Managing the Unthinkable

Disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

The role of the emergency management function is to deal with the unexpected, unpredictable and often unthinkable. Pandemic planning has long been considered, but not in the context of a concurrent natural disaster.

As I write this, Hurricane Laura is set to bring a “catastrophic storm surge” to the Gulf Coast, and California is battling 370 wildfires, a heat wave and rolling blackouts – all while simultaneously managing a pandemic. As Jacob Stern points out in The Atlantic, these disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

In California for example, firefighting forces heavily rely on inmate labour to supplement their ranks. Polluted air has been shown to increase vulnerability to the coronavirus, which inmates may then spread into the close-quarters environment of a correctional institution. Choosing to limit firefighting efforts as a result unleashes a secondary cascade of events beyond the capacities of any one agency.

A civil engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, Mark Abkowitz likens emergency management capacity to a reservoir. Multiple ‘draws’ from the reservoir may lead to insufficient resources getting to where they are needed. In an article for the Vanderbilt Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency, Mr. Abkowitz shares concepts needing clarity by emergency managers when managing multiple simultaneous disasters:

Effective Planning

While risk assessment is a basic tenet of emergency planning, it has not previously been considered for simultaneous disasters. In the event of a natural disaster, how does an organization ensure social distancing protocols are in place in an emergency shelter or in a reception centre? In the event of reduced stakeholder capacity, how are resources allocated? In the current climate, officials need to consider any possible scenario. Business continuity planning is a critical resource to ensure these risks can be effectively planned and managed. 

Logistical Challenges

Not managed effectively, lifesaving resources may be diverted to the wrong locations, and may inadvertently expose more people to harm. In establishing a unified command, consistent with ICS principles, effective coordination of a centralized supply chain can be ensured. As I wrote in a previous post about the Italian response to coronavirus, partial solutions are to be avoided like … well, you know. 

These questions, previously ‘unexpected and unthinkable’ are going to increasingly become commonplace as disasters become more complex and frequent, often overlapping. 

Does your organization have continuity planning in place to handle multiple simultaneous disasters? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to contact me here.

What Literature can teach us about the Response to Coronavirus

While the history books have yet to be written on the worldwide response to COVID-19, a recent article by Anne Applebaum, Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University has provided an interesting take on the response to the coronavirus. 

In 1947, Albert Camus, a French philosopher and journalist published a novel called The Plague. Like other novels of its decade, including Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, the novel is allegorical. That is, while it is purportedly about the occupation of France, it really seeks to illuminate the unseen. As the primary character, Dr. Bernard Rieux bears primary responsibility for treating the afflicted in his town of 200,000, while vainly exhorting authorities to take measures to address the spread before it was too late. 

In modern Italy, the virus first appeared in the northern provinces of Lombardy and Veneto, a region heavily represented by the Northern League, a far-right political party led by Matteo Salvini. As Daniel Trilling reports in The Guardian, the defining feature of populism, namely the mistrust of elites and widely circulated conspiracy theories find the most fertile ground in times of uncertainty. 

[The quarantined town] continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debates?

from The Plague, by Albert Camus (1947)

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, four lessons have been considered that may have helped to mitigate the failure to contain COVID-19 in Lombardy and Veneto:

Skepticism and cognitive bias. Despite warnings that had been weeks in the making, Italian authorities engaged in confirmation bias and viewed with skepticism any position that did not align with their preferred position. This systematic refusal to listen to subject matter experts in the early days of the outbreak (defined from February 21 to March 22) resulted in the region being impacted by an “incessant stream of deaths.” (Pisano, et. al., 2020)

Avoiding partial measures. In response to the initial wave of COVID-19 cases, the Italian government issued decrees concerning lockdown areas (‘red zones’). These red zones were then expanded until they were applied to the whole country. This partial-measure approach backfired for two major reasons. Firstly, the known facts were non-predictive of the situation, so the partial lockdown followed the virus rather than prevented its spread. Secondly, partial lockdowns may have helped to accelerate the spread of the virus as Italians relocated to ‘non-lockdown’ regions, inadvertently spreading the virus to regions it had not been before.

Rapid learning is essential. A feature of ICS is the ability for it to rapidly scale up or down in response to changes in the facts. The Italian health care system is highly decentralized, and newly acquired knowledge was not given the priority it deserved. The article looks at the policy decisions of Lombardy and Veneto officials in depth as the two regions share similar socioeconomic traits, however experienced far different outcomes. Lombardy opted for a more conservative approach, with a strong focus on symptomatic cases whereas Veneto’s strategy was proactive and varied. As of March 26, 2020, the Lombardy region suffered 5,000 deaths in a population of 10 million, whereas Veneto experienced 287 deaths (in a population of 5 million) during the same period.    

Collection and distribution of data. As a corollary to the third lesson, the lack of data dissemination and standardization of virus statistics should be a priority. Documenting both macro (state) and micro (hospital) levels would help authorities to allocate available (often limited) resources accordingly. 

In the uncertain environment in which we find ourselves, both emergency management professionals and policymakers can benefit from the ‘fast tracked’ lessons being developed in real time.

Perhaps fittingly, the heroes of Camus’ novel remain the doctors and the volunteers who use science to contain and control the disease, without indulging fear-based hysteria. According to Dr. Rieux, “[it] may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” (Camus, 1947).

As always, I look forward to reading your thoughts and insights.

Why People Don’t Plan for an Emergency

A majority of households are unprepared for an emergency, according to Statistics Canada

As emergency management professionals know, having an emergency preparedness plan in place is positively correlated to the speed and quality of recovery.

Efforts to improve public preparedness in Canada has included messaging from Public Safety Canada, provincial/territorial emergency management agencies and municipalities. South of the border, FEMA maintains preparedness resources and situational fact sheets to assist U.S. residents. Messaging is repeated on social media platforms and in other online arenas people tend to congregate. 

Yet – despite the ubiquity of resources available, 2014 statistics show that a majority of Canadian households are unprepared for an emergency situation. To account for survey methodology and response bias, similar studies were undertaken in the United States, Australia and Scotland. All produced similar results. 

Despite the obvious benefits of having a personal preparedness plan in place, why do so few households actually have a preparedness plan in place? This question was studied in a January 2020 article by Junghwa Choi and Wesley Wehde in the Journal of Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy

According to Choi and Wehde in studying U.S. residents, the trust of an individual towards the emergency authority may have a strong bearing on their cooperation with emergency preparedness recommendations. The trust of the emergency authority is closely linked to trust levels in government overall, according to public administration scholars.

A possible explanation for this may be rooted in social science. Social proofing, by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion explains the tendency for individuals, when unable to determine the appropriate behaviour, to rely on surrounding people for information. The theory of social proof is driven by an assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the current situation, whether they actually do or not. 

In the obvious uncertainty surrounding an emergency, senior officials responsible for emergency management would be wise to understand and incorporate six principles of influence in promoting emergency preparedness plans. These principles, and their relation to emergency management practise, will be discussed in depth in a future post. 

How does your agency or organization promote preparedness? How do you measure and track whether your constituents have an emergency preparedness plan in place?

A 4-Step Approach to Building Heat Resilient Cities

The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the number of already hot days getting hotter, and increased frequency of deadly heat waves, defined as prolonged periods of excessive heat.  

The global upward trend of extreme heat has contributed to the severity of summer wildfires and drought conditions, and the impacts of heat waves are borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable populations. Factoring in a deadly pandemic, traditional coping mechanisms, including moving vulnerable populations to crowded ‘cooling centres’ may increase the transmission rates of the disease.

In a study in Environmental Research Letters, strategies and a framework to reduce urban vulnerability to extreme heat was discussed. The authors, Wilhelmi and Hayden argue that an interdisciplinary approach is required, including information about weather and climate, the natural and built environment, social processes, interactions with stakeholders and assessment of local community vulnerability. 

In considering exposure to extreme heat, the authors identify ‘urban heat islands’ as compared to suburban and rural environments. The temperature gradient may be as high as 10 degrees in denser developments, due to excess heat absorbed and released from denser development. This differential distribution of heat in urban and non-urban neighbourhoods contributes to an increased perception of risk and vulnerability. Vulnerability can be defined not only by the physical proximity to the risk, but by the safety nets that may or may not be available to affected populations. 

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, chaired by Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles have developed a number of best practises to begin to adapt cities to extreme heat: 

Measure urban heat and vulnerability to understand the risk. Vulnerable population groups, including the elderly, young children and those with underlying conditions are among the most sensitive to extreme heat. Individuals experiencing homelessness and other marginalized groups may not have equitable access to water, green spaces and air conditioning. In addition to identifying these groups, it’s important to identify the local temperature threshold at which heat becomes a threat. 

As an example, in Durban, South Africa, heat vulnerability maps have been created by using information about temperature projections and information regarding urban surfaces (roads and buildings), overlaid with socio-economic data. The result has been a social vulnerability index for sensitivity to heat that can help to guide policy decisions:

Heat vulnerability map of Durban, South Africa

Develop a heatwave response plan. Heat vulnerability maps, once in place can guide policy in advance of heat season. Cities are wise to build collaborative partnerships between governments, meteorological agencies, health and emergency departments, the media and other partners to develop a comprehensive response plan. Building local capacity among health-care professionals and communication with the public may raise greater awareness about the heat risk and ways to negotiate it. 

Cooling centres and cool routes, along with specialized apps to communicate with citizens may help to raise awareness. Cities such as Paris, Athens and Rotterdam have developed the EXTREMA app to assess heat vulnerability and direct vulnerable individuals to local cooling centres. 

Develop long-term plans to reduce the heat threat. Heat mitigation solutions are part of wider urban planning initiatives and may include cool roofs, pavements and road surfaces. Green roofs and walls can also help to reduce temperatures, in addition to increased planting of trees and urban vegetation. Increased vegetation also may help to reduce the risk of flooding. 

The NYC Cool Roofs initiative for example provides local jobseekers with valuable training and work experience, that has since been replicated in Spain and South Korea. 

Raise awareness of actions to reduce urban heat. Developing information materials with broad appeal may help in achieving secondary benefits such as the creation of jobs, reduced energy costs, improved energy security and air quality, and overall well-being of residents. 

Worldwide, heat waves currently impact 200 million people in 350 countries. The Paris Agreement on climate change outlines a target of an overall 1.5 degree reduction, but if this goal is not met, 1.6 billion people may be impacted by urban heat by the 2050s. 

Heat waves are predictable hazards. Mitigation actions by cities and governments may help to address and understand heat risk, particularly for those most at risk.

Understanding and Applying the Sendai Framework to DRR

Our current understanding of disaster and emergency management requires a paradigm shift. For too long, the cycle of disaster -> response -> recovery -> repeat has been the norm. This paradigm shift involves reducing risks themselves, not simply preventing disasters.

In 2000, in recognition of the growing number of people impacted by natural disasters across the globe, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) was formed to support and coordinate organizations in their work building resilient communities. The Sendai Framework for DRR 2015-2030 was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2015 and recognizes the central role that the State has in reducing disaster risk, in consultation with local governments, stakeholders and the private sector. 

Image source: http://www.undrr.org

In response to the unprecedented 2017 flood and fire season in British Columbia, an independent review was commissioned on how emergency management agencies may begin to address the “new normal” of increased natural disasters, both in number and severity. A wide cross-section of perspectives were sought, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, organizations and other stakeholders. 

The recommendations contained in the report fall under four broad themes, consistent with the Sendai Framework on DRR:

Partnerships and participation

The response framework in place during the 2017 disaster season resulted in resources, particularly the B.C. Wildfire Service being stretched beyond its limits. In the midst of an emergent situation, citizens (with an intimate knowledge of their lands) will often take it upon themselves to mitigate the spread of wildfires and damage. Enhanced partnerships with these ‘spontaneous volunteers’ is the subject of much discussion in current emergency management literature, and will be covered further in a future post.

Knowledge and tools

Indigenous and local knowledge is not effectively incorporated in current ICS and incident management planning. Further, the frequent reassigning of personnel during the 2017 wildfire resulted in valuable time being wasted as teams were frequently relocated to other provincial regions. Enhanced technology tools, including LiDAR would assist B.C. in developing more comprehensive preparedness and prevention strategies. A keen and comprehensive understanding of DRR would assist in maximizing Indigenous and local knowledge, incident action planning and the incorporation of enhanced technology. 

Communication and awareness

One of the 14 core features of the ICS system is the need for integrated and interoperable communications, processes and structures. Yet, as anyone involved in an EOC will tell you, communications often fail. In the 2017 B.C. wildfires, those people (rightly) seeking information about the condition of their homes and properties faced innumerable challenges and misinformation spread on social media. In my experience (anecdotally), similar challenges were faced by individuals in the 2013 Southern Alberta floods and the 2016 Fort McMurray (RMWB) Wildfire events. Significant investment in information-sharing between response authorities and the public is required in order to bridge the gap and prevent further trauma to impacted individuals. 

Investment

Interestingly, respondents of the report emphasized the disproportionate lack of resources devoted to the first two pillars of emergency management (prepare, mitigate) as opposed to resources allocated to response. Increased investment in preparedness and mitigation, done effectively, would inevitably decrease the significant draw on resources required by government to respond and recover from disaster events. 

To conclude, increased investment by governments in preparedness and mitigation should be made in partnership with communities and utilizing the knowledge of Indigenous and local stakeholders, consistent with the Sendai Framework. 

Our ‘new normal’ requires us as emergency management professionals to think and act differently about risk. How is your organization or government embedding an understanding of risk into new investments or developments?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

What Wildfire Evacuees Need. Right Now.

Currently in California and Oregon, mass evacuations are underway as a result of three of the nine largest wildfires in that state’s history.

As an emergency responder on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) Wildfire, (commonly known as the Fort McMurray Fires), I had a front-row seat to the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history, with upwards of 90,000 people displaced from their homes and 3,244 structures destroyed. Economic costs as a result of the fires were among the highest in Canadian history to date, with insured property damage estimated at $3.58 billion.

A common feature of disaster season over the past number of years has been the devastating impact of wildfires, and severe economic and environmental consequences as a result. According to Natural Resources Canada, climate change and climate variability have altered patterns of lightning, temperature, precipitation and vegetation. These altered conditions have increased the potential for fire, with some estimates suggesting a doubling of the area burned by the end of the century.

According to some reports, communication gaps contributed to mixed messages to residents regarding the need to evacuate, while others have highlighted how the rapid escalation of the fire overwhelmed the ability to respond. In order to continue to develop best response practises, it is worth considering the unique requirements of evacuees, including the method, breadth and timeliness of information dissemination.

Issues surrounding internal EOC communications, including field interoperability and technology will be covered in a future post.

Information requirements for wildfire evacuees was studied in an article by S.M. McCaffrey et. al. in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters published in 2013. The recommendations outlined in this report reference the residents affected by wildfires in Arizona and Colorado in 2010, but have obvious applicability to future events of this type.

As expected, the authors of the study found that those most impacted by a wildfire event would have the greatest need for information, particularly regarding evacuation, road closures, protection of property and disaster recovery. Previously evacuated survey respondents reflected a common concern that critical information was not provided by authorities in a timely manner. In practise, this lack of timely information provides fertile ground for misinformation to spread, particularly on social media. 

Evacuees have access to multiple information sources. The study’s findings show that evacuees gravitate away from static sources (i.e. radio) towards those that incorporate two-way communication, as in social media. The increased functionality of social media allows evacuees to seek and source locally specific information that may not be available in traditional formats. 

As emergency management professionals, how can we ensure that evacuees have access to information in as timely a manner as possible? The review of literature and anecdotal evidence highlights important trends and lessons that may be applied to future hazards: 

  • Early establishment of credibility. It is important that updates and information be vetted and distributed through the PIO, reporting to the Incident Commander. A ‘bias for candor’, established early in the crisis will go a significant way towards establishment of trust and compliance with subsequent orders.
  • Criticality of consistent, centralized communication. While disruptions, distress and tension cannot be ameliorated completely, it is critical to ensure a coordinated approach to messaging. Establishing early credibility and transparency, from a source deemed credible, goes a long way towards reducing the risk of the disaster becoming ‘weaponized’ by those seeking to spread mis/disinformation.
  • Telling the truth. Most people can handle the truth, it is the obfuscation and withholding of information that does a great deal of damage. Understandably, Command Staff are reluctant to release information that may cause further distress to those affected. Paradoxically, this ‘bias for candor’ but may reduce the risk associated with those who would seek to assess property damage on their own.
  • Demonstrating empathy. In a response scenario where “all hell is breaking loose”, it is sometimes hard to remember the people we are serving, in many cases, are having the worst day of their lives. As the saying goes, “ Before people will listen to you, they need to know you care about them.” To this end, employing social media monitors, to engage in a two-way dialogue with affected individuals offering psychosocial supports is a critical element of the response.

In a disaster scenario, emergency responders are wise to invest in resources and initiatives that may assist impacted individuals with factual, empathic and transparent communications.

I look forward to hearing your input. Any feedback or questions can be directed to me at @AlisonPoste on Twitter, or to AlisonPoste@gmail.com.