Hope Dogs in the EOC: Comfort in times of crisis

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EMScholar Exercises

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

You know immediately when they arrive because the whole room gravitates toward their wake.

“Did you see the Hope Dogs?” someone asks me.

“What are Hope Dogs?” I ask heading toward a growing crowd in a corner. Oscar and Pickles are therapy dogs who work for the non-profit organization Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (Hope AACR). They are part of an elite team that not only has animal-assisted therapy certification and experience but are also screened for suitability in a crisis response environment. Teams receive extensive training in Incident Command System (a standardized way we organize crisis response), first aid/CPR, emotional first aid, crisis communication, and special stress management techniques for work in the field along side first responders.

Founded in September 2001, Hope Dogs provided emotional support victims at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. Hope Dogs are called out nationally to attend policeman memorials, Operation Purple camps (for military kids), and natural disasters. They work closely in conjunction with FEMA and the Red Cross and were happy to practice with us at Cascadia Rising.

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Molly Fischer (right) with Oscar and Raquel Lackey (left) with Pickles

Molly Fischer sits comfortably on the floor with a gentle Oscar. He gives me soulful eyes until I pat him. Hope Dogs first began as emotional support for victims of natural disasters but gradually, the organization began to see a need to support the responders themselves. Fischer started working with FEMA staff during the 2014 Oso, Washington landslide. “It’s such a rewarding thing when you walk into a building where everything is so tense [like that]” she says, “When we walk into a room, it’s all smiles.” She invites another person to pet Oscar. “Snohomish [county] was the smoothest-operating EOC because of the dogs” she says proudly. They were able to relax and focus on the response. “Dogs are amazing at that.”

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Pickles and another Hope Dog look across the valley to the Oso landslide. Pic courtesy of Cal EOC.

Pickles and handler Raquel Lackey join us. They were at Oso too a day after the landslide while search and rescue were still happening. She describes how exhausting it was for the dogs to sponge up all that emotional stress. They need a break every other day and then a longer break after about three weeks. They never use dogs under 2 years old because it can be too stressful for the puppies and they only use dogs who are highly tolerant of new things and stressed people. After, Oso, she took the dogs to the beach for a couple days were there was no one around.

 

Still… she says, they can get depressed if they don’t work for a while.
“How do you know when it’s time to go back to work?” I ask
“They’ll tell you. This one,” she nudges a tail-wagging Pickles, “will approach people on the street for pets” she laughs.

I wonder aloud why the dogs need practice when they seem to be such naturals. “Our minds know this is an exercise but our bodies don’t” Fischer tells me. Lackey nods. “You’ll notice the dogs can identify who’s the most stressed.” Oscar puts his head in someone’s lap. Both he and the person seem grateful for the head scratches.

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If you’d like to support these intrepid therapy dogs and the volunteers who give up their time to support first responders and victims, do visit their page to see all the different ways you can help.

 

A (Theoretical) Day in the Life of the EOC

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This is a fictionalized account of a day in the State Emergency Operation’s Center during a pretend earthquake/tsunami disaster. This account is not real and should not be panicked about. For background information, please do see our previous blogs about the Cascadia Rising Exercise, 2016.

While I was participating in the exercise, I found it difficult to describe the work happening around me to friends. There are so many little pieces to keep track of and so many vague abbreviations and tasks to do. I thought a fictionalized “day in the life” might be both helpful and fun. This is a pretend day two when the responders have a good sense of the tasks before them, but still have a lot to do. Federal agents are on the scene and communications have been re-established so work is in full swing. I chose this day so that you can see the very wide variety and scope of problems that the State EOC had to deal with and the many different people helping. The meeting schedule is taken from several real meeting schedules that Cascadia Rising used though some things were edited for clarity and for drama. 


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The State EOC floor (SEOC)

7:30 am: Shift Change Briefing. All state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) staff attend a meeting for getting updated on the disaster. Editor’s Note: For the Cascadia Rising Exercise, the night shift was “notional” which means it only existed on paper. Controllers delivered “injects” or pre-conceived, pretend-facts that the players have to respond to. 

Last night, there was an aftershock and several gas lines lit fires. Pierce county needs fire trucks and state EOC employees are working to see who can supply them. Maybe the Department of Natural Resources? How about the National Guard?

 

 

8:30 am: Unified Coordination Group (UCG) Objectives Meeting. “Review and identify incident objectives for the next operational period.” Planning staff from all levels and branches of the government meet to discuss tomorrows priorities while operations staff work on today’s priorities.

Today we’re working on search and rescue, fire suppression establishing shelters, and assessing the damage to “critical infrastructure” like hospitals and police stations. Tomorrow, we should work on road clearing, getting fuel to vehicles in the field, getting the power grid back up, and sending food and water to shelters. 

8:30 am: Command and General Staff Meeting:

The operations staff meet to discuss today’s priorities called “objectives”. (They were approved last night by the planning staff). The EOC supervisor briefs his Operations Chiefs and the Disaster Manager who will later need to liaise with the planning staff and politicians. Today, we’re working on search and rescue, mass care (medical care, housing, etc), damage assessment, fire suppression, road clearing, fuel line and power grid repairs, and body collection and identification. The operation’s staff are tracking more than 100 requests for help from the counties and tribes.

FEMA arrives.

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FEMA arrives with their own communications equipment.

9:00 am: State Emergency Management Declaration Meeting

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Disaster Manager and Deputy

The Disaster Manager and other officials meet to decide whether this emergency is bad enough to warrant an official Disaster Declaration request by the governor. It is. In fact, the President has anticipated this and is standing by to grant the request immediately. 

The EOC is relieved to hear that they have received a Presidential Disaster Declaration. Now they can easily receive Federal aid.

9:15 am: The Media Arrive: They want to know about the disaster declaration and the status of the response. They work closely with the SEOC to get important life-saving messages out to the people. Fun Fact: The media really did come into the SEOC during Cascadia Rising. The Governor did a pretend news briefing, and then the cameras came into the SEOC to interview the FEMA Region 10 Director and the Lead Controller about the exercise itself.

 

9:30 am: Fuel Task Force Meeting: How many lines are broken? How can we fix them?Who needs the fuel? How can we get them fuel for emergency use?

9:30 am: FEMA National Call: FEMA field agents meet with their national headquarters, military officials, and state officials via teleconferencing equipment. They compare notes and discuss resource requests. For instance, can the military let us use some helicopters for search and rescue operations, and some planes for fire suppression?

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FEMA coordinates with the military and Federal government to provide support to the state.

9:30 am: ESF 15 Local/State Coordination Call

Public Information Officers from FEMA, the state, the tribes, and counties, meet to discuss what to tell the public. 

People are beginning to ask what to do with the bodies they’ve discovered. 
What can we tell people about when power will be back up? 

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The State EOC floor listens to the local jurisdictions on speaker.

10:00 am: Tribal and Local Jurisdiction Conference Call

The conference call is piped in over the speakers onto the EOC floor. The EOC floor supervisor takes role call. Most of the counties have joined the call. One by one, they describe their needs and their own response activities. The King County emergency operation’s center had to move to their secondary site due to damage to their building. They give the group their new address and phone number. Klallam tribe has opened their casino and hotels as a shelter. Thurston county is stranded. Both Hwy 101 and the Nisqually bridge are damaged. The State asks the Army Corps of Engineers to see if they can fix the bridge and/or clear Hwy 101.

10:00 am: Critical Infrastructure Task Force

The task force members meet to update the incident map with damaged buildings, ports, and roads. They begin to prioritize needs. If we can fix some ports in Puget Sound, a navy vessel can bring supplies up from California. It might be faster than trying to clear enough roads to get trucks through. 

The fuel-line fires are threatening some fueling stations. 

10:30 am: Debris Task Force

US Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), US Coast Guard, Department of Transit, and Department of Ecology and others meet to discuss clearing roads and power lines.

11:00 am: Mass Care Conference Call with Local Jurisdictions

The Mass Care Taskforce needs to know more about which hospitals are functional, how many shelters should be set up, and to hear about what local jurisdictions need. Klallam tribe’s shelter is beginning to receive evacuees with pets. What should we do with them? The Red Cross is starting a blood drive and the Salvation Army is beginning to process donations.

 

11:30 pm: Lunch is served by building support staff.

12:00 pm: Draft requests for tomorrow due to Operations Section Chief

The State EOC operations staff have been tracking requests and make recommendations for tomorrow’s objectives. The various taskforces have recommendations too.

1:00 pm: EOC Update Briefing

The State EOC staff pause to get on the same page with one another. The state meteorologist gives a forecast. Incoming rain is good news for fire suppression but bad news for mass care shelters. They might need more tarps. The Public Information Officer finally gets an answer from the Department of Health about what to tell survivors about how to handle bodies. The Department of Ecology need hazmat teams to assess oil spills in the area. 

 

1:30 pm: Oil and Hazmat Coordination Group. US Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department of Natural Resources, and State Department of Ecology meet to coordinate hazmat work.

2:00 pm: Congressional Conference Call

Disaster Manager and others call Washington, Oregon, Idaho, congressional delegations and other Federal partners to give an update of the situation. 

One Washington state congresswoman is concerned about the damage to agriculture. Even though it’s very early in the response, the EOC staff do their best to give some projections to the congresswoman so she can prepare to help her constituents during long-term recovery.

2:30 pm: Power Task Force Meeting review and update strategies for getting the power back on.

3:00 pm: Tactics Meeting

Section chiefs, the State EOC supervisor, representatives from FEMA, the National Guard, and Northern Command (active duty military), meet to discuss tomorrow’s priorities. It takes a long time; there are many task assignments. A list of firefighting resources and contact info is added to the Joint Incident Action Plan. A last minute addition: Pierce county jail needs water and extra patrol. 

 

4:00 pm: Principals Conference Call

The Emergency Management Division Director, Disaster Manager, and agency executives meet to discuss incident status, policy issues, and strategic messaging. 

4:30 pm: UCG Huddle:

Coordinating officers (liaisons) meet to make sure inter-agency coordination is going well. Some state staff are having trouble using the FEMA request form.

5:00 pm: Elected Officials Call

Emergency Management Division Director, Disaster Manager, and the policy group, give an incident update to the Governor’s Chief of Staff and other elected officials. 

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The Disaster Manager with others updates elected officials.

6:00 pm: Planning Meeting

Everyone takes a look at the Joint Incident Action Plan which is a document with all the objectives that the Tactics Meeting approved, assignment lists for tomorrow, contact information, maps, and tomorrow’s meeting schedule. When it’s approved, the document get’s uploaded to the State and FEMA’s online sharing environment where it will guide tomorrow’s work.

7:00 pm: Shift Change

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The SEOC goes through tons of coffee.

Thousands of local, state, and federal staff including many branches of the military have worked all day (and night) to save lives and property. And they’ll do it again tomorrow.


This is a dramatized account of a day in the State Emergency Operation’s Center during a pretend earthquake/tsunami disaster. This account is not real and should not be panicked about. 

Ants Don’t Satisfice.

I stumbled across a new report on ants that is –not to mix metaphors–getting some buzz. Here it is in a nutshell: researcher’s out of Arizona University (and this source says from Japan) painted tiny dots on ants which were the size of a capital I then used timed cameras to take 5 minute snapshots of ant activity. Turns out that about 3% of the ants were always working, 75% of the ants worked about half the time and a full 25% were never working. Researchers postulate that lazy ants are nature’s way of building in some overflow capacity.

Overflow capacity is something that Emergency Managers often have to grapple with– our jobs are a bit “feast and famine” one minute filled with routine, slow moving projects, and the next filled with urgent 24/7 tasks. How fast we are able to fill the sudden and unpredictable work surge caused by a disaster is directly related to how much suffering our community endures. So looking at how ants handle surges in work could be interesting to both emergency and business managers alike focused on being as efficient as possible. Computer Scientists have known for a little while that machines and mechanical systems work better if they have a little surplus capacity built in. Maybe the same is true for humans and human systems. In fact, the benefits of lazy teammates or what sociologists call “social loafing” is coming into vogue in management literature. One notable book is “Slack” which argues in part that some laziness in the system can prevent burnout.

However, if my time in the workforce is any indication, people who are “lazy” will always be lazy. Work surge doesn’t trickle down to the laziest worker who picks up the slack, instead, the non-lazy workers take on the extra work and begin “satisficing” or using shortcuts to satisfy the need with a solution that is sufficient and satisfactory rather than optimal. This is, in practicality, the corollary of Parkinson’s Law which states “work expands to fill the time allotted to it”.

While researching for this topic, I found an archived Economist report from 1955 when (apparently) Parkinson’s Law was new and cool. The author postulates a mathematical formula which calculates the rate of bureaucratic growth and explains why–despite hiring more people–the work never seems to lessen. In fact, in an era when the British empire was contracting slowly over time with fewer ships and fewer colonies to administrate, the number of workers in Whitehall increased by the same rate year after year. (It’s a bit of a cheeky read; I highly recommend it.) The same is true, anecdotally, in America.

So how do you build surplus capacity in your team without allowing the team’s work to expand to fill it with extra, mundane meetings and mountains of meaningless memos? Maybe you don’t. Maybe time-wasting meetings is the computer equivalent of unused RAM. Or maybe you start by re-evaluating your own workload before hiring another assistant. Do you REALLY need one or are you being a lazy ant?

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*Author’s Note* I want to be sympathetic toward many, many private industry workers who are indeed having to do more work with much less as hours and coworkers are cut. Some blame minimum wage raises, some blame Obamacare, and others blame greedy corporations. But that’s a whole different post.

On the Lighter Side: Animals Predict Disasters

I’ve been working diligently on my school work for a while, so haven’t had the time or interest to keep posting. Add to that a TREMENDOUS case of Spring Fever, and you’ve got a girl in the garden instead of at her computer. Since I’m experiencing some crisis/compassion fatigue, so I decided that today’s blog post should be light-hearted. I thought I might share with you some crazy disaster facts for fun, but on the way I found a much better topic. Behold:

The Science of Animals Predicting Disasters:

Does Fluffy know best after all?

In 1979, animals sensing impending doom was a compelling new area of inquiry because of one Chinese city. Four years earlier–1975–Chinese officials, noticing strange animal behavior ordered the evacuation of the very large city of Haicheng. Indeed, a 6.7 earthquake did strike and despite the “uneven” evacuation (according to this article), thousands of lives were saved. This was so exciting that scientists got together to talk about it. And they produced this paper summarizing everything the community knew about animal predictions:

Abstract_animals predict earthquakes

Notice the optimistic ending: “It is hoped that precursory animal behavior may eventually be better understood, to the point that it may one day be used as a reliable seismic precursor.”

Unfortunately, in the excitement, the story was colored a little. While it’s true that odd animal behavior encouraged Chinese officials to evacuate the town, what finally convinced them were foreshocks which damaged a few buildings. (A foreshock is just like an aftershock only before the earthquake).

So what do we know now? How far has Animal Predict-ology come from 1979. Let’s see…

In the end, it’s much more reliable to use actual measuring instruments to predict earthquakes. Still…I suppose if you see Fluffy heading for the hills, you should turn on the news.

PS: I highly recommend you peruse that 1979 conference paper. It’s only 13 pages long and it has gems like this:

Table 2_Animals predict earthquake
It’s trying so hard to be unbiased.

Further Reading:

  • National Geographic article
  • Article from the Telegraph about a more recent proposal for using toads to predict Earthquakes. Has a video! Also, the citation for today’s featured image.