Why 9-1-1 Can’t Save You

John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” (May 15, 2015) described the state of our 911 call grid. Much like the blog I wrote about the state of American infrastructure, our emergency response capabilities are crumbling.

  1. Most call centers have inaccurate maps and/or can’t trace cell phone locations causing them to struggle to find many victims. The FCC estimates that improved locating software might save as many as 10, 120 lives annually (3:00). Indeed, 10-95% of cell phone users run the risk of not being found in a timely manner (4:23). This is even more alarming given the fact that the Red Cross estimates that 74% of adults expect help to arrive in under 3 hours after sending a tweet.
  2. We don’t have a national or–in some cases–even a state-wide 911 response system. Each county or jurisdiction is responsible for handling their own 911 calls which makes for an extremely fragmented system (6:53). In some areas, neighboring call centers can’t meaningfully talk to one another; obviously, a big problem in a disaster.
  3. Furthermore, several states don’t have a call center at all. For instance, Washington State’s 911 calls get routed to Colorado. This is often par for the course with internet and enterprise technology, but when there was an outage at the Colorado center (April 10, 2014), Washington did not have a back up. The center was down for 3 hours and Washington lost 4,300 calls, some of which resulted in death.
  4. Call centers don’t have very modern IP networks (8:08), instead they mainly use outdated, hardwired phones (like from the ’70s). An IP network allows computers to talk to one another either in a private network (sharing files between your phone and your computer) or in a public one (the internet). Updating would allow call centers to receive text messages, social media messages, and videos besides allowing for a more robust, resilient system. Oliver makes the point that video or text could be life saving in situations like domestic violence where a phone call is too conspicuous. Emergency Managers additionally know that in a disaster, text messages often get through the crowded phone lines easier than phone calls do.
  5. Most call centers are underfunded and understaffed (9:33) which means that victims may have to wait on the line for the next operator or that the call center can’t upgrade their mapping or cellular tech.
  6. Compounding the problem is rising call volume (10:44) because of the ubiquity of cell phones and butt dials. 911 call centers simply cannot handle normal, daily call volumes; during a disaster they will be absolutely drowned. As this CBS report points out: wireless carriers have the technology to support connectivity during a disaster. The problem continues to be the overwhelmed 911 call centers.

Oliver sums up his report with “…until we’re explicitly confronted with the challenges facing 911, it seems we’re not going to do anything about them” (13:31). But I, like you, don’t wish people to die in order for change to happen.


Good public spaces make resilient communities

I happened upon two separate videos last week that changed my perspective on urban planning.

Ew, urban planning sounds boring…

I used to think that too. I thought that urban planning was about deciding where to put housing and how to add an overpass. But it turns out that it’s much more than that. It’s the philosophy of how people use space. And–as it turns out– how we use space has many implications for our lives such as:

  • Subjective happiness
  • Freedom of choice
  • Ability to withstand disasters
  • Global warming
  • Health and safety
  • Economies

Most of us live in places we don’t care about.

James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk is a highly amusing look at what’s gone wrong in America’s urban design–especially suburbia. He takes Boston’s City Hall Plaza as a good example.


And on the other side of the building…

TED talk: 9:02
TED talk: 9:02

And that’s just in urban centers. Suburbia is so much worse. Kunstler calls it a “cartoon” of the country. My brother calls it the “worst of both worlds” because you can’t be self-sufficient as in the country, but you can’t walk to everything you need as in the city. But what can be done about it? Kunstler has some ideas:

Bad design = bad life

Besides being ugly, our badly designed cities are making us sick. Dr. Karen Lee (below)–a public health specialist–says “We’ve inadvertently designed physical activity out of our lives” which costs us money both as individuals and as a society.

Courtesy of Upworthy
Courtesy of Upworthy

She goes on to say,

“In the 19th century and early 20th century, our leading causes of death were infections diseases–diseases like cholera, like tuberculosis. And the way that we that we actually defeated those diseases was through city design. We created sanitation infrastructure, clean water systems. Today, we’ve got a different set of diseases. The way we need to…think about defeating those diseases is actually analogous to our past” (4:59+)

Because our cities are designed for cars. Not people. 

Cars are environmentally unfriendly, take up a TON of space, and force us to use space in an isolated, sedentary fashion.

Courtesy of Planetizen
Courtesy of Planetizen

Think about how hard it is to get into your favorite city: the traffic, the parking, planning around errand locations and rush hours. Now, think about how hard it is to get around in your favorite city: the noise, more traffic, one-way streets, overpasses…

Courtesy Upworthy
Courtesy Upworthy

Now… notice how this city is in this video is set up. [Side note: a quick summary of this video can be found at Upworthy where the two gifs above were taken. Also, Brent Toderian, our tour guide in the video, writes the Planetizen blog from which I took the vintage metro pic above. Lots of really good stuff on his blog and Twitter.)

So what?

What does good public spaces have to do with emergency management?

  • Living locally is easier on our psychology (says Kunstler)
  • Exchanging acres of asphalted parking spaces for useable land (maybe an urban forest which boosts self-sufficiency?)
    • decreases ambient heat build up (which cools a city, reduces energy spent on cooling people, and returns the ecosystem to a normal temperature),
    • and helps with flood management (all that rain water can get into the ground now instead of rushing over the top of miles of asphalt).
  • When your community has a “sense of place” you slow down (as Toderian points out) and get to know your neighbors. Your neighbors are the people who will help you rebuild after a disaster. Communities who are socially interconnected are more resilient.

Resilient communities might start with a space that is worth caring about.

On Empowerment

I’ve been thinking lately about my role as a humanitarian and–separately (until now)–my status in society as a white female from America. As a white, upper-middle class American, I am incredibly rich (though I often forget that) and have incredible opportunity to achieve my potential. I am one of the privileged few who can do more than exist. I will be more than a subsistence farmer, or a minimum wage worker. My job will impact society. I have power–and more importantly–the ability to grow that power through education, experience, and careful financial investments.

Today, I head a sermon which struck a chord with me–a young professional on the verge of my career. Pastor John McLarty of the Green Lake Church in Seattle was speaking on the passage in John 13:1-17 where Jesus washes his disciples feet. (You can see the video below.) He makes the point that by washing his disciples feet, Jesus was subverting his disciples understanding of status. As Pastor John summarizes, Jesus was saying, “Pour your status into others and you will be happy.” Pour your status into others….. an interesting turn of phrase. Pastor John goes on to describe people like kings and church leaders who pour their energy into keeping their power. How their subject suffer when kings won’t share their power with others.

So what happens when you share your status? You empower others. You give them the agency you enjoy. You make the world a better place. That’s what a humanitarian should be. I think I–as a privileged, educated American–have the responsibility to wield my power carefully. I should share my status with those that have none. I will not be afraid that my power and status will evaporate and leave me destitute because I will remember that God promised to give me strength and joy in return. Perhaps then, something good will come from White Privilege.

(begin at 30:13. I suggest you watch the whole sermon (about 20 minutes) because he says more good stuff that I didn’t talk about here.)

Evacuating Immobile Patients Down Stairs

Recently one of my friends who works at an independent living facility called my attention to the difficulties of private businesses who don’t necessarily have plans for getting frail or immobile patients down flights of stairs (even just one) without an elevator in an emergency. She was expressing frustration for her position because–as an outside contractor–she doesn’t know very much of the facility’s emergency plan or whether they even have one and doesn’t feel like she can tell her employers to get into shape.

Several good resources for individuals AND businesses

First thing: If you’re in a similar position, it’s always ok to ask questions or bring a safety issue–even a hypothetical one–to the fore. If you care for special populations like children, the elderly, or people with other special needs, then you need to know what to do in an emergency–that’s your job. Don’t be afraid to kick some butts over things like this. Because the last thing you want is Grandma suffocating in a house fire because the facility didn’t have a plan.

Second thing: Nursing homes and other facilities are required by law to have some kind of emergency plan. Generally, the evacuation procedures are more fleshed out the sicker the residents. Hospitals, for instance, train regularly and can invest in cool stair wheelchairs (technically called “evacuation chairs”). However, sometimes residents decompensate as they get older or gain weight. Meaning that just because they can live on their own, doesn’t mean it’s easy for them to get down stairs or to get their oxygen etc downstairs. Or they can simply have a surgery that inhibits their mobility. (Hip surgery anyone?)

So here are some links to get you started:

* If you don’t know the state of your business’s preparedness. Take this 10 min Ready Rating self-assessment from the Red Cross. I watched a few businesses in my city go through the process and it wasn’t that painful and SUPER helpful.

* This guide from hcPro is a quick read and gives easy instructions on when to decide to evacuate, how to evacuate, etc.

* Invest in some equipment. Do some research–there’s all sorts of things that are affordable. You’re not stuck with expensive electric chair lifts. Here’s a whole bunch of videos to pique you’re interest:

And I simply can’t resist this 1950s Nurse’s training video. Please NOTE: most instructors will tell you NOT to do these carry’s because you could hurt yourself. This is true–people are a lot heavier today than they used to be. But, I thought it would be interesting to show you some history of evacuation. (Besides, knowledge is power, eh?)

Did you find anything helpful during your research? Share them with the class below!

Disaster & Development: Joy Sun on TED

Development is inextricably intertwined with Emergency Management

In my last post, I mentioned a little bit about how Emergency Management is affected by different fields–especially Development. It turns out that the people most vulnerable to disasters are often the poorest people because they can’t afford to live in safe areas or in safe homes. On the other side of the coin, when disasters do strike an area, the disaster often damages the poor household more than the rich one. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you are a very poor tenant farmer in Africa. You can’t afford to live on the high-quality land, so you have to tend rockier soil on a hillside. You have one donkey with which to plow and a mud hut. Over the years, more and more people have cut down more and more trees so now, when a heavy rain hits, the water rushes down the slopes unimpeded and washes your crops away (and the top inch of soil which is the best part. So now the soil will yield even less and you will have to clear more trees in order to get enough profit to survive. But that’s a sustainability problem.) Without those crops, you will starve this winter, so you have to sell your donkey in order to survive. Furthermore, part of your mud hut was damaged.The next spring, you don’t have a donkey so you can’t till as much so you don’t harvest as much so you are even less secure than you were. The next flood might kill you. (As it is, you might have to pull your children out of school–if they were lucky enough to go–so that they can help you farm. And an illiterate family has more problems down the road. That’s a different kind of development problem.)  Meanwhile, your slightly richer neighbor–who has two oxen which are much better at plowing and a cement house instead of a mud hut is left with an undamaged house and perhaps one ox instead of no donkey. Which is a much better place to be.

Disasters and development feed each other. For better or worse.
Disasters and development feed each other. For better or worse.

These principles can be scaled up to country or regional levels. A poor government often can’t invest in good public infrastructure like high-quality dams, more hospitals, or public awareness campaigns. They might struggle to house the poorest of the poor or refugees or provide security for their citizenry. (Refugees are a whole ‘nother deeply vulnerable population that we can talk about later. Violence profoundly affects both development and crisis management).

So what does that have to do with this video you posted?

Traditionally, development and humanitarian aid has been of the “teach a man to fish” variety. For good reason. Professional aid supported by donors (like you or even banks and countries) builds or props up needed infrastructure like wells, clinics, vaccines, family planning, education, and food security. These are things that don’t get done if you simply give cash to poor people.

But, research is beginning to favor micro-investments, direct cash donations, and the like. It turns out that poor people who receive cash overwhelmingly use it to better their lives. They do not drink or smoke it away. They do not buy luxuries, like we have thought for so many years.

[I’m sure you can think of someone from your neighborhood who is on food stamps and just bought a new car. I can too. But those people aren’t the extremely chronic poor that we’re talking about. There will always be abusers of the system. But there will always be people who need a little outside help too. (Personally, I find it easier to let God or the Universe or someone else judge between them.) But let’s leave that argument to the side for now.]

Here is an experienced aid worker describing how direct cash transfers can be better than third-party directed aid. 1. Families buy what they really need (not what you think they need)–like maternity care or home improvements (which make them less vulnerable to calamity). 2. Much lower administrative costs mean more money gets to the users. 3. Cash infusions are often better than donations. This is true during disasters too. People like the Red Cross and your local disaster coordinator would much rather receive cash than donated clothing because we can use the cash to buy exactly what we need (like lumber or satellite phones for rescue teams or pens) and we can buy it from local businesses (which help them recover). Supporting local business has been proven again and again in both development and disasters to be of critical help.

Note, she also makes the point that we can’t give up the third-party directed aid. Families won’t buy the equipment to make vaccines or HIV blood tests; we will always need to encourage public infrastructure. But, we should not neglect the human. He and she are the most able to decide what he and she need.