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.

 

Further Reading: Cascadia Rising in the News

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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’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?)

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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.

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).

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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

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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.

 

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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

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

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


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The State EOC floor (SEOC)

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

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

 

 

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

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

8:30 am: Command and General Staff Meeting:

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

FEMA arrives.

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FEMA arrives with their own communications equipment.

9:00 am: State Emergency Management Declaration Meeting

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Disaster Manager and Deputy

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10:00 am: Tribal and Local Jurisdiction Conference Call

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

10:00 am: Critical Infrastructure Task Force

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

The fuel-line fires are threatening some fueling stations. 

10:30 am: Debris Task Force

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

1:00 pm: EOC Update Briefing

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

 

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

2:00 pm: Congressional Conference Call

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

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

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

3:00 pm: Tactics Meeting

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

 

4:00 pm: Principals Conference Call

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

4:30 pm: UCG Huddle:

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

5:00 pm: Elected Officials Call

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

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The Disaster Manager with others updates elected officials.

6:00 pm: Planning Meeting

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

7:00 pm: Shift Change

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The SEOC goes through tons of coffee.

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


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

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.

 

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: 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.

FEMA_disaster declarations 2000_2010
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.
Custom made
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.

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.)

What Emergency Managers Do: Part 2

preparednessdependsonyou

I was reading this FEMA document about how Emergency Managers are leveraging the community to do work and it occurred to me that these are good, specific examples of our work. Here are 5 success stories.

1. Biloxi, Miss. The Red Cross started the Asian American Network (eventually joined by the Hispanic American Network) to help responders overcome language barriers and cultural differences. Practically, this built trust between the Biloxi Fire Dept and non-English speaking communities so that the Fire dept could reach community members quickly and effectively in an emergency.

2. Monson, Mass. After a 2011 tornado hit this small town, sisters Morgan and Caitria O’Neill realized that the incoming responders couldn’t leverage the spontaneous volunteers or donations. Also, the responders would leave before the community was completely recovered. So, they built Recovers.org–a software platform that organizes volunteers, donations, and information at the local level. Communities around the country have picked it up. Even you could use it, if you wanted. FEMA describes it as:

Used primarily as a preparedness tool, the system helps residents map their neighborhoods and gives emergency management a detailed view of preparedness levels across the area. Multiple organizations can collaborate, volunteers can sign up and release liability remotely, donors can list resources rather than dropping them off, and those with needs can easily and privately request help from all relevant agencies at once. p. 24

3. Eagle, Alaska. An extremely remote town which didn’t have an Emergency Manager nearby experienced terrible flooding. Many different organizations came together to rebuild. It looked like this:

In the immediate aftermath of the flood, individuals and businesses in Fairbanks, AK, donated over 10,000 lbs of relief supplies. Faith-based voluntary organizations including the Mennonite Disaster Service and Samaritan’s Purse provided building materials and labor to ensure residents had safe and secure housing before winter. Nearby tribal councils donated food and supplies. Alaska Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster provided support in locating, organizing and transporting donations to the Eagle communities, and FEMA provided grants to fund building supplies and voluntary agency travel for the recovery effort. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided technical assistance for operations p. 25

4. Border of US & Canada. This region shares critical energy, supply, and transportation networks including refineries, nuclear facilities, and manufacturing. A disaster here is especially difficult because of the shared jurisdiction. So EMs formed the Canada-US Action Plan–an agreement about how to share resources. As a direct result, water sector representatives on both sides agreed to use the same online portal to share best practices/lessons learned.

5. USA. The 2012 Challenge. FEMA in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation created the Community Resilience Innovation Challenge designed to encourage community members to “, develop a collective, local ability to withstand the initial impacts of disaster events, respond quickly, and recover and rebuild the community to an enhanced level of resiliency” (p. 33). In effect, the government provided grant money to support grass-roots resiliency projects. Because most towns don’t have the money to get started.

And here are the bios of 5 people working in the EM field to give you a sense of the range of activities:

1. Michael McDaniel: Principle designer at Frog. Working to design storable, transportable, quickly assembled, and reusable housing for the first 90 days post disaster. Right now, we have to rely on FEMA trailers or tents which is inadequate in many ways.

2. Richard Ruge: Chairperson for Disaster Preparedness for Vulnerable Populations. He works to build awareness for vulnerable populations (children, the elderly, the disabled, etc) and to support alliances between community groups.

3. Ana-Marie Jones: Executive Director at CARD (Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters). She works to encourage the shift away from threat-based preparedness messages toward a lifestyle of readiness. “I want to inspire everyone to embrace their inner MacGyver, to awaken their secret superhero, to band together to say no to fear, threat, bureaucracy and everything else that divides us and leaves us feeling vulnerable.” p. 42

4. Joanne Drummond: Executive Director at Fire Safe Council of Nevada County, CA. She works to mitigate (make less frequent or intense) wildfires. She wants to educate the surrounding community to gain support for natural–tho not catastrophic–wildfires.

5. Jase Wilson: Founder & CEO of neighbor.ly, a “crowdfunding website to help people invest in places and civic projects they care about…” He says, “Government is not just this big entity out there–it’s something you can interact with… We should help the government help us.”

You can see how our work touches on so many aspects of life. If you’d like to be more involved, check out your local CERT branch (Community Emergency Response Team) or one of the websites we’ve mentioned (below):