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.)


Hashtag Takeovers during Crises and What to Do About It.

Thanks to John L. Hart
Thanks to John L. Hart

Today I attended a webinar put on by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) to learn how to use social media better during a disaster. Host Jennifer Lazo (@JDLaszo) related an anecdote that I think is worth sharing:

During the Napa Earthquake last August, ISIS began posting graphic beheading pictures with the trending Napa earthquake hashtags as a way to put their message in front of the most people. Not only was that disturbing for victims searching for real-time information, but it hampered the responders’ ability to monitor Twitter (which we consider to be an important part of our response).*

Fortunately, there is a solution: geotagging. Here’s a quick primer:

1. If you are POSTING, Twitter geotags automatically, though some users have turned off this feature for privacy reasons. In fact, I too, usually keep my phone’s location turned off. If this is you, and you notice that the emergency hashtags are being overtaken by malicious users, you can help responders by re-allowing the geotagging software. If you turned off geotagging in Twitter’s settings, you’ll have to change the settings. If you have simply turned off your phone’s gps, you only have to turn it on again to reinstate geotags. Remember, once the crisis is over, you can turn it off again! No problem.

2. If you are SEARCHING, there are two ways to use geotagging to filter out foreign malicious users. Unfortunately there’s not much we can do to avoid local vandals short of ignoring them (they die in silence) and/or changing hashtags.

a. First, you can use Twitter’s in house search function. Type in your hashtag search in the search bar up top. On the results page, there will be an “Advanced Search” button to the top left. Click that to filter your search by location (and other things if applicable).

b. You can use geofeedia. This is the one that journalists and other pros use because it searches all of social media–not just Twitter. It’s super cool.

3. It also helps to identify and follow quality Tweeps before a disaster so you have access to accurate information at hand during a disaster. See my post about that here.

* Emergency Managers like to monitor Twitter and other social media sites for a variety of reasons: 1. for distress calls which have been known to be posted, 2. for greater situational awareness as citizens post damage reports, 3. to learn of and boost other agencies’ info, and 4. to answer questions and dispel rumors. 

Further Reading:

  • Geotagging Wiki — a bit technical in areas, but a good pro/con read
  • Geotagging with Google Earth — Google’s help page
  • Geotag — “an open source program that allows you match date/time information from photos with location information from a GPS unit or from a map”. I have no idea how good or bad this is, but for the pro citizen journalist, might be interesting?
  • GeoTag Photos Pro — another app. Not free, but supposedly works very well with Lightroom. I have no idea if it’s  awesome or not
  • Geotagging #Ferguson article — interesting to see how information spreads and how clever people can apply geotags.

Got any more information for us? Share below!

An Unusual Winter: Boston’s trouble with Emergence

A man drags a shovel up Beacon Hill during a severe winter snow storm in Boston
Photo courtesy of Boston.com

This has been an interesting winter for Boston. Yes, lots of other places have had just as bad–or even worse–conditions and I don’t want to minimize that. But Boston has unique problems.

Shouldn’t they have been prepared?

I mean–winter’s happen every year. And every year, Boston has to deal with snow. What’s the big deal? Homeland Security Watch has this to say,

“Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.”

From the outside, it looks like Boston is simply incompetent, when the truth is that this is not a normal problem. It is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.” Emergent crises are especially hard to recognize and treat for 3 reasons.

  1. They look like normal problems. Boston has had snow before. This is a normal problem and has a normal response: plowing.
  2. Since they look like normal problems, the experts sent to deal with it, tend to get tunnel vision. Leonard & Howitt state, “Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation.”
  3. Finally, emergent crises are especially difficult to treat because they have all of the qualities of a non-standard emergency (…”the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress…”), with already deployed teams not trained in this kind of emergency. It can be hard to convince organizations already working on the problem to shift gears.

In a broader sense, emergent crises are a good example of how hard it is for responders to recognize data from noise. As I wrote here, one of the main jobs of cities, organizations, individuals, etc is to process information from the environment. More often than not, the information is meaningless (you don’t care that your shirt is touching your shoulder), but sometimes it matters (if your shirt is caught in a corn husker, suddenly you care it’s on you). But knowing what is important and what isn’t is extremely difficult since we generally don’t have the big picture or know the future (by the way, that’s why teams are so useful–each person holds a different part of the picture. Working together makes it easier to do stuff right.).

So what do we do?

Well… nothing. The human condition is such that we will always struggle a little bit to recognize new problems. But I think there’s a Communications theory that can help a little. It’s called Groupthink– you may have heard of this already. Essentially, when groups value consensus, they tend to ignore data which opposes or contravenes  their decisions and plans. Group Think could be complicating the emergent crisis/data-noise problem. But there is a solution: diversity. When groups value contrary opinions, they avoid tunnel vision and are much more successful at recognizing emergent problems.

Further reading

Disaster & Development: Joy Sun on TED

Development is inextricably intertwined with Emergency Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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