Anyone who has been in the vicinity of an EOC can tell you that communications are likely to fail at some point during an emergency response. Whether communications infrastructure is damaged as a result of the event itself, or a crisis erupts on social media, the adaptability of the ICS structure is more than capable to respond.
According to a 2017 dissertation published by James E. Burroughs of Walden University, there are a number of common factors that lead to the failure of communications in emergency environments. In conducting his study, Burroughs surveyed a number of first responders. Despite their geographic distribution, the respondents shared similar concerns.
Concerns surrounding interoperability of communications technologies have been well documented in AAR reporting, however the lessons remain ‘documented’ only – not learned. Participants in Burroughs’ study outlined policy barriers, the lack of inter-agency training and budgetary constraints as the most significant impediments to full interoperability during emergency response.
In 2011, Public Safety Canada completed the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada (CISC). The Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM) group, with representation from every province and territory, was responsible for overseeing development and implementation of the CISC, but participation by each jurisdiction remained voluntary.
The Interoperability Continuum published in the CISC outlined five elements required for an effective strategy that encompass the recommendations made by Burroughs.
We know how to fix the problem of subpar interoperability. So – what are the barriers to implementation of technologies that have been demonstrated to save lives and enhance mutual aid?
The cynical part of me thinks it comes down to a simple political calculus; another part of me thinks its the inevitable result of a field that hasn’t (yet) had the ‘ear’ of officials charged with implementing comprehensive solutions informed by those with real-world experience. What do you think?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.