Friday, March 3, 2017

What We Have is a Failure to Communicate

There are few sounds that instill a sense of foreboding more so than the Emergency Alert System tones. Our response (well mine anyway) is Pavlovian, which I suppose is a good thing...however, recent events beg the question, what happens when these alert messages come too late or not at all, and who’s to blame?

Crisis communication and emergency notification are continual challenges for city and county agencies because when they get it right no one knows it, but when it goes wrong, the results play out publicly.

Issuing a warning isn’t easy or straightforward. In order to reach people, you need the means to do so, whether it’s a reverse 911 system, the Emergency Alert System, a network of sirens, or some other mass notification means, you need a way of sending a message. Then you have to account for the different languages spoken in your communities, or more specifically, the languages in the area you're notifying. In Alameda County alone (where I live) there are at least 53 different languages spoken; once you’ve figured out where those languages are spoken, you're halfway there. Next, you have to craft a message that concisely gets your point across and does so in a way that works in the languages you need to contact. Finally, when crafting your messaging and selecting the mechanism for distribution, you need to take into account that some of your population may not be able to read, have a hearing impairment, have a cognitive impairment, have issues with mobility, don’t have a computer or smart phone, or access to cable or news radio.

And while you might think that if the process were to breakdown, the point of failure would be in overlooking one of the aspects of communication mentioned above; however, as recent events illustrate (Oroville & San Jose), the delay often comes in hitting send.

Like most things related to public safety, there's a lot of trust involved; but trust is fickle under the best of circumstances, and trust in government even more so. Maintaining that trust requires prudent judgement, especially if you’re the one in charge of making the ‘go / no go’ decision on warning people in advance of an emergency, because what if you’re wrong? What if variables suddenly change, what if the message doesn’t have the intended effect, or people don’t get the message at all?

In 2011 Hurricane Irene did a great deal of damage in the Catskills Region of New York State, significantly impacting the State of Vermont and many other places along the eastern seaboard and Caribbean. However, even in the face of Irene being the 7th costliest Hurricane to spin through the Atlantic, what many took away from that experience was that Hurricane Irene was the storm that wasn't. The Mayor's Office in New York City took a hit, the media took a hit, and the credibility of those responsible for public safety was dinged for over-reacting.

In 2014 Hurricane Sandy was forecast to hit New York...similar warnings were issued by the Mayor’s office, the media, and social media that a Hurricane with significant storm surge was going to impact New York City and Long Island, those warnings largely fell on deaf ears.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Which brings us to the handling of the Oroville Dam Crisis, which is summed up best in the following:

                              KC Green

Understanding that the situation in Oroville was constantly evolving means some slack must be given, with flow rates over the unknown and untested emergency spillway being a giant question mark. It doesn't however change the fact that not four hours before the evacuation order was issued, the public was told that everything was under control...when clearly it wasn't.

To go from 'everything is fine' to having the next communication most people receive being this, is problematic:

A similar situation followed shortly after in San Jose, CA when the Coyote creek overflowed its banks requiring the evacuation of 14,000 people from nearby subdivisions. This time however, instead of being told to evacuate at the 11th hour, the city didn't issue anything and residents are understandably upset.

If communicating risk and managing expectations is what this is all about (and in my opinion, it is), then how do we expect our elected officials and managers to balance between being too 'knee-jerk' to being 'too little too late,' if both risk and expectations are inherently subjective? It feels like a lose-lose situation to me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not begrudging anyone their righteous indignation for how the above situations were "managed"…and I don’t think this is something that should be glossed over. What I do have agita about though, is having people believe that pointing the blame solely at elected officials is an answer that will bring about change.

I believe that improvements need to be made in how governments communicate risk and to be better in transparently communicating that risk regardless of circumstance. I also believe the public needs to take a hard look at what they can do to better prepare themselves in advance of future events. Blaming others for our ills is a national pastime, but when we fail as individuals to examine what we currently do (which is often very little) to what we know should be done, we are dooming ourselves to repeat these scenarios again and again. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Water Water Everywhere...but not a drop to drink

The rainy winter the west coast is experiencing has many in California already thinking about picking up their time honored tradition of watering their driveways, while their sprinkler systems feed their patch of Kentucky Bluegrass. While tempting to do, I would strongly urge us to use the current change in California’s weather fortune as an opportunity for a little self-reflection.

Where to begin? First, no one can see the future, so maybe the drought that has plagued California for the past 5 years is ending in the most biblical of ways, or maybe this is just a blip on the radar. With 10-20 year droughts having been recorded throughout California’s history, our most recent dance with prolonged high pressure is a proverbial drop in the bucket. Then you add in the fact that during that brief 5 year period, farmers pumped so much water out of the central valley that the land subsided 1-2 feet in some places. But don’t worry; we don’t actually know how much water was pumped out of the ground because California doesn’t track that info, all we know is that our cup currently runneth over…so it’s best not to dwell on anything that might point to larger underlying issues with California’s water policies. Also, please overlook the arcane rules that govern water rights in the state, which has led, in part, to the over-pumping phenomenon that is contributing to the depletion of our natural aquifers. And as we marvel at overflowing reservoirs, we can see the gains that many advocates for smarter water policy had made, slipping away as we deal with the juxtaposition of going without, to having too much.

Remember when “brown was the new green?” As cities tried to market dead lawns as a show of solidarity with the broader effort to curb urban water consumption? Remember when there were cities in California whose wells ran dry and the state had to install massive cisterns so water could be trucked in? Remember when we realized that 102 million of our trees have died or are dying due to lack of water, when radio stations would publicly shame the most abhorrent water wasters? Remember when people cared about saving water because it was a precious resource? Yeah, me neither…because when the forecast calls for 10 Trillion…yes Trillion gallons of water to fall from the sky, why would you want to? Instead of conservation, people are worried about uninsured flood damage, loss of life, and infrastructure that's dissolving like cotton candy...and its hard to blame them.

So what now? In the short-term it would appear that we are at an inflection point—the abundance of what was once scarce has brought to light many problems, most urgently problems associated with our infrastructure that need attention…more than attention, they need sizable investment to address the deferred maintenance issues that plague bridges, dams, and levees nearing or past their designed lifespans. As evidence, California is faced with trying to find 66 Billion dollars to address the outstanding needs that have accumulated across its 1400 dams, 13,000 miles of levees, 25,318 bridges, and more than 50,000 miles of roads. And what’s sad and oddly prophetic is that as we witness what appears to be the catastrophic end to the most recent drought, the current situation highlights the missed opportunities and ignored pleas for funding infrastructure projects in the preceding decades that would have mitigated some of the crises we're currently dealing with. 

Which brings me back to water…

Water is something we take for granted because we’ve always had it and then for a few cities in California…they didn’t. One day, they turned on their faucets and nothing but groaning pipes trying to dry-heave the last remnants of liquid occurred, and this is the fate for many more communities around the state and nation if don't act now.

I would like to suggest, now that we're in a more comfortable place with the amount of water we have, that we use this time to continue the dialogue that was started under more dire circumstances. We need to talk about water:
  • ·        How we use it
  • ·        Who gets to use it and how much it should cost
  • ·        Aquifer management and tracking water extraction
  • ·        Water rights and agricultural and urban usage
  •       Aging Water Infrastructure impacts on Public Health
  • ·        Storm water capture and ideas to help keep what we receive naturally
  •       Building water resilience in the face of natural or man-made crises

You know, continue the tough conversations that were started, but this time do it without the pressure of staring down the barrel of a gun.

Finding water issues that need attention isn't the problem, convincing people that now is the time right time to talk about them is. Using the uncertainty that many communities across California faced not even one year ago should be all the prompting needed to continue the dialogue that was started, but I fear that the 'what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger' mindset will sideline those discussions leaving us ever more vulnerable the next time we get parched.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An after action report that does not mince words..

The National Center for Security and Preparedness are in the midst of compiling an After Action Report on Sandy and New State OEM's response...words are not minced:

"NOTE: Blue-bolded and italicized texts contain information intended only for the Commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. 

"OEM is extremely understaffed. By comparison, Iowa's emergency management agency, serving a state with the same area as New York but only a sixth the population, is as large as OEM. The profound demands on an overtaxed staff during its many activations, as well as under performance by a vocal and unmotivated minority have severely degraded morale and compromised effectiveness. Designating emergency management staff as nonessential personnel to facilitate early retirement and a subsequent failure to fill empty positions has further eroded OEM’s capabilities.  ""

One of the biggest revelations was the New York State OEM's staff has been reduced by 50% since 2011, from 125 to approximate 65 post-Sandy.

The report blasts Staff management, morale, outdated technology, strategy and response planning, etc...The report is clear, concise, and highlights vulnerabilities that will / have impacted recovery and New York State's ability to respond to future events. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Marketing Preparedness...

How do you break through? How do you create messaging that resonates? How do you get people to care, to act, to change their behavior? These questions can be heard in the offices of marketers and advertising...but they can also be applied when considering how to market preparedness.

The challenges in creating awareness and ultimately action around preparedness messaging feels very similar to the challenges advertisers and marketers face when changing perceptions or introducing a brand. Creating value around an idea, or inspiring action can be a daunting task, especially when we're talking about subject matter that makes people uncomfortable. The ability to raise awareness while actually imparting knowledge or changing behavior is the end goal in both marketing and preparedness, so why isn't there more cross pollination done between the two disciplines?

Meet Jenny Gottstein, she is one of those people who is blurring the lines between preparedness, marketing...and dare I say something that sounds like fun?!

At preparedness events there is usually a long line of people coming for free stuff, and during the 15 seconds you have their "attention" you try to impart some wisdom that may help them in the event of a disaster. These types of events are more about moving product to make reporting look good than it is about changing attitudes and perceptions.

Urban scavenger hunts are a big deal thanks to shows like "The Amazing Race;" clues direct you to various point and challenges dictate how quickly you advance and it appears Ms. Gottstein has combined the two, and thrown our love affair with Zombie's in the mix. The result is a disaster preparedness training game under the guise of the Zombie Apocalypse.
She armed players with smart phones and Nerf guns, and had teams of people run around the San Francisco completing challenges like "light a BBQ without matches" or “pack a Go Bag” or "bandage a burn wound" all while being chased by zombies. She tried to incorporate practical skill building but in a way that is more fun than serious. There was a lot of coverage of the event as well, on sites like: SF WeeklyFunCheap SF, and 7x7 and from the looks of it, it was well attended and fun was had.

According to Ms. Gottstein "It was a huge success" and as a result she is working to develop this concept into a nation-wide phenomenon.

I like this concept because it takes everything that I've talked about and we as a community of practice talk about and is actually trying to do something with it. Of course it's easy to be negative about how it doesn't do this, or meet the standards of that...but what it is doing, is getting communities of young people engaged. By leveraging popular culture and tying it to concepts that we struggle to connect to people on, she may have found a way to make people care, which I believe is a huge step in the right direction.
Ms. Gottstein is working to create a version 2.0 and has applied to board Millennial Trains Project, a cross country start up incubator-esque environment on a train that stops in several cities along the way.

She has raised $5,000 and I believe secured her seat which is great news because she plans on meeting with some interesting people to build her ideas to adapt the game and make it better.
The Little Things Lab
Univ. of New Mexico Game Design Students
Code for America
Create Here

I encourage you to check out her page at:

Make a plan, build a kit, get engaged...and get attacked by zombie's adds a new dimension to a marketing message that many have tuned out. In order to communicate with the whole community, we have to revise the way we approach how we engage. I think what Ms. Gottstein is trying to do is different, fun, and allows people to interact with the concepts of preparedness...something I haven't too much of in preparedness programming up to this point.

What do you think? Do you have examples of unique or innovative preparedness programming?

Friday, January 31, 2014

How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters

Read this article: "How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters" by Mr. David Wachsmuth; it could potentially be construed as heresy in some circles, but there is also a degree of truth in the observations he makes. Wachsmuth looks at the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and talks about how the Mayor's office usurped the power to lead following landfall favoring improvisation instead of the plans the OEM had created.

One of the more interesting takeaways from the article is this:

"Collaborations need to be achievable to be useful. The sociologist Lee Clarke argues that disaster plans are "fantasy documents"—tools for building trust in an organization rather than actual, implementable plans. This was certainly true in the response to Sandy. More modest plans, which take account of political realities and power relations, are more likely to be useful than comprehensive but unachievable fantasy documents." 

A lot of time, effort, and money goes into disaster planning and yet I've seen firsthand, as I'm sure many of you have as well, the ad hoc nature of response environments. Even when the best curated plans are exercised ad nauseam, challenges remain. This is not to say that planning can account for every facet of a disaster, but it would seem that two opposing forces are being pushed simultaneously, the need for rigidity in planning that ICS and the command and control mentality require, and the push for greater community involvement to build resilience and self-reliance. 

How do you reconcile the rigidity that is often seen in municipal planning with the inherent ad hoc nature of grassroots community response? What does that look like in a plan for a city? As it stands many plans don't account for emergent response activities but with the role Occupy Sandy played following Sandy, that will hopefully change.

If the idea that the Mayor's office totally disregarded OEM's plans seems can read about how Michael Brown, (you may remember him as "brownie"), disregarded the newly minted National Response Plan following Hurricane Katrina...plan-averse public officials it seems, are nothing new.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

To declare, or not declare...that is the question...

Washington, IL November Tornado Source: imugr
While never having had the responsibility of sitting in a County Executive's position or position of even greater responsibility at the state level, I would imagine that when a disaster strikes, they are conflicted: on the one hand they worry about the safety of their constituents, and on the other, they want the event to cause enough damage so that their jurisdiction can qualify for federal assistance. In a time when cities are declaring bankruptcy and tax bases are eroding, elected officials have to navigate the emotional fallout of a disaster as well as figure out how to pay for the subsequent response and recovery.

Although the disasters of 2013 didn't have the gravitational pull that Superstorm Sandy had, the Oklahoma Tornadoes, The Rim Fire in California, and the Colorado flooding all caused significant damage and all received Major Disaster Declarations.

However, 2013 also had several events that didn't qualify for Individual and/or Public Assistance, adding new voices and national coverage to growing discontent on how exactly the declaration process works. While some sort of declarations were given to the Yarnell Fire in AZ, The Fertilizer Plant explosion in TX, and the November Tornado outbreak in Illinois, in each instance there was an outcry that more should have been done to support the communities and survivors of those events.

Even though the above events didn't meet designated thresholds that would have triggered the full breadth of federal assistance, a Bill (H.R. 3295) was introduced in the House of Representatives with the intent of amending the criteria under which resources are offered dubbed the: "Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014."

This Bill, which was introduced on January 21st, would amend the criteria used to evaluate a request for a major disaster declaration by weighting the factors used to determine Individual and Public Assistance, as well as request that economic factors of the impacted locality and the state's financial situation be taken into account when determining eligibility.

When the Congressional Act of 1803 was passed, considered the first piece of disaster legislation, it provided assistance to Portsmouth New Hampshire, a town recovering from a major fire. Prior to that localities were left to fend for themselves in the wake of a diaster. The premise on which our Emergency Management infrastructure is based is that events are to be handled at the lowest level of government possible. By amending the rules on how federal assistance is meted out, would we be making more events eligible? Would it work against the goals of creating resilience and bolstering preparedness in communities? Would the Bill ultimately end up paying for deferred infrastructure improvements? Not only that, but who's paying for the additional dollars given to disaster survivors?

While the current criteria used to trigger federal assistance following an event may have its flaws, I believe more questions and a more thorough investigation of Bill H.R. 3925 will need to be undertaken as it seems to pose more questions than it answers.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Recovery of American Samoa

NOAA American Samoa Tsunami from Ed McNichol on Vimeo.

The South Pacific is a geologic hotbed of activity where earthquakes are a way of life and the threat of Tsunami's are all too real. In 2009, just under 2 years before the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami changed life for hundred of thousands of people, there was a Tsunami that struck the U.S. Territory of American Samoa as the result of a M8.1 quake--the largest in 2009.

American Samoa is a small island Territory with an area of just 76 sq miles, dominated by mountains running through much of its center, the topography of the island puts many of its 55,000+ inhabitants in close proximity to the ocean and at risk. While the familiarity with what to do and how to act in the event of an earthquake and tsunami prevented a large loss of life when the 4 15-20ft waves came ashore, the challenges of recovery were compounded due to American Samoa's unique geography and limited on island resources.

Because of its territory's status, FEMA was deployed to provide assistance, however, due to the indigenous system of land tenure that takes a more communal approach to land use, many couldn't prove "ownership" of their property which  added to the challenge of delivering financial assistance.

It's geography and topography, the indigenous land use system, the limited resources on island, and the number of individuals and families affected posed unique challenges to the Federal system setup to provide financial assistance and the network of voluntary agencies looking to provide help.

Given American Samoa's proximity to the Tonga Trench, an earthquake generating machine, and the challenges that the traditional response infrastructure faced, prompted FEMA to invest over $100 million to get American Samoa certified as TsunamiReady by NOAA. The criteria by which this certification is given are that:

  • A community must have a 24 hour warning point 
  • An Emergency Operations Center
  • Multiple ways to receive Tsunami warnings and alert the public -- a siren alert system has been installed
  • A formal Tsunami hazard plan
  • Conducting emergency exercises to promote public readiness through community education
The sizable investment made by FEMA to bolster resilience on island will hopefully work to mitigate the reliance on outside assistance in future responses. While the events that led to American Samoa receiving the TsunamiReady certification were tragic, the time, effort, and investment in resources have created a more resilient set of communities, ready when the next event happens.