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.

 

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The People of Cascadia Rising

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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

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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.


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.

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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.

 

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.

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.

Disaster Boot Camp: Take Stock

Last time on EMscholar’s Disaster Boot Camp, we learned about hazards in our areas. Follow along as our heroes confront these fearsome predators. 

Welcome to Part 2 of my Disaster Boot Camp series. This series is based on the following principles:

  1. Every little bit helps.
  2. Everything I do has to be relatively quick, cheap, and pain free. Or else I probably won’t do it.
  3. Prepping should be part of everyday choices. It’s about making every choice work on two levels: practicality and resiliency.
  4. Prepping is a work in progress. We’re never “finished”.
  5. Since there will always be something you haven’t prepared for, prepping is about building mental flexibility and practical skills. And having the right tools on hand, of course.
  6. There’s no shame or guilt with prepping. Like a fitness program, these blogs are about starting wherever you are and finding a community to support you.
  7. There’s no fear with prepping. I, personally, don’t subscribe to the ultra-militant, us-against-the-world prepping mentality. Studies have shown that people tend to resort to pro-social, community-oriented behaviors in a disaster aftermath. I’m all about connecting people with each other because we’re stronger together. I also don’t believe in scaring people in order to get them to prepare. I believe in stating the facts unequivocally and describing solutions with a cautiously-optimistic outlook.

I also want to stress that this “Boot Camp” is not the “best” way of prepping. It’s not even that original. What it is, is my story. It’s resources, tips, trains of thought, and advice that I’ve found helpful. I intend for this blog to amplify the voices that are already teaching these things, not to supplant them. I would also be thrilled if you joined in below.

Ready? Let’s go!

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Goal 2: Take stock of present resourcesAKA: making a ton of lists.

1. Organize your thoughts with survival categories: Do1Thing, the Red Cross, and FEMA all approach this a little differently, but they add up to the following list of needs:

Evacuation Plan, Family Communication Plan, water, food, shelter, clothing, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs include work gloves, hard hat, sturdy shoes, etc), signaling supplies (flares, mirror, whistle), fire making supplies, power back ups (generator, batteries, etc), First Aid,  personal prescriptions (ex: insulin, heart meds), pet supplies, tech readiness, document backups, duct tape and hand tools (for fixing house damage or turning off your water main), family/disaster specific supplies (ex: diapers, antiviral mask), off-the-grid navigation (maps, compass), and some off-the-grid entertainment.

How you approach each of these needs will depend on whether you’re making an evacuation backpack (“Bug-out-bag”), an office kit, a car kit, or a shelter-in-place kit (i.e. camping in your house). Ideally, we’ll be making all of these.

2. Take a tour of your house: I began with a quick tour of my house and car and noted things that could be appropriated to the cause and areas where I needed improvement. I found that I already had the beginnings of a car kit and stocked pantry, so I organized my list based on kit needs. Maybe you would find it easiest to organize your lists based on the survival categories or most urgent needs first. The key here is: you’ll be continually adding to this list as you think of things/learn more. You can see how many question marks are on my list which require more research on my part.

Screenshot of my list.
Screenshot of my list. Yellow are things I still need; white are things I have. I’ve grey-ed out the “Work Kit” because I don’t work away from home. It’s a low priority right now.

Download the full list here: EMscholar’s Emergency Kit Master List

Level Up: don’t forget to backup your list somewhere. It’d be nice if it was on the internet so you can add to it from anywhere as you think of things.

As I took stock, I realized I needed to make a few more lists, so I’m putting this all on a publically-viewable Trello board to keep myself organized. I like having something online because I can access it from anywhere as I think of things. Also, I like that you can move things around in Trello and attach pictures or links.

3. Note your skills: Take a moment to think about how much you know and what you still need to learn. For instance, I’m an ok gardener (room for improvement) and a fair sewer. Those skills could help me be more resilient long term (see my Long-term self-sufficiency list here). I’ve also taken a first aid class and a CPR class, though it might be time for a refresher.I can also drive stick shift. One summer, I forced my Sister-in-Law to teach me because I didn’t want to be stranded somewhere unable to drive the only vehicle available. Later that same year, I needed to drive stick or be stuck walking. On the other hand, I’m terrible with knots. It’s going on the “To Learn” list. Knots are useful for everything including sheltering, snaring food, tying a tourniquet, securing an animal…. I’d also like to learn more about edible plants in my area.

4. Make a 10-Minute To Do List: I’ve been inspired lately by this post from Backdoor Survival which lists easy 10 minute prepping projects by real preppers. Things like: rinse out soda bottles and fill with water, collect dryer lint in a sandwich bag for fire starting, buy an extra can every shopping day for your survival pantry, leave your bug-out-bag out somewhere and put stuff into it as you think of it, make an altoid tin fishing kit, practice lighting a fire, turning off your gas main, or cooking over a camping stove, and more.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that a few important preps will take longer than 10 minutes, but often getting started is half the battle. Use your easy list to build momentum for your harder list.

5. Keep researching: I’m sure I’ve left some gaps in my kit lists. That’s why it’s a work-in-progress. I’ll keep researching and you feel free to add things I’ve missed to the comment section below!

Whew! Good work everyone.

Disaster Boot Camp: Find Your Hazard

Today I end my hypocrisy.

I am embarrassed to tell you, friendly reader, exactly how UNprepared I am despite my extensive knowledge of and buy-in to disaster facts. I have no bug out bag, no emergency supplies for my cat, no evacuation plan (my husband and I share a car! How will we evacuate if we’re separated?), and no copies of important documents. I have a fire extinguisher only because it was here when we moved in (Landlords, take note!). But, I’ve decided to reject my feelings of shame and do something about it. Therefore, I’m introducing a new “Boot Camp” series. And I’d like you to partner with me! I’m taking a lesson from weight loss psychology. No shame, no guilt, only working together toward progress.

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Notice, I said working toward progress not perfection. The thing about disasters is that they are uncertain. Take tsunami’s. We know that tsunami waves decrease exponentially in power the farther they get in land. And we’ve seen from the Japanese earthquake/tsunami that people who left immediately survived. Since no one can tell you exactly how far inland the tsunami will hit–both mathematically and practically–every step you take up or in increases your chances of survival. It’s the same for other disasters. Don’t be overwhelmed and disheartened by the awe-inspiring lengths Preppers go to survive an extinction-level event. No one can say exactly how big of an event you’re likely to experience, so every little bit of preparation adds up to better survival. You’re FAR better off BEGINNING to prepare than “finishing” (if you ever do finish, which is debatable). So if beginning is what’s important, let’s do that.

Ready? Goal One: Find out what hazards are in my area.

I’ve grown up in this area so I felt pretty confident in my assessment of the hazards. (Maybe you feel the same). Even when I lived briefly in Tornado Alley and the Wintery North East, I felt I understood what natural disasters I faced from their reputations. But, recently, I’ve discovered not one, but TWO different hazards in my home town that I didn’t even know existed. Awkward. Every Communications and Management expert will tell you that good decision making starts with knowing your initial conditions. So let’s do that. Let’s verify what out there.

1. Know the history. Let’s start with this simplified map which makes a list of likely disasters by region. I like this one because it includes tsunamis, pandemics, and economic downturns that the other maps don’t.

Now, let’s look at a more detailed map of disaster declarations over the last 50 years from FEMA (It’s really big and beautiful. It has to stay in a link because of formatting issues). Then, let’s look at this more recent map for the last 10 years.

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Presidential Disaster Declarations, 2000-2010. Click for larger.

There’s lots to see here. Notice that FEMA breaks up the US into “Regions”. This will be helpful to you later on. Each state is broken up into county. The darker red the county is, the more disaster declarations it’s had. The red doesn’t tell you what kind of disaster, just how many (see the key at lower right). The pie charts, on the other hand, tell you what kind of disasters but not where. So…you’ll have to do a little inferring.  It looks like we all have flooding and winter storms in common. Last thing: in some pie charts you’ll notice “Other.” The “other” is different between the maps, so I highly recommend you look at the definition  waaaaay down at the bottom left. For instance, in the 50 yr map, volcanoes, dam breaks, and landslides are included in “other” This is where knowing what land features are around you would be helpful.

Level up: Here’s where you can search a list of disaster declarations by year, government, or type. You could search by county, for instance, to discover what’s common in your hometown.

2. Know your area. Let’s do a little geology/geography.

  • Ask your local authorities. A quick Google search of your town, county, or state’s “Emergency Management System” or “Disaster Response”. Some may continue to use “Civil Defense” name, though that is becoming increasingly rare. I highly encourage you to do this!
  • The NYT has a delightful map about the most and least risky spots to live. Complete with type of disaster.
  • Here’s a collection of USGS maps based on the various disasters (click for larger). I got them from the side panel of the Red Cross Map Library.
  • Map library based on state. Has maps of roads, rivers, elevation, etc. If you click on the river map in your state and scroll down, you’ll find a drought map, water flow rate map, and more. (Left: water features of Washington State. Right: drought map of Nevada)
Environmental hazards around DC. (screenshot)
Environmental hazards around DC. (screenshot)

Level Up: A lot of places have information on the intensity of a potential disaster. San Fransisco, for instance has numbers on how big of an earthquake to expect. Ask your local authorities if this information is available for your area.

3. Gather situational awareness. Situational awareness is knowing what’s happening around you right now. Do you know where to go for severe weather advisories or flood predictions?

  • Know what kind of warnings your area uses. Outdoor alarms? Push notifications (reverse 911)? Often you have to opt-in to local or regional push notifications. Your jurisdiction EM office should have information on how to do that.
  • Red Cross weather hazard library. A collection of constantly updated maps. Find rainfall/flood risk maps, wind gusts, status of tsunami and earthquake monitoring stations, air quality or heat maps, etc.
  • Map of seismic zones overlayed with nuclear reactor locations (courtesy Mike Meuser via CrisisHQ)
Is there a nuclear reactor in an earthquake zone near you?
Is there a nuclear reactor in an earthquake zone near you?
  • You can make your own “Lifeline” map here. (A lifeline map shows roads, sewers, electrical plants–anything a city needs to survive). I encourage you to play around with the map. There’s lots and lots of USGS info on it that you can overlay onto your specific area. It’s a really good source for local knowledge.
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Custom made “Lifeline” map around Chicago. (screenshot)
  • ESRI Severe Weather Public Information Map. Real time, crowd sourced severe weather reports. Puts NOAA warnings, and Twitter, Youtube, and Flikr info on a map. (Click “Fullscreen” over upper left map corner to get details like pic below).
Current crowd sourced info over Oklahoma. (screenshot)
Current crowd sourced info over Oklahoma courtesy ESRI. (screenshot)

4. Know what to do about it. 

The Red Cross has a list of (almost) all possible hazards. It’s good to start with a long list so we don’t miss something important. Notice the lovely alphabetical order and the lots and lots of further resources listed underneath.

Red Cross Disaster Library. Click to go.
Red Cross Disaster Library. Click to go.

I think that’s enough for today. Whew! Good work, everyone. Look at how much better prepared we all are!

If you found helpful resources, please do share them below.

Researcher on the Road: Survivability

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

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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.

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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?

On Militant Prepping

I have a problem with the militant style of prepping. What I like about survivalists is: their enthusiasm, ingenuity, vast practical and theoretical knowledge, and their willingness to discuss the possibility of apocalyptic events (where the human race is all but extinct). However, what I don’t like are proponents of a aggressive us-against-everyone-else attitude. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. The people who spend a lot of time thinking about how to be the top dog in a dog-eat-dog world. People who know 9 ways to booby trap their house and have this by their beds:

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Table turned weapon via Survival Life

But I don’t believe disasters work like that. First of all, it’s a common myth that people turn to lawlessness and looting during a disaster. As this writer and field expert at Emergency Management Magazine states,

While personal security and family safety are valid concerns, the vast majority of people around you will not be a threat. In fact, though looters gained a lot of media attention after Hurricane Katrina, there were far more stories of heroism and of people making new friends through shared adversity. We suggest a balance between personal security needs with the desire to help others.

It’s far more likely that we’ll need to work together to survive and rebuild. I want a different kind of militant prepping. A “no one left behind” kind of prepping. We need to prepare our selves and our community to be useful to each other, to defend each other, to share food with each other. We are always at our best when we work together instead of tearing each other down. And when times are hard, we’ll need to be at our best. Robin Wheeler–homesteader and survivalist–says it beautifully:

“Several community members have reminded me that if I put up food for the winter, ‘Men will come with guns and take your food.’  Well! The first time I heard that, you can imagine the huff that caused in me.  Who were these poorly raised sods, that they sit on their bums, watching bad sitcoms no doubt, only to come and loot my last three jars of peach chutney when times get tough?  Who raised these people?  I wanted a word with their mothers and fathers.  And when the fourth person said this to me, right after apple butter time, well, I got into a real snit.  I decided to go find these people lurking away outside of our healthy community, and give them a piece of my mind.

They could be saving their own food, or better yet, helping others save food and taking home some of the spoils.  They could be using their great skills to make their community strong, and be part of it, and then I would have less to worry about.  Instead of being my problem, they could be someone else’s solution.  Yes, on a tiny scale, and even a large one, this could work.  I earmarked a couple of the more likely culprits and planned my next visit.  My clever friend Terry heard my rant and thought me up a slogan for my upcoming campaign. ‘Women will Come with Food and Take Your Guns‘.  I liked it and I like the planetary shift I felt when I said it.  It sounded like a big job, but I was willing to chip away at it for a few years.  And if anyone would like to help with this project, that would be great.”

Count me in.

Emergency Literacy: What to expect during a disaster response

I am studying the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a case study for leadership and the authors of one of my papers made the point that one of the jobs of leaders during an disaster is helping those who don’t have emergency management “literacy”.

Agencies calmly executing plans can appear to be methodical and in control or lacking urgency and intensity depending upon the lens used. (p. 11)

Courtesy giphy
Courtesy giphy

For the most part, Americans understand that an “out of control” fire does NOT mean that the response is “out of control”. But we’re used to what a fire looks like. We have a general understanding about what needs to happen to put out the fire and (in the case of wild fires) how nature thwarts those efforts. Just because the fire doesn’t go out right away doesn’t mean the fire fighters are incompetent. But “non-routine” disasters are different. By their very definition, there is a lot of unknown. It can look like responders don’t know what they’re doing, especially in the era after Hurricane Katrina–generally perceived to be a failure of leadership.

I’d like to think this blog is doing it’s tiny part to increase “emergency literacy”–to increase your confidence that responders know how to help. That isn’t to say that you should not be critical. We need people to encourage us to be transparent about the response. You have the right to be anxious. It’s our job to make sure you have the information you need to make good decisions and your job to make sure we do that.

But perhaps it helps to know what kinds of plans we have already. Did you know that the each agency has a plan for each kind of incident which carefully outlines their roles, responsibilities, and agreements with other agencies? Take a look at London’s plan. It’s long and boring, but skim the Contents page. It’s kind of comforting to know people have thought about all these things (there’s even a section specifically devoted to helicopters!)

It’s also our jobs as emergency managers to manage the public’s expectations. We’re supposed to explain what things we can control, what things we can’t, and what we’re doing about the things we can’t control. For instance, we cannot possibly make a plan for every disaster that could possibly happen in the world. We could not possibly anticipate every variation. In fact, the more detailed our plans are, the more rigid they become. Emergencies are fast and loose and we need the flexibility to respond to unexpected changes. Sometimes we have to abandon or adjust our response strategies as more information becomes available. We’re not working aimlessly or randomly, it’s just a chaotic environment and we have to make lots of adjustments. Like the kinds of adjustments your muscles have to make to keep your balance on a spinning log.

So what CAN I expect?

  • Surprise. It will always seem like no one expected these events to happen even when scientists have been screaming about potential disasters for years. The truth is, people habitually believe that disasters are something that happen to other people. You need to prepare yourself that when we talk about disasters, it’s not if, but when.
  • Lots of chaos. There’s a convergence of lots of people at a disaster site–each with their own agendas and realms of expertise. There’s a period of intense organizing and communicating as people work to gain “situational awareness” (understanding what’s happening, where, and who’s doing what). With the advent of modern media, you get to see the process unfold in real time and it looks messy. Remember: chaos is natural and not necessarily a sign of incompetence.
  • Lots of uncertainty and anxiety. Feeling out of control and dealing with the unknown makes people anxious. That’s ok. We’re going to work through those feelings, I promise. Bear with us. Listen for updates. Prepare yourself to deal with a little uncertainty. Now, it’s NOT ok for agencies to refuse to tell you how the disaster will affect your health or future livelihood, (like how the Japanese government kept the citizenry in the dark after Fukushima). If that happens, you have my permission to cause a ruckus.
  • Lots of drama. The media LOVE disasters because they make for good stories. They will intentionally seek out the most disgruntled person and the most pathetic, oil-covered animal. The media will sensationalize the disaster and prepare a scape-goat for you. Do your best to balance your consumption of pitiful images with fact-based, evidence-based reporting.
  • Lots of finger-pointing. Unfortunately, this happens. I’d like to say we’re all adults who accept responsibility for our part in the disaster and response, but that’s just not true. It’s extremely difficult not to feel defensive when the media and congressional hearings grill you on mistakes (whether perceived or actual). Remember, the media loves a good villain and will present a scape-goat to you–fairly or not. Do your best to not fuel the fires of hate.
  • A sense of abandonment is possible. Especially if you live in the area affected by the disaster, you will be overwhelmed by all the media attention and people volunteering to help you and send you money. But very shortly, the media will disappear and support will dry up. People will go home even before you feel back to normal. Prepare yourself to work hard on recovery without a lot of attention. This is the time for you to connect with your community.

Disasters are scary and always new. That’s ok. We’re going to get through it, together. (Although, it does help if you have a family preparedness plan.)