Hope Dogs in the EOC: Comfort in times of crisis

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.

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.


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.


Researcher on the Road: Sneaky Resilience

Read the first in this series here for some context.

While we went to the coast to talk to citizens about what they knew about Tsunami preparedness, we ended up talking a great deal to our fellow Emergency Managers (EMs) and hazard scientists (i.e. geographers, seismologists, meteorologists, etc who specifically study disasters). Much like veterans, we shared stories and groused about our common difficulties.

A common difficulty for EMs is funding. There’s never enough money for mitigation projects (like building a vertical evacuation tower where it’s needed or creating a cache of emergency supplies for the community), especially in smaller communities which a) don’t have much money and b) want to invest the money they do have in other problem areas like industry or housing.

Creative Commons via PSD
Creative Commons via PSD

Another (related) common difficulty for EMs is generating support for preparedness. It’s really, really hard–we’ve found–to get people to do anything about disasters. Humans are expert procrastinators and it’s hard to get worked up about something which might happen especially when current problems exist (like no industry or housing). And let’s face it, disasters are pretty much the vegetable of our world: important, but not that much fun to think about. When (blessedly) a few people in the community do take an interest and do some advocacy or preparedness work, EMs are over the moon. But inevitably, these little groups fall away. Though they are powerful forces for good, they are fragile and easy to dissipate after a while. So how can we get them to stick around?

It turns out that the solution is the same to these two problems. More than one EM and hazard scientists said the same thing. You have to embed preparedness into the fabric of the community. There’s two ways to do that. First, you design everything you build to be dual use. For instance, at the Long Beach and Ocean Shores areas, there are no paths up the hills for foot evacuation. Instead of building an evacuation path (a low priority for most people), build a walking path for visitors and residence who like to hike. Add nature signs and little benches next to stunning viewpoints. Tourists would love that. Residents would love that. And–as long as the path ran up hill–EMs would love that. Tourism is the honey on our resiliency-carrots. It makes it go down easy.

Secondly, you embed preparedness into the fabric of the community by using standing institutions to spread your message. Single-purpose fledgling groups are hard to maintain because they have few resources, few connections, high turnover, and too many other external pressures. Libraries, however, will always be around. Every community needs a hospital. Schools and churches crop up naturally wherever there’s people. These kinds of institutions are long lasting and serve a broader purpose. By doing so, they have access to lots and lots of people and more resources. So they make a powerful voice for preparedness advocacy. In one group, we had two librarians from two different, sister libraries. They had hosted some preparedness events and wanted to know how to help more. They felt strongly that their constituents needed tsunami evacuation information and had the power to make that happen for us.

These concepts–I’ve noticed–aren’t that much different from environmentalism ones. We use an old cottage cheese container to plant seeds in. Why can’t we make a hiking path serve as an evacuation route? We’ve also seen this in fitness and weight loss programs. The weight stays off when your exercise becomes embedded into the rest of your habits. A community is like that too. It needs resilience to be a part of every choice, not an alternative choice. We need to sneak it into community development like Mom snuck vegetables in to our lasagna.

When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.
When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.

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.

Venn Diagram of Awesome: What Environmentalists, Activists, and I Have in Common

A while ago, I posted this blog about how the life-hacking community has a lot in common with Emergency Managers (we both have an attitude of self-sufficiency.) Then I posted my perspective on social activism (I’m for it.). Now I want to talk about what Emergency Managers (and preppers) have in common with environmentalists. (Hint: It’s a lot).

Emergency Management operates at the junctions between the environment, the community, and the individual
Emergency Management operates at the junctions between the environment, the community, and the individual

Short Term

Social justice. Often it seems like people who care about the environment also care about equality issues. People are uniquely linked to the health of the environment and disasters expose the strength of this link. When, for instance, coffee farmers cut down the Rainforest to plant coffee plants, they expose the topsoil to heavy rains which wash away the nutrient-rich top soil. This leads to successively poorer crops which causes hungry farmers to cut down more Rainforest. Furthermore the rains–unchecked by strong trees–causes extreme flooding, much more than would’ve happened before the trees were cut , causing farmers to lose their homes and crops. Which, in turn, causes the country to become vulnerable to famine. Worsening cycles like this one are why we try to buy fair-trade crops and crafts. These situations are a good example of the synergistic mix between social and environmental issues. Disasters just bring these issues to salience.

Bangladesh slum dwellers find helping the poor makes everyone more resilient.

Medium Term

How well a community withstands a disaster is directly related to how well it has treated the local environment. A common example: if you fill watershed areas with dirt and pour concrete over it and the surrounding hills, you will get flooding. If you develop along coastlines, not only do you put more people in harm’s way, but you also erode the beach and damage the protective corals causing storm surges and tidal waves to travel farther inland than they would have before (we’re looking at you, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana). If you cut down forests and plow up grass, wind storms or flooding can carry away the top soil and damage both the recuperation power of the area and cause algea blooms in the ocean where all the nutrient-rich top soil dropped (Ahem, Dust Bowl). This might lead to a bad harvest and starvation (back to social justice again).

Bali fisherman switch from fishing with cyanide (which bleaches coral) to other methods.

Long Term

Global warming is making disasters both more frequent and stronger. First world countries’ infrastructures are also getting (a little) better, but this is not true for third world countries. The worsening storms and unchecked development is causing more and more people to be vulnerable. Island nations are eroding away. African farmers can’t find enough water to give their plants. War is damaging the land and local economy. Refugees stress host nations. No one has enough money to migrate. There’s no where to put them if they could. All of this long-term suffering makes it harder for people to withstand disasters when they do strike. And since they’re striking more frequently, they can hardly recover before the next one comes. I’ve already discussed this here, so I won’t go on.

Climate change has made flooding much worse in Vietnam. A better dam helps.

Take Care of the Environment and it Will Take Care of You

’nuff said.

“Growing Pains”: History’s Theory of Everything

There’s a huge push in my Emergency Management classes to ingrain us with community-building values. Over and over I’m told (and I believe) that 1. the best way to respond to an emergency is to let local leaders direct the resources, 2. that the best way to keep people safe is to make sure they’re connected to each other* and to processes/institutions (neighborhood watches, hospitals), and 3. that the best way to prepare for or rebuild after a disaster is to be responsive to the ones who have to live in the houses you’re building**.

It turns out to be a very democratizing process if you do it right. And it also happens to synergize very well with the internet and social media. (Think about how Twitter aided the democratizing process in Arab Spring).

The following blog post from Raptitude summarizes a “Grand Historical Theory” that explains why community building is so important and so powerful. [And secondarily, why I, for one, am hugely in favor of net neutrality. Allowing corporations to control the speed of the internet for profit would create a hierarchy which would degrade the powerful crowd-sourcing democracy that’s happening on the internet.] I’m going to give a bullet pointed version of Raptitude’s summary (whoa, so meta), but I highly urge you to read the article. It’s short, interesting, and well written.

1. Early man roamed about in small groups where everyone grew up with everyone else and understood all the viewpoints in their society (represented by knowing each person very well). Decisions were made by consensus–a long, boring, but equal process.

2. As we grew into cities and towns, societies were too large for everyone to know or even understand everyone else so hierarchies formed in order to organize society. This silenced all except for the those at the top. When they wanted to make a new society (America, for instance), it was those at the top who made the laws and processes of getting work done.

3. But the printing press and now the internet allowed anyone (almost–although it’s getting more and more accessible) to write and disseminate their viewpoint and opinions. We began to reincorporate society… or to put it another way, we began to dismantle hierarchy. Which has been painful (French revolution, American revolution, civil rights, LGBT marriage equality, etc.) But it’s happening and it’s awesome and we should encourage that.

Because it makes our world safer, healthier, and better.

* So there was this study done of two neighborhoods who experienced a tremendous heat wave. In the wealthier neighborhood the death rate was much higher than in the other poor neighborhood (very unusual). Authorities couldn’t explain it until they realized that the poor neighborhood was made up of minority groups who had stronger ties with one another. They would look in on one another to make sure people were ok. Elders in the wealthier neighborhood didn’t have anyone to call 9-1-1 if they collapsed from heat stroke. So connecting people to people keeps everyone safe by leveraging social ties to get information disseminated.

** In an earthquake zone in India, NGOs used to come in and build villages with cinder block houses. Sturdy, square. But the square huts fell over in the next earthquake while the more traditional mud huts stood firm. It took a while for NGOs to figure out that the simple mud huts stood during earthquakes while Western styled houses–though cement– fell because the huts were round and could resist the movement of the earth in every direction. Squares get warped. Since then EMs have learned that you can’t just import solutions out of context. You have to listen to the community because they know these things.