Friday, February 26, 2010

Earthquakes--an epidemic of biblical proportions

Someone tipped me off to this chart about historical major earthquake activity. I was thinking about blogging about it when a 6.9 earthquake hit Japan with tsunami warnings. I can't vouch for the accuracy of that chart but it is surprising, even earth shaking.

As Haiti all too clearly demonstrates, earthquakes are one of the hardest events to prepare for, particularly in poverty stricken areas without solid infrastructure and building standards. If there is some kind of epidemic underway, it makes one think about what can or should be done to prepare. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest and the last shaker I was in is still relatively fresh in my mind (Nisqually quake, 2001) there is some urgency to this question.

What does it mean to be resilient in regard to threats from earthquakes? I don't have the technical expertise to deal with predictions, resistance, mitigation, resource management and all the myriad issues involved in emergency response planning. But looking at public communication, there are a number of things that are important in preparing. A few comments and suggestions:

- understand the importance of public information in an earthquake--as in any event, one of the things people will be most desperate for is information. Am I still in danger? How do I find my family? Is everyone alright? Where can I get help? Where do I get food, shelter, water, protection. Where can I get medical help? Who can help with rescues? Etc. Haiti was ill-prepared in this regard as well, but stories coming out of Haiti regarding the lone radio station still operating and the use of social media to share messages heightens the extreme need to take public information into consideration in planning.

- assume everything is gone--operations centers, IT infrastructure, cell towers, people, transportation, everything--but you still have to communicate. Katrina taught us (not well it seems based on the incredible investment in very expensive EOCs) that we can't assume our operations centers and technology will be there when we most need it. To plan based on losing everything you count on is not an exercise in apocalypse but one of practicality. The fact is, if you are there left standing, there are ways to maintain communication. External hosting of communication systems is critical. Geographic redundancy of hosting is critical. Access to people outside of the earthquake area who can use your communication system is critical. Communicating with them--ultimately with satellite phones--is critical. Building a team beyond those you would normally call in is essential. The truth is major events show that things do go on in worst case scenarios, but they can be implemented much quicker and easier if there is planning that assumes far more catastrophic losses than we dare contemplate.

- understand that resilience starts with character and training. I mentioned The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley in an earlier post. How you respond in an event depends largely on two things--who are really are in terms of character, personality, strengths, etc. Some people are capable of operating in the worst of all possible situations, and some simply are not. You can find that out in part by extreme training--that is very realistic drills and scenarios. These do two things in my mind: help you understand better how you will react and perform, and build mental muscle memory so that certain critical actions become automatic. And this can be lifesaving in a major event.

Effective response even in earthquakes comes down to the people caught in them and the people helping those caught in them. Resilience means building that strength to endure, respond and recover one precious soul at a time, starting with ourselves.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Unthinkable--What EM pros need to think about

Perhaps I’m the only one in the crisis and emergency management industry that hadn’t yet read Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why. Now that I have read it I can only say one thing to those involved in any form of crisis or emergency management: read it.

I will tell you why. Those thinking hard and long about emergency management have a tendency to think very top down. We picture ourselves floating in above the chaos below like a helicopter to the rescue or like God or some gods come to save the wretched masses who are helpless and pitiable victims just waiting for us to come and clutch them from disaster. That approach seems inherent in most response plans. It is perhaps unavoidable but I think reading this book will provide a healthy antidote to pure top-down thinking about crisis and emergency management.

The truth is, and I never saw it so clearly as I did reading this book, resilience starts in all of our hearts and characters. Perhaps one image from the book can help communicate this more clearly. When an Air Florida flight crashed into the Fourteenth Street Bridge and then the frozen Potomac river in a snowstorm, only a handful of survivors made it out of the plane. They clung to the plane’s tail, waiting for rescue. They watched as spectators gathered on the bridge and the riverbank. When rescue vehicle arrived with red lights flashing their hopes were lifted even while they tried to stay alive in 34 degree water filled with floating ice. But none of the rescuers could help. There was not the equipment, resources, training, or anything else needed. Even the will. But one sheet metal worker jumped in the nearly frozen water before they even arrived. He never made it to the survivors. He was in the water nearly twenty minutes and only half way there when a brave helicopter pilot swooped in to pick up the five of 79 who survived the crash. The would be rescuer, Roger Olian, was one of two by-standers who jumped in to save them. And the victims credit him with keeping them alive by keeping their hopes up. Olian yelled at them as he struggled toward them. And seeing him do all he could to help them, while the rest stood by kept the hopes and the fighting spirit alive in those few clinging to the plane.

Emergency management planners need what this book has to tell us. We need to understand how people will react during a disaster, emergency or crisis. For example, I found much to my surprise while panic strikes some (and it can be deadly) the most common reaction in situations of extreme fear is paralysis. A kind of mindless lethargy sets in. Which is why flight attendants are trained to yell and scream at passengers and why Rick Lescora, security manager for Morgan Stanley in the Trade Center tower collapse absolutely knew what he was doing.

The truth about resilient people, organizations, and communities is that they do not really depend on us. That may sound disheartening but if so you are probably guilty of top down thinking. Our jobs are to increase that resilience, and we do it so much better if we understand that people have remarkable abilities to take care of themselves as they have remarkable tendencies to take care of each other. Our job is not to push this away in favor of “the professionals,” but our job is to build this, foster this, support and encourage it. One seaside community did a tsunami drill with no fire fighters, police officers or first responders involved. Why? Because disaster history will show that frequently they are not there to help—victims of the disaster itself. Creating and fostering that self-reliance and independence is the first step to building real resilience.

Since my focus is on public information I came away from this book with a far deeper understanding of the critical role that public information plays before, during and after bad things happening. What people know, what has been drilled into their heads, what they understand about an event will frequently save their lives and others around them. That’s how one school girl in the 2004 tsunami who knew the signs didn’t stand around and watch the water disappear, but got her family and others to safety while hundreds of others in the village died. It’s also why clear, concise, loud and repeated messages must get to the public before and during an event.

In Haiti we are witnessing right now the high costs of a non-resilient community. Yes, there are great stories of heroism, sacrifice, courage and incredible personal resilience. And community resilience begins here, in each individual’s mind, heart and personality. One thing is clear regarding Haiti, a brave and resilient people deserve much more from their government and the rest of the world.

It is to the credit of our national emergency planners that citizen preparedness is one of the eight national priorities. I certainly have seen efforts from the local, state and national level to try to help people prepare. But I understand better than ever why most of these efforts are doomed to fail—or at least not meet expectations or the great need for citizen-based preparedness. I see efforts at Citizen Corp and CERT—all laudable and important. But there still is a great gap and Ripley’s story telling will help make that gap clear to almost anyone who reads it.

One thing that this book will do for you if you have not read it is make you understand that you are fortunate to be involved in so important a field as emergency management. The challenges are as great as the stakes are high. But you won’t feel that what you are doing doesn’t really matter.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

DHS Monitoring Social Media in Winter Olympics--an operational issue

As required by law, the DHS has published a Privacy Impact Statement about its monitoring activity--in this case monitoring social media outlets for security reasons for the Vancouver Winter Olympics (of special interest to me since I live only 40 minutes from Vancouver, BC).

What most emergency manager types will find surprising is that they are doing this for operational security purposes as described in the document: The Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS), National Operations Center (NOC), has launched a 2010 Winter Olympics Social Media Event Monitoring Initiative (Initiative) to assist the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components involved in the security, safety, and border control associated with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC). The NOC is using this vehicle to fulfill its statutory responsibility to provide situational awareness and establish a common operating picture for the federal government, and for those state, local, and tribal governments, as appropriate, assisting with the security, safety, and border control associated with the Olympics.

Clearly, understanding what is going on in the discussions on social networks via the internet is of importance in gaining situational awareness. And situational awareness is what the agency is required by law to provide:
The law defines the term “situational awareness” as “information gathered from a variety of sources that, when communicated to emergency managers and decision makers, can form the basis for incident management decision-making.” OPS is launching this Initiative to fulfill its legal mandate to provide situational awareness and establish a common operation picture directly related to the security, safety, and border control associated with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC.

As someone actively involved in developing Joint Information Center plans for major urban areas, this is of significant interest. We are beefing up Social Media monitoring sections in our JIC plans and placing them under the Assistant PIO for Information Gathering. But, how does this connect to Command? Should this section be part of the Situation Status Unit of Planning? More and more the JIC is becoming less and less about pushing out an occasional press release, but becoming an integral part of the operation of the total response.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Don't let bad reporting dampen public/private partnerships

Public/private partnerships in large disasters are critical. The upside is becoming increasingly clear. But there is a very big dark side to public/private partnerships and Haiti demonstrates some of the hazards for private companies of getting involved.

Steve Duin is a blogger and columnist for the Oregonian out of Portland. Like most journalists writing for local or regional outlets, he reports on the local connection to the Haiti disaster. Here he blogs about two companies, TEC Equipment and Evergreen Helicopters--both Oregon companies and both involved in Haiti. But he puts the white hat on TEC and the black hat squarely on Evergreen.

Why is Evergreen such a bad guy in Haiti? Because they refused (apparently) to help a French search and rescue team fly into Haiti and instead a pilot reportedly quoted them an outrageous price of $7000 an hour to fly them into Haiti on one of their helicopters. Not one to mince words or hesitate to pass judgment, Duin says of Evergreen: "Yikes. Ghoulishly opportunistic to the bitter end. "

Now, if you read the rest of the article, you will find it isn't quite the story that Duin pretends it is in the first part of the article. First he reports that someone else from the company explained that the overheard conversation was not what it sounded like, but a conversation between pilots comparing rates. Second, the president of the company pointed out that Evergreen has been very involved in charity flights in Haiti including moving people in from World Vision and a team of doctors from Texas Tech. It is to Duin's credit that he allowed this information into his story--but only after he told the story the way he wanted to, refusing the allow the facts to get in the way of his pre-conceived story.

Yes, I think the comments are out of line and unfair. But that is not the point here. There are alot of private companies and organizations who stepped up big time to help out in Haiti. But no private company has the capability of meeting all the desperate needs that are there and they do not have the apparently endless financial resources of the American taxpayer to be able to pay for all their good intentions. Clearly those who are there are well positioned to help out even if someone else is paying the bill and likely some or many positioned themselves for that. Does it make them evil if they now make their services, equipment, people and resources available for hire? I don't think so. I'm sure there are a great many more reporters other than Duin who would be eager to find a sordid story of opportunism of which there no doubt will be many. But when reporters jump on this and turn companies like Evergreen into really creepy bad guys who don't care about the people of Haiti but are there just to make a buck, what private company will be willing to respond? No one wants to take the reputation hit of being called a profiteer. No one wants to be accused of ghoulish opportunism.

From what little I can see from this article, Duin owes Evergreen an apology. But more than that, he and other reporters need to understand that their natural tendency to hype the evil that no doubt will be found in the behavior of some bad apples, could have some pretty devastating and unintended consequences for disaster response and recovery in the future. Governments involved in major disaster relief need all the private help they can get. We don't need reporters eager to put the black hats on well-meaning people to scare them off.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rumor Management--a great JIC and PIO Lesson from American Airlines

Rumor management is now one of the most important jobs of the PIO and the Joint Information Center. It may indeed be the most important job. That's because the media, the public and everyone else will be getting a lot of their information from all kinds of other sources except you and the JIC. You simply can't beat Twitter, twitpic, Facebook and all those outlets--and increasingly that is where the media gets their info.

But, is that info correct? Certainly not always. So what happens is you have a lot of people, citizen journalists, communicating what they know or pooling their ignorance about the event. Much of what they say will be wrong, mistaken or in some cases, intentionally wrong. So, the PIO needs to monitor, monitor monitor and then be in a position to respond very quickly. But, you say, how do I monitor and how do I respond quickly?

Here is a terrific example of how it works. A rumor spread quickly that American Airlines was offering free flights to Haiti. One wrong tweet got retweeted in mere moments by tweeters with huge audiences. One of them, Rainn Wilson (of Office fame) has 1.8 followers, and of course they have followers who have followers. The point is at the speed of the internet the word went out about the free flights. So, how does American deal with this?

I suggest that this should serve as a model for PIOs and crisis communicators Read the article for details but the highlights are: 1) they moved fast! 2) they used social media to get their message out 3) their social media outreach included the mainstream media and when NYT retweeted their messages the rumors started to die.

It should be clear, if it isn't already, that 1: rumors may happen about your agency and your event 2) they will be spread with lightning speed, or I should say speed of light speed 3) social media will be the primary way they go viral, but the media may report them as facts 4) if you are not prepared NOW to deal with the rumors, there is no way you can react fast enough to keep them from getting firmly entrenched 5) a lie (or rumor) repeated often enough becomes the truth, and that applies to all unchallenged rumors.

So, get prepared.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Social Media as a 9-1-1 Option? Social media in Haiti.

This blog post from Coast Guard Petty Officer Walter Shinn about how social media has been and is being used in Haiti to help save lives reminded me of a very important issue emerging in emergency management. What happens when people start relying on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. to call for help? In desperate situations such as Haiti, as the linked post shows, it may be the only way, and for humanitarian reasons it is being encouraged and that is the right thing to do.

Shinn reports: To get better information, a Distress Short Message System Short code number, 4636, was set up through the Department of State to allow those in Haiti to send in their distress messages via a text message. This number was then sent to every cell phone on the Haitian network.

A story I blogged about before from Australia is another example. Two young girls fell into an abandoned well and became trapped. Fortunately, they had a cell phone. Unfortunately, they forgot that the numbers on the phone were for making phone calls, and instead of calling 000 (Aussies 9-1-1) they sent a message to their Facebook page that they were trapped. You see, to these 10 and 12 year old girls, that device they carried with them was a text message machine for them to connect to friends. They forgot or never learned that most of the rest of it think about it as a mobile phone, particularly convenient in a life or death situation. Fortunately one of their friends saw the Facebook message and called authorities and the girls were rescued.

So, why is this an issue? Because what happens when people, particularly young people, start seeing social media and the text message machines in their pockets and purses as the way to ask for help? Do police, fire and 9-1-1 centers have an obligation to answer? Should first responders do what they are doing in Haiti and start promoting short codes so citizens can text for help? Should agencies start setting up social media monitoring operations similar to what the Coast Guard auxiliarist did to make sure all social media calls for help are answered?

The Coast Guard themselves asked this question in a blog post last summer, troubled by the potential implications on response agencies when people start shifting to these methods of communication.

This is a very challenging issue for emergency management professionals. But one thing is certain, sticking our head in the sand about it won't make it go away. I'm guessing this is going to become increasingly urgent and there is no simple answer. Twitter is remarkably unreliable, but what happens when people start counting on it to ask for urgent help? And how will the fire department answer the question posed by a reporter when they ask: "If you were monitoring Twitter and you saw this call for help, why didn't you respond? You do monitor Twitter don't you?"

The stories coming out of Haiti right now, good news stories about the role of social media, will only add to the urgency in dealing with this issue.