Hope Dogs in the EOC: Comfort in times of crisis

cascadiarising_banner1
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.

SAMSUNG CSC
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.”

Pickles Oso
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.

SAMSUNG CSC

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.

 

Advertisements

Further Reading: Cascadia Rising in the News

cascadiarising_banner1

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.

Here’s some articles I found with another perspective on Cascadia Rising.

  • FEMA Headquarters did a fun live-blog for the duration. They asked bloggers from different areas of the response to post photos and write a few sentences. (Yours truly was featured a couple of times, too.)
  • A very thorough account of how an earthquake/tsunami would affect the Puget Sound area as well as details about the players in Tacoma. Check out the beautiful map.
  • A story done about the Navy and National Guard practicing in the field with real paratroop drops, docking vessels, and helicopter fly-overs. I was told that both the military and national guard were doing their own training concurrently with Cascadia Rising, but I was unable to ask more about it. Glad to have seen this story to get another perspective!
  • Really  nice overview of the exercise with quotes from around the state and beautiful pictures from the Seattle Times.
  • More details about National Guard maneuvers on Vashon Island and an interesting tidbit on how the local radio station also played along with the Exercise.
  • The Navy and Coastguard practice building docks to deliver supplies at Port Townsend, Port Angeles and others. During this kind of event, one of the best ways to deliver help will be via water. The military has both super cool tech and super cool expertise.
  • Behind the scenes look at a county Emergency Operations Center. Another facet I was unable to see first hand. Interesting!
  • The National Guard build tent city in Mason County. Governor Inslee visits.
  • Describing Idaho’s involvement.

Cascadia in the News

Preliminarry Lessons Learned and After Action Reports

General Info about Earthquakes and Tsunamis in this area

Preparedness Links:

When Coms are Down (who you gonna call?)

cascadiarising_banner1
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.

As a Communication’s major, I was never really that interested in communication technologies (except for Twitter. Those case studies are super cool). Then, one day, I married an IT guy. Over the years, I’ve picked up enough geek-speak that when I passed by some funky looking antenna, I was a) curious and b) able to appear somewhat competent to the person explaining them to me. Here’s what I learned (stay with me, it’s super interesting):


During the first day of the Cascadia Rising Exercise, 2016, the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) pretended that it had lost phones and internet. The SEOC floor was quiet and sluggish. People prepped paperwork, anticipating the flood of need when the phone lines came up. A few people were using cell phones and satellite phones to get information about the disaster from the counties (called “situational awareness” or sometimes “ground truth”).

Across the hall, the ham radio operators were hunched in close to their speakers trying to distinguish fuzzy connections. These volunteers are part of RACES (rhymes with trees), Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service which activates to help in an emergency. The “amateur” in their name is a reference to the FCC’s designation of the band of radio waves they use; NOT a reference to their skill level. These guys are pros.

If being without phones and internet is distressful normally, imagine being responsible for disaster response without any way to easily connect to your field teams. That’s why getting coms up is first priority for disaster managers. The military (and some civilian companies) have developed ultra-light gear that can be set up for immediate connection.

The Beachball or the “Gatr”

FEMA has brought an inflatable satellite in the shape of a 6 ft white ball. The “dish” itself is merely a reflective fabric on the inside of the ball while the skinny LNB arm juts out of the ball a few inches. The pressure of the air and the round shape of the ball keeps the dish in the correct parabolic shape while also keeping it at the right focusing distance (according to the manufacturer’s website). The whole thing fits in two to four storage-bin sized chests and can be working in about 6 hours. Most of that time is spent trying to manually find the satellite connection. The ball has to be tethered down in  8 spots to keep it from rocking or shifting in the wind. The manufacturer claims that the round shape actually makes it more stable in the wind. Still, one FEMA tech guy admits he far prefers the MERS or Mobile Emergency Response System because the satellites lock automatically. It was probably better before they switched satellite providers, he tells me. Even so, the beach ball can provide cheap high-bandwith to a mobile team fairly quickly and with very light equipment. Ideal for first responders. Theoretically, you could air drop it into impassable areas.

Fun fact: Gatr is the name of the company that sells them.

The Portable KU-band Satellite Dish: A bit larger and set up nearby is a portable ground-mounted satellite dish. It takes a bit longer to set up and fits in twice as many cases. But seems to serve a few more people.

MERS: Mobile Emergency Response System. An office on wheels

The MERS that the FEMA tech prefers is a small camper with a satellite dish on top. Inside is all the telecommunications equipment you might want: VOIP (internet phones), wifi, radios, and video/audio equipment. A tiny conference table in the middle seats 4 with more work spaces along the counter. The truck can provide 40 people in a building nearby with phone or internet or provide 10 people working in the truck with phones AND internet. The truck can be loaded onto a Boeing-137 or C-5 plane for transport into disaster areas. While it is more stable and a little more powerful, it also requires cleared roads. The military has a similar vehicle (see second left).

051003-F-4466M-002
The MERS trucks can drive right onto a C-5 like this one and be dropped off near disaster areas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Miller)

 

Cell Trucks

SAMSUNG CSC
A Sprint truck deploys in the Cascadia Rising Exercise. Many cell service providers routinely practice with disaster personnel.

Of the same size as the MERS are a variety of “cell on light trucks”. All the cell providers have mobile teams who deploy to disaster zones with these trucks in order to re-establish cell service while their permanent cell towers are being fixed. The truck deploys a 70 ft antenna and a satellite dish supported by a generator that can run for 1-2 weeks depending on how hot it is. The equipment inside the truck needs to be kept cool, so much of the generator fuel is used for that. The truck can support about 600 simultaneous users which is about the capability of a regular cell tower. Also, many of the the cell providers–according to Sprint–bring phones to the disaster area. They can pre-load contacts and provide them to field agents who can then use them to edit and share maps, communicate with search and rescue personnel, send and receive email, etc.

The best of the best is spelled JISCC. The Joint Incident Site Communications Capability.

The JISCC (rhymes with wisk) is run by the National Guard and represents the pinnacle of ability. It was the spidery JISCC antenna that I had spotted deployed on a strip of land and which piqued my curiosity. I felt especially honored and grateful to be given a guided tour of the whole operation (special thanks to a major who wishes to remain anonymous who gave me over an hour of his time). Unfortunately, I was only able to get photos of the outside of the JISCC. I will do my best to describe the inside.

The JISCC does everything. Twice. First, I was shown a tiny closet where a young airman hunched over a box with 6 inch screen in the lid and buttons and wires all inside it. That grainy picture, I was told, was the feed from the helicopter flying over the (pretend) disaster area. The National Guard command was working with the state to get visuals of different areas to guide search and rescue or assess damage. The JISCC was helping to collect that video. The helicopter camera was equipped with infrared so that we could use it at night.

Next, I was shown the main room where about 6 Guardsman (not including the lonely airman in the closet) worked on folding tables next to racks of equipment in a very cool room. In one corner was a chest high cabinet of radios. All kinds of radios: HF, VHF, UHF. The radios have cross-band repeaters for better range. Two guardsmen fiddled with dials trying to clear up the signal from the Puget Sound area. The radios can also talk to cell phones. Handy, I think. You can even send email over the radio, he tells me. I look dubiously at him. It sounds like a fax, he says, and on the other end, you have a computer which translates it into words again for you. This is one kind of interoperability that the National Guard strives for: communication between different kinds of technology.

On the wall to the left was a bank of routers for phones and computers. The JISCC brings light laptops and other equipment so you could conceivably talk to anyone on anything.

Outside, it’s 90 degrees; uncomfortably hot for us northwesterners. That’s one of the benefits of working in the JISCC, my guide says, laughing. The equipment has to stay cool, so you stay cool too. We walk over to a cordoned off area and he points out the antenna one by one.

 

SAMSUNG CSC
Front: the antenna receives helicopter feed for the National Guard. Back right: the pole supports thin wires which collect HF radio waves.

The stico (named after it’s manufacturer) is an interoperable RF antenna. There’s also a VHF/UHF antenna, and a satellite dish which automatically finds the satellite. It’s point and shoot, he says. Just set it and go. The especially tall one with the funny spikes is the antenna receiving the helicopter feed. Next to it is a pole with wires attached to a tree and the ground. The wires are the antenna, he tells me, not the pole like you might think. It receives HF radio and this design makes it extremely light and packable.

A few steps away is the trailer and truck that all this goes on. It’s surprisingly small. In the field, the trailer can be set up with all the radio and router equipment from inside and air conditioned to keep it cool. I see a few fold-up chairs left in the truck. The whole thing can be loaded onto a C-130 and only needs a 6 person team. They’re currently thinking about ways the equipment can be air-dropped to affected areas. The only trouble is: if they drop it and wheels can’t get to it, then you’re stuck. And if wheels could get to it, why would you need to drop it?

My guide recalled how the National Guard JISCC team was called up last summer during the fires. The fireman had brought their own equipment to their base camp (an actual campground) but discovered that they were stuck in a valley. Their line-of -site satellite phones and radios didn’t work. They needed the National Guard’s communications support. They also found that having email and a fax machine on base was extremely helpful for organizing firefighter schedules and payment. 

“What’s the one thing you wish you could tell people.” I asked him. He paused squinting into the bright, unblemished sky. “We provide communication capability to people who are coming to help you,” he replied. 

As I walked back toward the cool, dark of the SEOC, I couldn’t help but be very grateful to the engineers, IT guys, and other geeky types who designed, ran, and maintained this equipment. From the individual volunteer HAM operators, to the portable satellites, the heavier MERS teams, and private cell trucks, to the wonderfully robust National Guard JISCC: all are important pieces to the response network. We couldn’t do it without them.

A (Theoretical) Day in the Life of the EOC

cascadiarising_banner1

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. 


SAMSUNG CSC
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.

SAMSUNG CSC
FEMA arrives with their own communications equipment.

9:00 am: State Emergency Management Declaration Meeting

SAMSUNG CSC
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?

SAMSUNG CSC
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? 

SAMSUNG CSC
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. 

SAMSUNG CSC
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

SAMSUNG CSC
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. 

The People of Cascadia Rising

cascadiarising_banner1

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.

Here is only a very small sampling of the 20,000 participants spread across three states and federal and military headquarters. These people were found in the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the surrounding campus. Mouse over the pictures to see more.

Cascadia Rising: Preamble

cascadiarising_banner1
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.


This blog series brought to you by the miraculous power of asking.

Unfortunately (according to some), I have been plagued since childhood by an innate desire to please people and bred by my mother’s perfect politeness to not get in the way. But through rigorous training administered by the loving type-A personalities in my life, I can now force myself to  knock softly on someone’s cubicle door–interrupting their day (gasp!)–and ask for something (double gasp!) with something approaching dignity and cheer.

That is how, via a terrifyingly casual handshake, I was introduced to Mr. Ed Taylor and Mr. Lit Dudley who are (more or less) in charge of Cascadia Rising 2016 Exercise. And how, after being brave, I was able to join the Controller Group which helps to administer the exercise, and how, after being even braver, I will be allowed to take photos and document the whole thing from start to finish.

20160602_155856

Well, perhaps not from the very, very start. Cascadia Rising is a regional-wide earthquake and tsunami simulation which Taylor et al have been planning for two years. It involves around 20,000 players from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho including participants from Federal, county, tribal, and city agencies, and stand-a-lone businesses like hospitals, Amazon, the Red Cross, Northwest Natural Gas, Amtrak, etc. People from Alaska, California, FEMA, University of Washington, and South America are coming to observe how the players run this 4-day disaster simulation.

The exercise is named after the Cascadia fault off the Northwest coast. You might remember it from this post. Cascadia subduction zone2.The Cascadia Rising planners created a scenario in which a 9.0 magnitude “full-rip” earthquake along the 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) fault causes subsequent tsunamis and aftershock which impact the Washington and Oregon coastline. They will deliver the “news” of this earthquake to the players across the region via simulated USGS maps and video. Then, the participants will have to respond. Local damages based on scientific projections have been pre-planned and each local controller is in charge of telling the players about outages or damages. For example (and hypothetically, since “ground truth” is a secret to the players), a county near the coast might discover that their local cell phone tower has been damaged, meaning cell phones are out as a means of contacting damage assessors in the field.

I’ll be stationed in Washington State’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) which will activate 107 state agency staff and 101 federal staff per shift. I’m looking forward to this station because the states are the conduit between local jurisdictions and federal partners. I will be at the hub of information processing, decision making, and direction giving. I can’t wait to see it all!

I hope you’ll join me for an inside look at an activated EOC this June.

 

Researcher on the Road: Survivability

Yesterday, we stopped in on our friends at the Washington State Emergency Management Division at Camp Murray.

20150515_150435

They graciously gave us a tour of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and it was So. Cool. Downstairs, it’s dark and empty and very quiet. The whole bottom floor is dedicated to disaster management. There’s cubicles where the search and rescue teams sit, there’s a tiny kitchen, lots of binders, files, and posters filed neatly. If you turn left you’ll see an assuming door entering into the main, super-cool part.

EOC proper looks like a modern version of the Mission Control room in Apollo 13. Giant screens line one wall (tuned to CNN or a slide show presentation as needed, I’m told). 5 tvs sit side by side in each corner of the room. Giant whiteboards have today’s wi-fi password on it and big, clean spaces ready for writing. Maps of all sorts serve as functional decoration on free surfaces. Way, way up there’s windows looking down on us. That’s the Planning Room where the state authorities and FEMA have a birds-eye view.

Desks are broken up into pods, but don’t have any cubicle walls to impede communication. I could imagine people milling about and shouting across the room to one another. But maybe there’s more decorum during a disaster than that.

None of these people were here when I visited. This is "activated" status.
None of these people were here when I visited. This is “activated” status.

Opposite the giant screens on the one side are several rooms. One is a super secret communications room that we’re not allowed to see. A few look like nondescript offices. And the largest one sprawling importantly in the middle is the Alert and Warning Center (AWC). It’s the only room on the whole floor with anyone in it today, it seems like.

WA state AWC
WA state AWC. Sorry for the substandard pic. It’s pretty dim in there!

It’s staffed, I’m told, 24/7 and is responsible for monitoring the entire state for trouble. I’m shown the computers with steady green dots on a map–tsunami detectors off the coast. Nearby are lahar monitors, muted CNN on tv’s, maps, equipment I don’t understand, and–in the center–a little tabletop shelf where all of the state’s procedures are laid open. The AWC serves as the primary warning point for everything including: civil disturbances, earthquakes, forest fires, dam failure, floods, severe weather, lahars, landslides, HazMat incidents, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, and radiological accidents. So there’s a lot on that little tabletop shelf.

The building itself, I discovered–as we were ushered reluctantly out–is build on “base isolators” or giant bearings that sit in a concrete bowl shaped like a tiny half-pipe. Base Isolators let the building stay straight up instead of swaying and toppling during an earthquake. (Left pic courtesy of 21Century Builders. Right, courtesy KPFF Consulting Engineers who built the WA state EOC isolators and discuss it here.)

The official FAQ sheet I picked up on my way out says that the “building [was] designed…with the primary goal of survivability, particularly in the event of an earthquake. Building designed to continue to operate with minimal damage following a 1000 year earthquake” (italics/bold in original). A “1000 year earthquake” refers to the size  of the earthquake and the probability of it’s occurring, not the duration. It’s so big that we have to talk about it’s chances of happening in thousands of years. Cities, for example, often plan for a “100 year flood” which is a flood with 1% chance of happening in any given year. (Here’s more if you want to understand the math of that.) So a 1000 year earthquake is a really devastating one. This building will stand when everything around it is completely gone. And the people in it will still be working at saving lives from the rubble.

That’s somehow comforting, no?

Researcher on the Road: Step One

I have joined up with strangers from New Zealand and run away to the coast.

We drove many hours through city traffic, beautiful rain forest, and blooming marshland.
We drove many hours through city traffic, beautiful rain forest, and blooming marshland.

Drs. Johnston and Orchiston from Massey University in New Zealand are studying tsunami risk perception on the Washington State coast and I and Kimberley Cowrin (Geology student from Boise State) are helping. They’ve come all the way here because New Zealand has a very similar fault and socio-economic population who are also thinking about tsunami mitigation. (Anyone remember the NZ Christchurch earthquake? It’s what we like to call a “focusing event”.)

Washington State, Oregon, and California are putting together a joint earthquake-tsnunami disaster drill ominously called “Cascadia Rising” and I want to know the people who are participating. So I came too. Besides, I should learn how research works, no?

While the Cascadia Rising drill and this research project aren’t really connected, they are studying the same scenario and involve a few of the same people.

Here it is: Washington et al sit on the North American Plate while most of the Pacific Ocean sits on the Pacific Plate. There’s a tiny Juan de Fuca plate in the middle getting squished and pushing under the North American Plate.

The Juan de Fuca plate is an oceanic plate which is denser and smaller so it's getting pushed under the North American Plate.
The little black arrows on the map point to which plate is going on top. Volcanoes form on the top plate, so you can remember how to read the map by thinking of the little black arrows as volcanoes. Pic courtesy of Cascadia Earthquake Work Group. who explains this all in more detail.

The Juan de Fuca plate is an oceanic plate which is denser and smaller so it’s getting pushed under the North American Plate. That area with the black arrows is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They say that eventually a large earthquake will hit there just off the coast and cause a tsunami. Unfortunately, it will all happen so fast that the authorities won’t have time to sound the tsunami alarms, so people who live on the coast have to know that if there’s shaking, they move to higher ground whether they hear warnings or not. So we’re running focus groups to see whether these small towns know these things or not.

We've been at the Long Beach and South Beach communities so far.
We’ve been at the Long Beach and South Beach communities so far. Pic courtesy of Wa Coast tourism.

The towns are small and double or triple in size during peak tourist season. There’s clam digging, kyacking, fishing, shopping, beaching, and more. The towns are also built on sand which will most likely sink and flood during an earthquake. (Sinking, flooding, and liquefaction are all a little different, but all amount to impassable roads).

This is an
This is an “Inundation Map” which scientists use to show how far the tsunami water might come up. Pic courtesy of Esri geohazards maps.

Unfortunately, some people might have to travel 30 or more miles to a safe zone on roads which may not exist after an earthquake. Most of the all-year residents are elderly. All of this makes for a pretty gnarly problem (as our So. Cal friends say). In fact, many people we talked to cited a wide ranging apathy about tsunami evacuation. As one retiree said, the last time the alarms sounded, we went to the bar and had a drink. Where were we going to go?

There’s a tension in Emergency Management between delivering realistic, sobering information and frightening the public into nihilism. When people believe their actions don’t matter, they won’t take any (as the retiree so playfully illustrated). We talked to many civilian activists committed to changing that perspective in their community.

Inevitably, as we share these facts, someone in the focus group will say, “then what’s the point? It sounds like we’re all dead no matter what we do.” Then Dr. Johnston will lean forward and share the story about a study that was done on the most recent Japanese tsunami. Every step taken upwards or inland reduces your risk, he says. Sure, you might not outrace “The Big One”, but it might not be the big one this time. You can never tell. And since Tsunami waves reduce in size and power exponentially the further in land they get, you could maybe outrun this one. If you got up. Every step makes a difference, he says.  A few people nod to themselves.

Later, I stand around with our host Emergency Manager watching our focus group filing out. Sometimes, he says, if you can reach just one person, you’ve made a real difference. If you can reach one person then maybe they collect a Go Bag, and maybe they start telling their neighbors about how to prepare, and maybe they can help others when they do reach the high ground. That’s all you can do, he says shrugging. Get them one at a time.