Community Response Unit”–a police unit designed to–among other things–get to know homeless individuals. CBS Sacramento has an interesting report on their successes.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Navigation Teams

Likewise, Seattle has formed “Navigation Teams,” a combination of police personnel and social workers who spend all day everyday on the city streets, getting to know the individuals in the camps and offering them housing or other services. They report that after the institution of these teams, that the acceptance rate of housing offers went from 5% to 30%.

Furthermore, this news report alludes to one of the other benefits of these teams which is relevant to my question. When an infant disappeared into the vast network of homeless camps, the Navigation Team were asked to help find her. Because of the knowledge and trust they had earned with their daily engagement, they were able to leverage the homeless network to find the child. This is the true power of these Community Response Units and Navigation Teams: they can be tapped to deliver disaster warnings to those that might otherwise miss it.

Homeless camp on I-5 near the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Some encampments are especially close to the dangers of traffic.

In fact, it has already happened on a small scale. I spoke to the Seattle Office of Emergency Management spokesperson who mentioned to me that shortly after the Navigation Teams had begun working, a tanker overturned on I-5. The police used the brand new Navigation Team maps of homeless encampments to evacuate the homeless in the area. (He didn’t tell me a specific date, but I think this is the news report.) Navigation Teams and Community Response Units are designed to help the problems surrounding homelessness, but they may be a crucial link when it comes to delivering disaster warnings. I’d love to see Navigation Teams in every city.


I can’t help but notice a lesson buried here: when we work to make our communities safer and healthier, we make them more resilient as well. The homeless may be especially vulnerable, but–exactly like the rest of us–when they have more connections, they are more resilient.

Further Reading

Fewer Lightning-strike Deaths Good News for All

Found this on Twitter today from Bill Gates’ blog who got it from a new book called Enlightenment Now written by Steven Pinker:

You’re 37 times less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than you were at the turn of the century—and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.

I love this statistic because it’s quirky, but also so elegantly illustrates what my job is about. Better meterology, geology, volcanology, sociology, and psychology science–it all makes this a safer world for everyone.

If you’re worried that the world is getting more and more violent all the time, take a look at Pinker’s books. They will illustrate that in many ways this Earth is getting less violent and more healthy. Good news like that is always welcome, am I right?

What statistic do you have that brings good news?