Friday, August 30, 2013

Social media and Calgary Flooding

The hashtag #SMEM (social media emergency management) is flourishing on twitter. I've mentioned VOSTs (virtual operation support teams) that have formed in response to the need for remote support in communities overwhelmed due to infrastructure and personnel limitations. I've talked about the proliferation of technologies that organizations are utilizing and the questionable impacts they're having on nonprofit response, but I haven't talked about Canada. Canada got sucker punched earlier this year by unforeseen flooding, a north-of-the-boarder Sandy if you will. Well just as everyone went agog over the social media stats for Sandy here is the first consolidated dataset on social media use during the flooding in Calgary.

Social media and its ability to empower an organized voluntary response is no longer's time we re-wrote some volunteer management annexes and figured out how to truly integrate local response (grassroots efforts) into the broader context of emergency management.

Thanks to Inbound Interactive for putting this together...

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mobile infrastructure gets normal back quicker

One of the things that makes a disaster a disaster, is the fact that you can't turn on your faucet to get a drink, the food in your refrigerator (if you have one) has gone bad because there's no power, and getting to a store, if they were open, would be difficult if not impossible due to damaged roads, debris, or other impediments.

The point is, infrastructure is a big part of what makes this whole crazy thing called civilized society work...once you take that away, things begin to crumble and that's when images of Lord of Flies come to mind; which is why having a disaster preparedness kit is so important. A disaster kit is a stopgap designed to buy time so that the necessary infrastructure can be restored and life can as normal can resume. And while many of the messages related to preparedness say to have enough supplies for 72 hours, it doesn't hurt to have more.

So, what happens when the restoration of critical infrastructure can't happen on a timeline that prevents the disintegration of social order? Mobile infrastructure is what happens.

The good people at Tohl are in the pipeline installation business but they also provide a humanitarian angle to their operations. They have developed a mobile solution that can quickly re-establish basic water infrastructure to areas where traditional supply chains are blocked...basically it's a long hose with a unique method of delivery. Check out there video:

The other areas where I've seen mobile infrastructure work are in modular tent setups acting as field hospitals and shipping containers pre-fabricated for command centers, bunks/temporary shelters, and bathroom facilities, etc...

While these are by no means holistic solutions to the complex problems presented in re-establishing infrastructure following disasters, the innovative solutions people have come up with to deal with the challenges of meeting the needs of a community post-disaster are pretty incredible.

If you know of or have seen other unique and interesting ideas that provide a stopgap or permanent solution to infrastructure restoration following a disaster, I would be interested to hear more about it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Climate Change and the Rim Fire

Rim Fire, Tuolumne County
Building off of yesterday's post on drought and water, a post on the fire that has captured the Nation's attention seems appropriate. But before I dive into what's happening with the Rim Fire, check out this 90 second overview from the folks at Climate Desk on why 2013 has been such a busy fire season:

Now that you're armed with a little background...the Rim Fire is a brush fueled fire started just outside of Yosemite National Park, and over the course of its 8 day life it has grown into the 7th largest in CA history having burnt 179,481 acres. One of the factors contributing to the conditions that are currently allowing the Rim Fire to thrive is the fact that last winter was among the driest on record for California creating the tinderbox conditions that provide a fertile environment for fire to spread. The fire is only 20% contained and its growth is threatening not only a key reservoir for San Francisco but also a power station that provides power to many in the bay area. The map below (courtesy of illustrates the rapid spreading and the serious threat it poses to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir which supplies roughly 2.6 Bay Area residents with water.

With costs approaching $20 million in the fight against this raging inferno, the fact that it's threatening infrastructure a major metropolitan area relies on, and it looks this serious from space, should be a wake up call to all of us that something is seriously wrong. This is not the first time this year that fires have posed a significant risk to life and property and if there are measures we can take, then we should start today.

Overview map of the fires currently burning in the US:
Courtesy of the US Forest Service

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Water, Good to the Last Drop

Thanks to NPR for repurposed image

According to Circle of Blue, 97.5% of Earth's water is salt water and of the remaining 2.5%, only a small fraction is readily accessible for human consumption given that much of it is locked in glaciers. While not necessarily new information, when you look at that in the context of the 7Billion people we have on earth, the increase in wildland fires, droughts, and lower than average precipitation levels, a picture of concern starts to develop.

When it comes to disasters we're used to seeing flooded homes, action cams following tornados, and dramatic photos of fire...but when you see a picture of a farmer with dead crops, or cracked earth where a pond, stream, river used to be, the sense of urgency isn't there...even though the need for drastic action is long overdue.

While you can find websites saying that future wars will be fought over water, you don't need to wait to feel the affects of a dwindling water supply. Low precipitation and snowpacks, higher temperatures, and high population densities in traditionally arid parts of the US paint a bleak picture for the future of the Southwest if these conditions persist. To reinforce the seriousness of the situation, the Bureau of Reclamation, the US dept. of the Interiors' watchdog for Water Management in the West released a report that says due to decreasing water levels in Lake Powell, beginning next year, the amount of water released from Lack Powell will decrease by 750,000 acre-ft (an acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in one foot of water), or enough water to supply 1.5 million homes in Arizona. Brad Udall's chart illustrates the timeline and severity of the most recent drought as the basis for the reduction in water release.
Conservationists and groups like Save The Colorado believe this is a step in the right direction but may be too little too late, while agribusiness and municipalities only see what that means for budgets and how everyday life will be affected. The water rights, how its split between agricultural, domestic, and industrial use is a constant battle where all sides claim any reduction will cause serious hardship, but because the Colorado supplies water to: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah, the focus should remain on better planning and managing what's available to help the Colorado rebound, than trying to make a set of constituents happy.

And while water shortages will have a direct and meaningful impact on all facets of life in the southwest, there's the added issue of hydroelectricity and how a decrease in the volume of water released will impact power generation and output that have not been mentioned in the articles I've seen. A taste of some of the discomfort this can be seen with the Rim fire currently burning in Yosemite; because of the fire's location, the city of San Francisco has spent roughly $600,000 since Aug 19th offsetting the power output loss due to the closure of one of their hydroelectric facilities that helps power the city. The impact on the power company's bottom line will be negligible in CA but how an overall reduction in output will impact power availability for those who get it from the Glen Canyon Hydroelectric facility on Lake Powell remains to be seen.

Whether you believe this is a result of climate change due to cycles, fossil fuels, or an act of god...the extended drought conditions the US faces are real, concrete, and is a glimpse of the type of hardship that we will have to get used to if things don't change. And unfortunately there are no quick fixes to the water issues we face, of course water conservation is the cheapest and easiest but as with most things, substantive change have to come from those in positions of power given that some of the suggestions put forth encompass: municipal and agricultural conservation and the management and enforcement of that, water recycling, and a water bank that would increase flexibility in river systems.

As humans we don't have a good track record with moderation; I hope that given the magnitude and seriousness of this issue that we will learn how to better live within our means and not so drastically outpace the ability of our natural surroundings to keep up.

Here are some water facts about personal consumption to help keep things in perspective:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Preparedness in Unlikely Places

Beginning this week and going through August 2nd, 50,000 + people have new addresses as they setup camp in Black Rock, Nevada and transform the blank Playa canvas into a makeshift city complete with its own post office and airport:
A little before and after for you
Burning Man is many things: art festival, music festival, fire festival, dance festival, you get the idea...Having never been, I've only heard about it from friends who've attended and they all have said what a great time they had...however, I've never heard any of them say anything like:
"Burning Man was a great opportunity to beef up my Disaster Preparedness kit and put it to use!" 
But if you look at their site and the list of things they recommend bringing, it looks very similar to a preparedness kit:
The list goes on to mention: 
  • Garbage and recycling bags, and tools to clean up your camp site ( rakes, magnets, gloves, etc.)
  • Rope or tie-down straps—one way or another, you’ll need them.
  • Duct tape—you’ll find a need for it, guaranteed.
  • Any required prescriptions, contact lens supplies (disposables work great), or anything else you need to maintain your health and comfort in a remote area with no services
  • Flashlights and spare batteries (headlamps are useful) so as to see and be seen at night
  • Sunscreen/sunblock & sunglasses
  • Crank powered / battery powered am/fm radio
  • Common sense, an open mind, a sense of humor, and a positive attitude
With National Preparedness Month creeping up on us, I thought this was apropos given the emphasis being placed on getting preparedness to resonate with everyday people. Here is a festival that has tied preparedness into its very fabric, not by design, but out of necessity, because if you want to go, you have to be able to survive in the middle of the desert for a week. While I'm sure not every attendee comes fully prepared for 100 degree days and 40 degree nights, Burning Man provides an exercise in living off the grid, and as such those people who attend are unwittingly getting put through an exercise in Disaster Preparedness...which is pretty cool. Burning Man has accomplished what many in emergency management and the preparedness community are striving for: relevance and integration without bashing people over the head.

Even if part of my correlation between Burning Man attendees and disaster preparedness is way off, I still believe there's an opportunity that the emergency management community could jump on: Festivals and Races (obstacle, traditional, adventure, otherwise), where people, specifically young people are in situations where they're "roughing it," use these events to reinforce the idea that being prepared is advantageous. Use these types of events to host kit building activities, have trivia and giveaways, use the opportunity to become a sponsor, whatever...From what I've seen, these types of messages get relegated to community days and local events at malls which is fine, but I believe there is an opportunity to broaden preparedness appeal by surprising people by with where and when they see this type of messaging. 

A great example of this can be seen in the Center for Disease Control's Zombie Apocalypse preparedness campaign.
If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency.

What started as a joke turned into one of the CDC's most effective ways of reaching people with a traditional message in a new way. The Zombie Preparedness campaign does a good job of taking preparedness and giving it context that makes it accessible for everyone and not just people who are involved promoting preparedness. 

Creating new opportunities to interact with preparedness messaging is key to stakeholder engagement, and building on the success of some of the public service announcements posted previously, maybe this would be a good time to reach out and tap the professional marketers of the world to see if they can help.

If events like Burning Man are getting 50,000+ people to unwittingly put the beginnings of a preparedness kit together without really trying, then the community within emergency management can build on and learn from that to grow partnerships and get out to events that they wouldn't normally attend. 

So what do you think? Am I full of it, or is this a good idea? Have any examples of good preparedness campaigns? Share them below.


Friday, August 23, 2013

World Humanitarian Day

Staying true to form of being a day late and a dollar short, I bring to you World Humanitarian Day, celebrated globally on August I'm a few days behind.

World Humanitarian Day, first commemorated in 2009, is a day to pay tribute to the men and women who have lost their lives working toward humanitarian causes around the world. Since its inception, every year has focused on a theme:
  • 2010 - We are Humanitarian Workers: Focused on the achievements of aid workers in the field
  • 2011 - People Helping People: Focused on inspiring the spirit of aid work in everyone
  • 2012 - I Was Here: Focused on doing something good for someone else
  • 2013 -The World Needs More _____: Everyone has an idea of what the world needs more of, this years campaign lets you fill in the blank.
This year's campaign is simple and well designed, I highly recommend spending some time at:

Just because the day has come and gone doesn't mean the message being spread isn't any less important.

Who doesn't love kid President?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

google glass and crisis situations

Information comes in all forms: in images, through text, on maps, through's the synthesis of this information that enables those in positions of power to make the best possible decisions based on the desired outcomes at that time.

Until now, the collection of this data and the ability to carry out response functions were mutually exclusive; you were either filming and transmitting the data from the scene, or you were actively participating in whatever was taking place: triaging, fighting the fire, etc...

I've been reading reports as of late on individuals who have been a part of the test pool of Google Glass users--the chosen few who had the proverbial golden ticket and allowed to test drive the latest piece of fashion hardware. Based on the accounts I've read, the functionality of Glass seems better suited for those in crisis situations than your average Joe; with it's built camera, bluetooth, wifi connectivity, and voice control, first responders could not only send data but also receive it to aid in their current task. Some other ways Glass could be used:
  • Firefighters could transmit images of the fire while accessing building blueprints 
  • EMT's could potentially access medical information on patients while administering first aid and transmit images to a doctor if needed
  • Using voice recognition and Google translate, speaking with individuals and families who don't speak English can happen without the aid of a translator 
  • With Google Hangout you can see what the user of Glass sees, greatly reducing the time it takes for data to get to the people who need it.
Data is a powerful thing during crisis situations, the better informed you can be, the better off you are and Glass provides a new set of tools to help expedite the sharing of information in real time which will hopefully benefit everyone.

Beyond the bells and whistles that Glass provides, I believe the ability to use Glass as a learning/teaching tool is one of the aspects of the technology that has some of the greatest potential. One of the challenges in disaster response, from a nonprofit perspective, lies in the retention of institutional knowledge and in the training of those not necessarily versed in response. With Glass, firsthand accounts can be recalled and examined not only for training purposes but to also distill best practices based on what actually happened. 

And while I see a lot of potential in the technology, I also see some issues that will need to be dealt with before Glass becomes disaster haute couture. Data privacy and the handling of sensitive personal information is an issue that will need to be dealt with; given that the response community struggles with how to share information without the option of doing so in real time, I imagine trying to safeguard homeowner/client information may prove to be beyond the scope of what nonprofits can handle from a liability perspective right now.

Whether it's in the next year or 5 years down the line, I look forward to seeing how this technology is used to aid those in need and its impact on the disaster response community.

If you've got some time, here's a presentation taken from SXSW on gives developers an idea of what's possible with this product.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When the lights go out in the city...

Something doesn't seem quite right...
We recently passed a hallmark in the world of disaster, the 10 year anniversary of the largest blackout in United States History, the day parts of 8 states including some of Canada went dark affecting 50 million people thanks to the dangerous combination of power lines and overgrown tree branches. While not a natural disaster in the traditional sense, its impacts were very similar in economic losses and personal hardship, especially if you've been in New York City during a humid August.

While tough to comprehend, the largest US blackout doesn't hold a candle to the 620 Million people who were left without power in India in July 2012. However, whether it's 50 or 500 million who go without, its loss can be a big deal as it impacts everyone more or less in the same way. While having the lights go out isn't the end of the world, it's something that power companies take seriously and hope to avoid at all costs.

As part of renewed interest in the subject there have been numerous articles citing the problems with our grid and the fact that it's a target for terrorist attacks. However, in the midst of all the doom and gloom the NYTimes ran an article on an exercise to take place that will test the vulnerabilities of our grid in an effort to anticipate and mitigate as many issues as possible. Put on by NERC, The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the exercise has the alphabet soup of the energy world interested and hopes to come away with new perspectives on the biggest challenge that their industry faces--more info can be seen here.

So What Are the Options
In reading through the available articles there seems to be a push for upgrading the US grid to a Nationwide smart grid; after all, if GE can do it for the appliances in our home why can't it be done for our nation's power? The benefits of this expensive upgrade seem to be a step in the right direction with better control over routing, enhanced sensing equipment, and the biggest seller in my opinion, easier integration of renewable power. While upgrades of this nature don't happen overnight and aren't cheap, what can be done in the meantime?

Homeland Security Newswire published an article about new technology that converts natural gas to electricity and could be a commercialized solution to the need for greater distribution and less reliance on our aging power grid infrastructure. While it's still too early to go out and buy this new technology, if you're bored with your traditional generators, hold on tight because "the promise is this: generate your own electricity with a system nearly impervious to hurricanes, thunderstorms, cyberattacks, derechos, and similar dangers, while simultaneously helping the environment." For more information on this go to

Regardless of the cause, blackouts are little thought about events that have the potential to impact large numbers of you put your kits together, make sure that you're ready if the lights go out.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Do a little, change a lot. The Future of Philanthropy?

Google announced a few days ago the launch of their charity app 'One Today.' The premise is simple, choose from a list of organizations on the app and donate a dollar towards that cause--easy. Think of it like an indiegogo or kickstarter page for charities except with the tacit endorsement of our friends at Google...although Google will deny that they endorse any charity they promote.

Nonprofits looking to post projects need to be a member of google for nonprofits first, once that happens, an organization can be featured on the app. In looking for more information it turns out that a 1.9% fee is taken on each donation and that unless directed otherwise, your donation will go towards the organization's general fund--meaning they can do whatever they want with it.
"The nonprofit will get all of your donation except the payment processing fee of 1.9%, so for every $10 donated, the nonprofit receives $9.81. Unless mentioned otherwise, your donation goes into unrestricted funds that will be used by the nonprofit at its discretionOne Today partners with Network for Good, an industry leader in Donor Advised Funds, to collect money from donors and disburse it to nonprofit recipients. For each transaction that you approved, you will see a line item on your credit card receipt, with the label GOOGLE *One Today NfG." (
While I like the fact that lesser known organizations have the potential to gain exposure through this app, I'm not the biggest fan of a processing fee being taken on every donation given the fact that this app exists to serve the organizations it features. I would suggest that if you find an organization that you like via 'One Today' that you give directly to that organization, that way 100% of your donation goes to them...and remember to specify where you'd like your donation to be spent if you're not comfortable with it going into a general fund.

Aside from some of my misgivings around the business practices that make 'One Today' run, I don't know how I feel about this app and its potential impact on how donors give: Will encouraging individuals to give micro amounts change how they feel about philanthropy in general? Will donors place less importance on a donation of $1 vs $100, and if they do, will that somehow alleviate the burden on the nonprofit to report on their impacts and be accountable to donors because it was only a buck?

Don't get me wrong, I think 'One Today' has the potential to open doors for lesser known nonprofits and help them gain exposure, but wonder if/how pushing a model of micro donations will impact the overall landscape of philanthropic giving.


Monday, August 19, 2013

conquering the mountain

Hi Everyone...I survived. Mount Whitney was beautiful but it threw me a curveball; thanks to some contaminated water I've only recently come back 100%.

I hope to post something later today but I'm back on a regular posting schedule beginning tomorrow

Monday, August 12, 2013

Gone Hiking

Hi friends...I'll be back on Friday...I'm off to go spend some time camping and hiking this guy.

Mt. Whitney

Friday, August 9, 2013

Renters vs Owners

Disasters indiscriminately destroy whatever is in their path; its unbiased destruction puts many on equal footing regardless of socioeconomic status. While it's true that vulnerable populations tend to be disproportionately impacted by disasters, a flood doesn't care how much money you make, and where a tornado touches down has nothing to do with the strength of your investment portfolio. So if the damage caused by these community altering events doesn't discriminate, why do we when we respond?

Look pretty similar to me
Once the dust settles, the rush is on to cleanup and get back to the new normal; however, it's during response/recovery activities that something strange happens, organizations will choose to help one family over another. Of course every organization has the right to determine how they prioritize need based on their mission, but the result is that some families don't receive assistance as quickly because they rent and don't own their homes.

Now when I say "help," I refer to the cleaning and debris removal that needs to be done following an event. I understand that renter's have every opportunity to buy insurance for their belongings, but because they don't own the property, they are seen differently in the eyes of some response organizations.

This differentiation has to do with three factors:
  1. Liability. Finding the property owner to get a release signed so volunteer groups can safely and legally work on the property.
  2. The perception that Rental Properties are Income Properties and as such it is the responsibility of the landlord to take care of their tenant needs--not voluntary resources.
  3. Slumlords / Absentee Landlords. There is a general reluctance to help those individuals continue to profit from their questionable business practices.
There that word is again...who knew trying to help people could be so litigious. In order for groups to use Volunteers, they need to ensure that everyone on site has signed a release of liability and that the homeowner has signed one as well. Oftentimes trying to find and schedule a time when the landlord can meet to sign the necessary paperwork is difficult if not impossible, which is why many renter's are passed over.

Income Properties
Rental properties are income generating properties, this is true, and a myopic view in my opinion. Just like there are butcher's and accountants, there are landlords, people who make a living off renting property. When someone who has several rental properties in a community and all of them are impacted, two things happen: 1) The livelihood of the landlord is put at risk and 2) There are fewer housing units in that community for displaced people to go. 

This is a difficult situation; based on my experiences I've noticed that undocumented families tend to live in units where absentee landlordism is usually the a result, a lot of help that could be given is not because of fear on part of the family and a reluctance on the part of organizations to help a landlord who clearly has no interest in upkeep on their properties.

While renter's are not completely without options, with SBA providing low interest rate loans up to $40,000 to help repair or replace damaged personal items, it still doesn't address the hurdles renter's face in order to receive assistance following disasters.

If a community has surplus rental units available, the issue of re-location for many renters can be dealt with; however, what happens to renters and homeowners in a community like Minot, ND? Minot suffered a critical housing shortage before flooding impacted their community in 2011 displacing the majority of the town. A real consequence of a scenario like this can be that the fabric of a community can dissolve due to families moving to other states and areas where housing stock is available. In the case of Minot, FEMA built temporary housing units, but the lack of housing in rapidly growing communities is a real concern given the challenges renters face when trying to recover from disaster.

I feel that this is something that communities don't realize will be an issue until it's too late, but am unaware of it being a part of the larger community resilience conversation. Regardless of who holds the deed, those four walls and a roof provided more than just shelter for a family, they provided stability and a base to grow this 'whole of community' movement. And while I don't have a clear idea of the steps that need to be taken to bring clarity to this issue, I hope that the groups who work in homes regardless of ownership status continue to do so, as they are providing a great service to help communities fully recover.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Preparedness is about more than having a kit

Having the physical resources to get through a disaster are important: food, water, flashlights, a radio, medicine, a means to charge your phone, etc...these are some of the components that make up the foundation of self-sufficiency that everyone should have in preparation for an event. Many of you probably know much of this because physical preparedness is drilled into our heads, because it's tangible; you can create simple messaging around it and it’s easy to quantify impact and evaluate results. The tougher side, the side that is often overlooked and far more difficult to quantify, is creating social value in learning and passing on the knowledge of relevant information pertinent to response outside of: Make a Plan, Build a Kit, Get Involved.

Make a Plan | Build a Kit | Get Involved
This is the message that gets pushed at all levels of government, simple and straightforward, yet translating awareness into action remains a challenge. In the Booz Allen Hamilton paper: Mitigating Our Nation's Risks: Calling upon the Whole Community an examination of the psychology of behavior and what needs to happen in order to turn awareness into action is discussed. As it turns out, we all think a disaster is going to happen to anyone but us, and as a result, we can be lax in our approach to preparing for an event. This delusion is what ends up hampering response and recovery efforts down the line because many don’t know what to do and more importantly, what to expect.

Teach Someone To Build a Kit and They’ll Know How to Build a Kit
Disaster Preparedness is not just about having a kit and a meeting point, although those are integral aspects to personal preparedness; it’s about education and the setting and managing of expectations in an effort to help mitigate some of the confusion of an overwhelming situation. While there are a host of resources out there that reference preparedness, here are few topics that I think individuals would benefit from if included in preparedness materials:

Insurance: Knowing what you’re covered for and an idea of how the process works will save you time and frustration.
·     How to read your policy
·     What’re you covered for?
·     How do you file a claim?
·     Does an Adjuster have to 
      conduct a site visit before I 
      begin cleaning up?
·     In lieu of a site visit will   
      photos or a video suffice?
Roles & Responsibilities: Knowing who is supposed to do what will work to mitigate a lot of misdirected anger.
·     What is FEMA’s role in         
·     What does the Red Cross 
       actually do?
·     An explanation of the FEMA 
      grant process
Timelines: Having a general idea on timing can help mitigate confusion and anger.
·     Search & Rescue
·     Response
·     Recovery
Long Term Recovery: What happens once everything is cleaned up?
·     Transition from cleanup to 
      Long Term Recovery
·     Long Term Recovery 
      Committee formation
·     Permitting process for 
      repairing and rebuilding

The point of the above is that there are more pieces of information out there that will help create a base level of understanding beyond existing messaging related to disaster preparedness.

So what do we do about it?
We need to approach this like any for profit enterprise would in an effort to try and change mindsets - use Marketing, PR, and Advertising and the many tools it has at its disposal. This is already happening and what's being produced is pretty cool...but in too much of an ad hoc manner. With operational budgets dwindling, finding room for advertising sounds ridiculous, and is. But there are people out there whose sole mission is to change the way we think about soap, toothbrushes, and dish detergent...why can't we hire those minds to help us think through how we can change mindsets around preparedness and do it in a way that will change behavior?

Let's Get Digital
Sites like Khan Academy and Ted Ed are examples of online education 2.0, they are places that people seek out to gain access to new ideas and perspectives...when was the last time you went to to do that or FEMA's Independent Study Website? The opportunity is there to create an online space that can act as a resource clearinghouse while providing access to tutorials, updates, and relevant content promoting preparedness.


Let's Go Old Skool
I vividly remember Officer Grazonty standing in my Elementary School auditorium telling us about ‘Stranger Danger’ and how to be safe on Halloween 20+ years ago. I also remember D.A.R.E from high school, Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Of course we all made fun of it…but we remember it. And finally I remember P.A.S.S. from a safety lecture in reference to how to use a fire extinguisher. Maybe I'm Rainman and have a gift for remembering safety related information...or maybe I was in school and the confluence of age, environment, message, and speaker all worked to indelibly imprint these safety tips in my psyche. Based on that, I believe there are opportunities for integrating disaster preparedness into existing school curriculum: Earth Science, Health, Social Studies, etc...ways to illustrate a disasters' impact and what they can do and encourage their parents to do to help mitigate them.

If we are going to get serious about integrating disaster preparedness into a ‘whole of community’ paradigm, it can’t just be for senior level officers in Non-Profits and Emergency Management. Of course we want those people well versed in all things disaster, but the support of a community who has been involved in the planning will be a far greater asset than those who feel like they've been kept in the dark during response and recovery.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Looking to Avoid Disasters?

As a resident of Los Angeles county and doing what I do, I probably spend more time on the subject of "oh my god, what if there was an earthquake right now?!" than most. It's not the healthiest of things but having seen the terrible power and destruction force that's unleashed when the ground shakes, I feel justified in my paranoia.

Recently I traveled to the Pacific Northwest and came to the realization that I'm not white knuckling the steering wheel for fear of the San Andreas sending Southern California careening into the Ocean. Yes there are threats up there: lots of rain, anyone remember this?, fires, and don't forget about the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a fault line lurking off the coast of the Pacific Northwest that has inspired news articles and movies alike...but it got me thinking...where are the safest places in the US and where are the most disaster-prone?

The NY Times ran what appears to be one of the more comprehensive yet easy to understand graphics illustrating where the hotspots are and where it's nice and quiet. And since its publishing there have been more debates and more events that may change the data somewhat, but overall I would say that much of the information is still valid.

However, if charts and maps aren't doing it for you and you have a few minutes may I suggest you check out Outside Magazine's article "Totally Psyched for the Full Nine Rip." Some call it disaster-porn and others take a more reserved approach in their view of it; I say that regardless of your feelings on the content, even though this article is a tad dated, it always sparks conversation around the what if scenarios it presents...and anything that gets people talking about personal preparedness and what they'd do is a good thing.

And I leave you with this, one of the most explosive film trailers in recent memory, Jeff Bridge's Brother and one of the guys from Psych in: 10.5...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Moving from managing Disasters, to managing Risks

The United Nation's Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has issued their 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, a comprehensive report guessed it, reducing disaster risk. Disaster Risk Reduction is essentially the International equivalent to community preparedness and resilience--working to integrate best practices and workable solutions into communities at risk.

If you've read more than a post or two you've seen the words "preparedness," "resilience," and 'community-based response" dot this blog and for good reason, these words are driving influences behind where and how Emergency Management dollars are allocated. However, transforming these words from rhetoric into action remains a challenge for local, state, and national agencies alike; and as we enter the eighth month of 2013, usually the most active month of hurricane season, 53 events have already been designated disasters by FEMA up from the yearly average of 19 during the 60's.

To be fair, the hard push towards whole of community disaster risk reduction is fairly new and will take time to yield tangible results; this newness coupled with the fact that it’s been non-stop disasters of some kind for as long as I can remember, and an argument for why more communities aren’t better prepared can be made. Then you read an article from Mother Jones where Superstorm Sandy is used as an example of how some of the damage from Sandy could have been avoided, and you begin to question whether that argument is valid. The article cites studies from early 01 and 09 that forecast exactly what happened in late Oct / early Nov of last some cases studies that were commissioned by the city of New York but no action was taken as a result of the findings. 

We continue to hit on the points of: preparedness, resilience, and whole of community in an effort to help bolster preparedness and risk reduction at the local level, yet there seems to be a lack of any kind of political will to enact change. Who wants to spend money on levee re-construction when there hasn’t been a flood? Why shouldn’t we broaden our tax base and rezone riverfront land to build rental properties? Of course the Emergency Manager Position should be the fire or police chief, they have the expertise and the city doesn’t have to pay for another position. With cities going bankrupt, drastic times are calling for drastic measures, even if that means taking risks with lives and property.

It’s easy to say that it’s because programs lack proper funding that the recommendations of the studies conducted are not heeded, when in truth it ends up costing communities more in the long run to ignore them. There needs to be the will of those in power to make unpopular decisions and to do so in the name of preparing and protecting their community. As of July 3rd, Moore, Ok city's council had delayed their vote that would upgrade building codes to mandate that homes have construction techniques that make them more resistant to Tornadic winds, and earlier today, that same city council voted to approve the $32 Million dollar cleanup price tag that will be reimbursed by FEMA.

Maybe the federal government needs to re-evaluate the benchmarks used in determining what constitutes a federal declaration, maybe if communities knew that they’d be on their own unless it was a major event, stronger building codes would already be in place, and the time, energy, and attention needed would be paid to preparedness activities. If those draconian measures aren't politically palatable, then stipulating that in order to receive FEMA assistance, mitigation initiatives need to be a part of their recovery and rebuilding planning. This would send a message that the status quo is no longer acceptable when it comes to repair and rebuild following disasters and that by managing risks we can reduce their impacts.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Volunteers & Liability

Volunteers are the fuel that power many, if not all of the organizations and ad hoc groups that come together in the wake of disaster to aid a community in their recovery. Neighbor helping neighbor and strangers from around the state and country travel to disaster affected communities putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations to expedite a communities recovery. That speed is largely reliant on the productive use of the Volunteer interest while it's available, because once the disaster falls out of the news cycle (if it made it into the cycle) the Volunteer interest will drop and a community will be left to do it themselves.

The surge of Volunteer interest following disasters is nothing new, and Emergency Operation Plans reflect this in the annexes that have been created to help transform Volunteer interest into coordinated action. Even with plans in place and MOU's signed, the biggest challenge in capitalizing on Volunteer interest after a disaster has to do with Liability.
Sweet graphic huh?

I understand that Liability isn't sexy but it can be the single biggest hurdle a municipality faces when translating Volunteer interest into action, mainly because in our overly litigious society, the prospect of being sued when a city is facing the reality of paying for a disaster is the last thing they want to deal with.

One of the many reasons municipalities want as many people to pre-affiliate with an organization as possible is because it clears up the ambiguity around who is responsible for that individual when they're in the field. One of the challenges that spontaneous groups represent to the pre-affiliation model are the questions they bring: who's liable should one of their Volunteers slip and fall in a basement? Are things like workman's compensation something a Volunteer is eligible for? Who’s going to pay for it? What's the homeowners role in this equation? And in the eyes of the law, how do you define a Volunteer?

While the questions around Liability and Volunteers are fairly consistent from event to event, the way in which states interpret and set laws governing liability and Volunteer coverage varies widely.

Thankfully, the good people at have undertaken the herculean effort of amassing a comprehensive guide covering State Liability Laws for Charitable Organizations and Volunteers. This resource document provides a detailed look at how each state view the important role of Volunteers and Liability as it relates to Charitable organizations—if you utilize Volunteers in conjunction with non-profit activities, I recommend looking through this document.

If more local non-profits can gain a better understanding of what their exposure is by providing a platform for Volunteers to work in a community affected by disaster, then the necessary steps can be taken to ensure that more organizations can provide a structured opportunity for them that protects both Volunteer and Organization.

In addition to the benefits this guide can offer local non-profit organizations is the potential to incorporate this information into disaster preparedness literature; the goal would be to help set and manage expectations around Volunteer liability for those who would start spontaneous response efforts via facebook/etc. This one-sheet could be coupled with the necessary paperwork: homeowner and volunteer liability waivers, to ensure that all those who are active in the field have some level of protection—it would also be a way to standardize the language and coverage organizations provide.

The role Volunteers play in the recovery of a community following a disaster is undeniable; oftentimes their involvement can mean the difference between weeks and months of response efforts. As a community of practice who rely so heavily on these well intentioned individuals and groups to fuel our work, ensuring that we arm our Volunteers with as much information as possible will ensure that they are making informed decisions about how best they can contribute to response and recovery activities.