[Welcome / Introduction]
Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone and welcome to
EMForum.org. I am Amy Sebring and will serve as your Host and Moderator
today and we are very glad you could join us.
Today’s group discussion asks the question “Are Your Emergency
Operations Plans Realistic?” This relates to not only the planning
assumptions about hazards, public reactions etc., that underlie these
documents, but also assumptions about the capabilities and resources
that can actually be brought to bear in a large disaster. As
mentioned in our announcement, this program was inspired by a couple of
articles recently posted by today’s guest.
We will have a few opening remarks from our guest, but then we will dive
into our discussion. We have posted ten questions to stimulate
the conversation, and hopefully you have had a chance to look them
over. For each question, we will be displaying a polling tool that
you can use to participate. You should find that fairly
Now it is my pleasure to introduce today’s guest, author, blogger and
emergency management consultant, Lucien Canton. Lu has extensive
emergency management experience including being a certified EMAP
Assessor. In the course of his assignments he has had the
opportunity to review many emergency operations plans and continues to
find erroneous assumptions in them. Please note that Lu publishes a
free monthly newsletter which you can subscribe to from his website.
You can find further biographical details and links to the articles and
also to his newsletter page on our Background Page.
Welcome back Lu, and thank very much for taking the time to be with us
today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.
Lucien Canton: Thanks, Amy. It’s really a pleasure to be
here and I’m excited about this new format we’re trying. A
lot of times when we do these things I am standing here talking to
myself. The word is going out and I don’t get a lot of feedback
from folks. This is an interesting way to get you to direct the
comments I’m going to be making.
Kind of what gets me going on this—over the years as many of you who
have been reading my material know —I have felt that focusing on
strictly the emergency management plan is not really what we do as
emergency managers. We have a larger scope on that.
Obviously emergency planning is something I focus on quite a bit and try
to figure out what is the best role for us.
As I have looked at plans over the years one of the things that keeps
striking me is that the plans are written to meet standards or written
to meet grant requirements but they don’t seem like plans that would
work realistically. A lot of times as an assessor or someone who
is evaluating plans as part of the National Plan Review or even as an
consultant, nobody really asks me whether I think the plan will work—all
they ask me to comment on is if it meets a particular standard.
It may be time for us to rethink how we got to where we are, how we do
planning, and maybe look at making some changes. There are main
three trends that have brought us to where we are today. The first
is an increasing role of the federal government in disaster
relief. By the federal government, that also translates down to
If we go back to the earliest legislation dealing with disaster relief
back in 1790 we see there was an emphasis on individual
responsibility. The person that suffered the disaster had to bear
the consequences. In rare occasions the state would step in and do
something—for example, the legislation in 1790 was a relief of excise
There was very little role of government in the early days. We
look through history—what continues to happen is the edge of the
envelope gets pushed a little bit. You had the fires in Alexandria,
Virginia where Congress for the first time appropriates money and then
you have a lot of discussion as we get into the late 1800s about the
role of government.
It is interesting to study the history and look back and notice there
were a lot of folks in Congress and across the country who were pushing
back against the idea of federal disaster relief. The upshot is
that we have seen this over the years increasingly more and more
emphasis on the role of government in disaster relief and less and less
of the individual in disaster relief until we have gotten now from the
point of view where it is no longer a person’s responsibility but it has
become a government entitlement.
Along with that, I think, has come a change in how we view
disasters. By that in the early days there was an acceptance that
if you performed risky behavior there will be consequences and
inevitably in every disaster, some casualties. We have changed
attitude from where we used to, as emergency responders look at doing
the most good for the most people to changing that to looking at
something more like no casualties are acceptable at all.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is one of the things I
think that makes the United States different from a lot of other
countries but it adds a layer of complexity to our planning and it
changes the way we view people. We’ve come to part of this
disaster mythology of saying that clearly because it is government’s
role to take care of everybody people are not necessarily responsible
for their own welfare and we can’t necessarily count on them to do
things well in disasters. I think that is an inherent underlying theme
in part of our plans.
The second trend that has gone along with that is if you are putting the
role of disaster responder or disaster relief provider on the
government then you need some sort of way to fulfill that
responsibility. Concurrent with that emphasis on government
responsibility we have seen the rise of, for lack of a better term, what
we call the disaster bureaucracy.
We have seen the emergence of government agencies that are responsible
for disaster planning. We have seen it at the state and local
level and we have developed this whole mechanism of imposing how
government can structure planning, and response and relief after
disasters. On the other hand we sometimes forget that came
from a very specific type of planning that we had to do and that was
Cold War planning.
Initially the role of the government was about Cold War planning and the
people that were brought in to do these plans were military
planners. Military planning follows a very, very set format.
It is essentially contingency planning. From that we have sort of
evolved to plans where we try to anticipate every possible occurrence.
We come up with checklists. I think Lee Clark really speaks to it
well. What we are doing is trying to convince ourselves that we
can control something we probably can’t control. So we end up with
very structured plans that meet standards but don’t necessarily talk to
particular resources of the jurisdiction.
Don’t get me wrong—I fully support standardization. I think having
standards—these are the minimum things you ought to meet—I think they
make an awful lot of sense and move things in the right direction.
But on the other hand the “one size fits all” type of planning we do
right now takes away two things. One is that each jurisdiction has
a unique set of hazards and unique set of resources so you have to take
that into account.
The second is that we also are getting away from the research shows us
that when people respond to disasters it is creativity, improvisation
and doing things other than the way you expect it. These are the
things when we look at successful operations, this is what
happened. All of us that have experienced disasters know that it
never goes the way you expect it to go.
You change your mind at the last minute. You do things the way you
have never done them before. You get creative. You get
ideas from other people. So we change how we do things based on the
disaster. By building these rigid plans we are not necessarily
training our people to respond well using that level of creativity.
The third thing I think is important is now that we have dumped this
responsibility on government and have created this bureaucracy to deal
with it, now we have turned around and cut the funding to it. I
think that is probably the single biggest thing we are all dealing
with. We have the responsibility to do these very complex
plans. When you start looking at things we have added over the
years—concerns about functional needs, concerns about populations that
are less advantaged than some others in the community, looking at
different community organizations—what we are finding is it is a very
complex plan and we don’t have the resources to do the planning.
When we start talking about planning resources sooner or later we
get caught up in this—you have to plan for it because it is a grant
requirement. One of the things that frustrates me as a consultant
is a lot of times when I am called into a jurisdiction and we start
talking about their emergency operations plan it is never, “Can you help
us do a plan that works?”, its always, “Can you help us do a plan that
meets the requirement?”
I’ll give you a classic example. I was working with a small
jurisdiction. It is interesting—they had the standard plan—the
three-inch binder with all the annexes and all the checklists and they
had NIMS and ICS—it was a perfect plan. Then I asked how many
people worked in their government. This is the entire
jurisdiction—they had 26 government employees.
Clearly that plan was not realistic for them. When you start
asking questions of people about how they deal with crises on a day to
day basis you’ll find it is very different from what is written in the
emergency operations plan. That brings you to where I am now.
I have to admit a lot of ideas I’ve been thinking about the past few
weeks are very formative. There is obviously a lot of good stuff
we’ve done over the years and I don’t want to throw the baby out with
the bathwater, but on the other hand I think it is time we start looking
at some other options and consider what we’ve done well and turn it
into something we can reasonably expect to do at the local level in
terms of the funding and the staffing we have available.
Maybe that involves some prioritization of certain tasks we’d like to be
able to do but these are the things we have to do as a core.
Maybe then a larger jurisdiction has a greater responsibility because
they have more resources and certainly larger jurisdictions have unique
needs that have to plan for as well. Then we get into regional
My ideas are very formative about this. That is one of the reasons
I am very excited about the seminar today is so I can get some of your
feedback on this and whether you think I am totally off –base. I’m
going to turn it over to Amy and get started on our questions.
Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Lu. That is a good segue
into our first couple of poll questions. They are closely related so we
have grouped them together. Please note on these first few questions
you can select more than one answer.
1. For local communities, whose priorities SHOULD drive planning?
a. Local 39/41 95%
b. Regional 13/41 32%
c. State 2/41 5%
d. Federal 0/41 0%
2. For local communities, whose priorities ACTUALLY drive planning?
a. Local 9/41 22%
b. Regional 7/41 17%
c. State 24/41 59%
d. Federal 21/41 51%
Lu, do you have specific comments on those questions?
Lucien Canton: Many of the questions we get—there aren’t really
easy answers. Obviously from my perspective local priorities are
your starting point. Clearly I think one of the problems with the
“one size fits all” plan is that we are really trying to impose
something where we aren’t really considering the fact that a local
jurisdiction has different needs, different risks, different resources
and cultural attitudes.
There are some jurisdictions where what we would consider a disaster is
what happens every year. I am fond of talking about a community in
Guam that gets hit by just about every hurricane that comes through
Guam and they just learn to live with it. They don’t want to move
because this is where their home is.
While local priorities drive it you have to start thinking about
regional planning as well. The reasons for that—and we’ll talk
about this later with resources—you just don’t have the resources
anymore in any single jurisdiction to deal with crises. We are
really stretched to deal with day to day emergencies.
We are reaching out to our counterparts for mutual aid and reaching out
to the state. I think this is a good system that we have evolved
in the United States, that we certainly want to retain, but the
priorities have to first of all be local but looking at the rest of the
The thing that is interesting about this topic in general, in talking
with my colleagues one on one there is total agreement. The people
who are doing these—they aren’t happy with the plans they are doing
either. The point is that if we started listening more to people
in the field and a little less of people looking at things from the
perspective of “it looks good on paper” and looks logical and makes
sense. You have to leaven that with how it works at the local
level. We don’t get fourteen different people in multiple groups
for emergency functions. What we really have is one representative
from the parks and recreations department who does 400 different
Geary Sikich: We focus on symptoms versus consequences and that
results in assumed capacities versus actual capabilities reflected in
plans. Most plans fail to address beyond the response - what are
the elements of re-entry, recovery, restoration, resumption of ops?
Lucien Canton: I couldn’t agree more. One of the things
we have is this idea of fantasy plans. One of the articles is
based on fantasy documents which come from Eric Auf Der Heide’s book on
disaster coordination. We make assumptions about our capabilities
because no politician wants to stand up in front of his jurisdiction and
say, “We’re not ready.”
We give this impression that we have all these resources and
capabilities but the reality is somewhat different. We really
don’t base on plans on what we actually have. We tend to believe
our own press. On the other hand we have done well over the years.
I am proud to be an emergency manager in the United States because we do
respond very well. A lot of times that is because people who know
what they are doing and are well-intentioned get it done by
improvising. It isn’t necessarily because they have done this
major plan beforehand. It is because they have built relationships
and because they understand their business and there is mutual trust
among different agencies.
Timothy Riecker: Given that we must meet federal and state
planning requirements, what do you suggest we do to ensure a practical
plan that can be implemented?
Lucien Canton: That is the rub. If I had an answer for
that I would probably be making a lot more money. I am still
evolving ideas. Obviously the first easy one to say is to say that
let’s change the way feds look at business and any of us who have
worked with the federal government know that is not as easy as it
You have to strike a balance. Clearly there are requirements out
there you have to meet. The question becomes—what are the things
that have to be real? One of the things I look at when I start
talking to jurisdictions is how often does your team meet and run
through tabletops. Everyone is concerned about functional and
full-scale and they cost money but you can do tabletops very simply.
What I’m looking for normally is if people are building the
relationships they need. Who are involved in your
discussions? Are community groups involved? I remember one
organization came down and changed emergency directors and they threw
out everybody that was meeting at their monthly meeting and brought in
just police, fire and emergency medical.
It is a little bit incestuous. Sure those are the big response
agencies but the whole idea of transitioning to recovery and dealing
with community issues and people’s functional needs—all that went out
the window. They rapidly reversed that about six or seven months
later when they got a new emergency director.
You have to work on two fronts. The first is meeting whatever
criteria you have with the least amount of effort you can put into it
but making sure anything you actually put out can be done
realistically. We have to push back a little bit. The other
side of it is we have advocates in people like Craig Fugate.
If we communicate with them—I have a great deal of respect for Craig and
I have a great deal of respect for things he has been trying to do for
FEMA but he needs help. He can’t do it all by himself. The
more we, at the local level, make our opinions known through our elected
officials, or directly supportive of some of the initiatives—I think
that’s the only way we can approach this.
Steven Spies: How do you define the term "Regional?" Does it incorporate multiple communities, or counties, or states?
Lucien Canton: I think locally because I have been a local
emergency manager—I have been at both the federal and local level but
not at the state. I look at—there are communities that are in
close proximity to each other that draw on resources from each other on a
day to day basis. I think that is your first starting point.
If we start talking about catastrophic planning, that changes a little
bit and you have to look at a larger region. From a regional
perspective I think in terms of those folks who are used to working with
each other and responding to each other. Maybe one community
can’t afford all the resources but as a group you can afford, for
example, a bomb detection or HazMat teams, or something like that.
I have also seen regional where it works at a county level. There
are some very small jurisdictions in California where a lot of response
capability that we think that a local jurisdiction would have actually
comes out of the county. Law enforcement is provided by the
sheriff, fire is provided by the county fire. So in that case I
think the county becomes the region.
I don’t think it is a hard and fast definition. You have to look
at who are your partners and how much you rely on those outside
Avagene Moore: Is it possible that the number of emergency managers and local jurisdictions can use their clout to drive change in planning?
Lucien Canton: Yes and no. As a group emergency managers don’t
have a lot of political clout. Particularly if you look in a
jurisdiction where there is only one of us—but I think one of the things
we are seeing more and more, and if we have time at the end I will talk
about some of the positive things that are going on—we have a lot of
community groups that are starting to get interested in what we do.
We can start leveraging those and their political clout. You have
homeowners associations that are working with some counties. You
have the CERTs who form a small group as well. One of the problems
is we really don’t have a good political constituency. The more
we can unite—the International Associations of Emergency Managers does
an awful lot of educating of our legislators.
Participation in groups like that, building you local constituency and
getting people on your side—stop looking at it as us against them but
rather we are representing the community and this is what the community
is saying, not just us.
Amy Sebring: Our next question goes to hazard-specific plans vs. the All Hazards approach:
3. Which hazards should local communities plan to respond to?
a. Those that have historically occurred 14/42 33%
b. Unlikely threats 2/42 5%
c. Future climate trends 4/42 10%
d. "All Hazards" approach 39/42 93%
Lucien Canton: You pick the wrong one and it
happens. I tell people you have to look historically. If it
happened before it will happen again. It may be happening
something different but I largely believe with few exceptions that there
is nothing new under the sun.
Sometimes people say this has never happened before but I go back and
say, “In 1715 that happened in this town.” You can play that
game. The real issue is to discuss what we mean by all
hazards. Unfortunately what we are seeing more and more is the
intent to say that you have to identify every potential hazard and work
out a plan for how to deal with that.
We have these very specific hazard appendices and annexes. We have
to go back and think that with all hazards I have to be able to deal
with anything that comes along with pike within a certain range of level
of disasters but that doesn’t mean I have to plan for every single
possible disaster. We need to think not so much in terms of agent
generated needs but response generated needs. Can we do
sheltering? What are the conditions under which we would do
sheltering? If we didn’t have our shelter sites, what would be our
You think in terms of depth. When you start thinking about
contingency planning is when you have specific identifiable
hazards. If you have an inundation zone in your community you
really need to plan for that because you can. You know where the
water is going and you can do some detailed planning. That becomes
a contingency plan.
If you say that an asteroid could strike my hometown so I am going to
have an asteroid strike annex—that might be something you put towards
the bottom of the planning list. Plans are something we should
look at in terms of continuous improvement. I like to say an emergency
plan is nothing more than a snapshot of your thinking at that point in
time and your planning continues to evolve.
If you have time to do more and more contingency planning, that’s
great. A lot of times we try to do too many things at once instead
of focusing and fixing this and then that. We have to do the same
thing with hazards. We have to prioritize. We have gotten
away from the idea of risk assessment—of looking at the risk and saying,
“That is a possibility but right now this is a bigger
possibility. I need to focus on that.”
Really to get away for planning for specific hazards unless you are
doing contingency planning—rather looking and saying, “Consequence-wise,
what am I dealing with here? I know power is going to go
out.”—part of my risk analysis is how long is the maximum I could be
without power and what would be the consequences of that.
I think that is the way of looking at this. Instead of focusing
specifically on the incident, use that to look at the impacts and say,
“I have a capability to deal with that or I need a capability to deal
Geary Sikich: The occurrence of extreme events cannot be
predicted from a review of past history. Worst case events when
they happen, exceed the worst case at the time. The worst past
event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent – selection bias.
Lucien Canton: I think Geary’s point is well-taken. One of the
risks we run into is that we say that because it happened in the past it
is going to happen exactly that way. It doesn’t. It is
always going to be different. If you are in an area where you know
there have been hurricanes, you need to plan for hurricanes.
Here in California we plan for earthquakes. What none of us
planned for was when we got a call that there was a funnel cloud forming
over the airport. I didn’t know what a funnel cloud was. I
didn’t realize we got tornados in California. You have to kind of
keep your eye open.
Our question became—how would we respond to a tornado or something we
have never thought about? We started breaking it down in terms of
what would be the stuff we need—we would have damage, we would need to
do search and rescue—all which were skills we had available. That
is the point of all hazards planning. You take the incident and
break it down into its component parts and look at the needs that it is
going to generate and say if I have that capacity or don’t have that
Here there are 30,000 people in San Francisco that are going to need
sheltering after an earthquake. Do we have that number of shelter
beds as at least a minimum to get started? The other thing we
sometimes don’t look at is timing on response. There are certain
things you need to provide right away and certain things that will be
uncomfortable but you can live without for a few days.
We sometimes think of providing everything all at once rather than
saying that we only have resources to move certain things so let’s move
these things first. A classic example—they set us out for an
operation in Kwajalein and we put all the important people in the first
aircraft. When we got there we couldn’t work because we didn’t put
any of the dumb stuff like paper on the aircraft with us—printers,
computers. We sent the wrong things out here.
Amy Sebring: The next question is asking about the so called “core capabilities” required for an All Hazards approach.
4. What are the essential response capabilities for “All Hazards” response planning?
a. Continuity of Operations 25/37 68%
b. Public Warning 21/37 57%
c. Evacuation 18/37 49%
d. Communications 27/37 73%
e. Resource management 28/37 76%
f. Other 10/37 27%
Lucien Canton: This is one of the areas I hesitate to sit down
and say it has to be all these things or to exclude these. I think
for years we have had some things we identified as core functions of
the emergency management program which are pretty standard and pretty
reasonable. The things I don’t see on it—and the areas I emphasize
when I start talking to people about their planning is this idea of how
do I gather information—how do I even know there is a disaster going
on. How do I translate that into information people can use to make
We look at all these other things but ultimately it comes down to two
things—assessing what you are dealing with and applying resources to
that particular problem. Those are two areas that we don’t always
do terribly well. We have been wrestling with this idea of situational
awareness for years now.
We also know from research that jurisdiction do not do well when they
are suddenly overwhelmed with an influx of resources. Quarantelli
talked about that back in the fifties. The big problem with
disasters isn’t that you have no resources but that you are usually
overwhelmed with resources coming in from the federal or state
government, outlying communities or from volunteers and you don’t know
how to ramp up.
Jurisdictions are basically bureaucracies, which is not a bad
word. Bureaucracies are very slow to react to things and not very
nimble. When we look at these things—and all these things are
important—we also need to think in terms of do I recognize the
disaster is happening and how to move from day to day operations to this
Secondly, how do I make decisions based on information that will then
translate into resources being applied toward the problem?
If you look at some of these things—our first concern is always public
safety. The core things of warning to the public, getting them to
evacuate if they need to evacuate, providing some sort of
sheltering—everybody would agree those are core functions.
The ability to keep your government operating—continuity of operations—
is a key thing. It doesn’t do you any good if you respond well and
you have nothing left to start reconstruction and start
rebuilding. Communications—obviously you can’t do any of this
without communications and communications at all levels.
The list we have developed over the years is still a reasonable
list. The question becomes as we start tacking on the variations
to this, how do we prioritize that in terms of planning for local
government? What is the absolute core I can be expected to do in a
jurisdiction of 20,000 people and how does that vary from a
jurisdiction that may have several million people? There is
obviously a difference not only in quantity but in quality.
If my jurisdiction is small enough my sheltering plan might be we
evacuate to Jurisdiction B because they have hotels and a school we can
use and we don’t have that. We have to get a little more creative
and instead of saying that you have to have a sheltering plan to take
that a step further and ask what that means to my jurisdiction.
The issue of if I’m going to evacuate and I have one police officer who
is maybe assigned to the other side of the county—actually that is
true—we have a couple of counties in California that are so rural that
at night you get one sheriff’s deputy for the entire county. If
you start talking about doing an evacuation in those jurisdictions it is
a little difficult.
I think all these things are important. The question becomes—how
do we prioritize? How do these things look differently in
Frederick Frey: I think that is why Emergency Management functions are important to plan for.
Geary Sikich: Focusing on tactical without involving private sector leads to "false positives" and unrealistic expectations.
Lucien Canton: This is one of the things when you start talking
about the whole community concept—we are on the right track. We
are not going to be able to do this without the public. The
question becomes that also adds some planning complexity. That
also adds a time commitment for your planners. How do you go about
involving the public? How do you make that link? We’ll talk
about that later on.
Amy Sebring: Again, we have grouped the next two questions together:
5. Where will supplemental response resources come from?
a. Mutual aid 37/43 86%
b. State resources 29/43 67%
c. Federal resources 24/43 56%
d. Non-governmental organizations 30/43 70%
e. Other 16/43 37%
6. In a widespread disaster, will these resources actually be immediately available to your community?
a. Yes 8/43 19%
b. No 31/43 72%
c. Don't know 8/43 19%
Lucien Canton: This gets back to the issue of who is your
jurisdiction and what sort of event we are talking about. One of
the callers made the point earlier that we tend to look at the past and
say this is what we’ll need because this is what we did. We don’t
really project out our needs. We don’t necessarily have studies in
particular communities that show what we may need.
The question becomes—what resources do we really need? One thing
we do very well in the United States is apply resources and move them
from one jurisdiction to another. That doesn’t necessarily mean
they will be there immediately but within a matter of days you are going
to have the resources you need.
The question becomes—what do you need immediately and how do you provide
that? We have raised these expectations that we do things very
well so we see things like people expecting shelters to be open
immediately, to be fed immediately and that every need they have will be
taken care of immediately.
Even though we talk about the three ways, which by the way—nobody seems
to know where that came from. We made that up. The simple
fact is we created this expectation so if we don’t meet it we have
failed. I have pushed back and said that we have provided the
things you have to provide immediately and usually that ends up being
water. You can go without food and shelter for several days depending on
weather conditions so you have to look at resources you need right now.
That may change depending on the circumstances of the disaster.
The disaster right now in California that put us on the
streets—sheltering is not a big issues because it’s beautiful
weather. It is a little cold but the sun is shining. If you
are back east and up to your elbows in snow it changes the
dynamic. When we start talking about resources and response
resources we need to get specific to the jurisdiction. We need to
let jurisdiction priorities drive that not so much saying these are all
the things we need to provide but realistically this is what I am going
to need in the first 24 to 48 hours and these are the things that can
We start looking at where we are going to get those. The other
things I think we forget is that we rely very much on mutual aid.
Certainly out here in California we do. We assume mutual aid will
be here. That isn’t necessarily true if you are dealing with a
widespread disaster or catastrophe. What do you do then?
A classic example—Y2K came around and we were planning for a wild
evening here in San Francisco. We called up our mutual aid partner
and said, “About all those resources you normally send us—we’d like to
double up on those.” They said, “What are you talking about
kid? It’s Y2K. We are keeping everybody home. We don’t
know what is going on either.”
We were in a position where if we needed them we could ask and probably
get them but we couldn’t get them deployed the way we normally did which
was going to have an impact on us. Again we assume things will be
there and they won’t necessarily be there. This idea of
flexibility and improvisation in disasters—we have to be able to switch
gears and say, “Where will we get this?”
Amy Sebring: Also, thinking of the situation where—obviously if
you are in a small community, your community is your priority whereas
in a widespread disaster, state and federal priorities may be entirely
different from yours.
Lucien Canton: We all see if from our perspective. We had
a case in California during Loma Prieta where the emergency folks and
people who were responding to the disaster in Watsonville turned on
their TVs and saw San Francisco burning. They immediately thought
back to 1906 and the whole city is in flames. Obviously all the
resources are going to San Francisco therefore we aren’t even going to
make any requests.
It turned out it was one block in San Francisco that was burning and it
was pretty serious but the fire department dealt with it. The
people that had the worst damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake were in
fact in Watsonville. We see what we see but we don’t necessarily
see the big picture. No one likes to be told you are low on the
priority list but that in fact may be the case.
The initial stage of any operation is to figure out what happened.
My Chief of Staff used to come in during an exercise and get all
excited and say that everything is chaos. Yes, it is chaos the
first few hours because we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t
know what has happened, what the impacts are, who has been deployed—that
is why we have a system. We are working through it. Give us
a half-hour to an hour and we will have an accurate picture of what we
are dealing with.
That is the same thing that would happen in any of these. The
people who would provide you with mutual aid are occupied with figuring
out what the impact was on them. They are not willing to release
that mutual aid until they are sure. You are going through this
idea of assessing if this is a disaster or not a disaster. Will I
When we start thinking about things immediately available there is a
time lag that goes on. People don’t always grasp that. It’s
the same with pacing and EOC operations. Because of our exercises
we don’t get a lot of time or a lot of money so we compress exercises so
at a functional exercises people are moving lickety-split through the
exercise. When you get to an actual event you are sitting around
drinking coffee and waiting for the phone to ring, depending on the
nature of the event. It is really this idea of let’s look at what
our needs are and thinking about this.
That’s why it is so important for folks at the EOC to isolate themselves
from the actual response in that it is not their only focus but trying
to look at the biggest picture. Look at the information that is
coming in. Look at things other people are missing because they
are focusing on the actual response.
J Voelkel: Depends what agency you plan for... as a utility
emergency planner, our priority is continued utility service and other
assistance must come from similarly trained personnel i.e. mutual aid.
Lucien Canton: We can learn a lot from the private
sector. One of the interesting things about Sandy (and I may have
blogged about this) is perception. The perception was that, “Those
bums didn’t get the power back on”. When you look at the statistics
they actually got the power up to about eighty percent to the
population. They got eighty percent back in the fastest time it
has ever occurred.
Obviously when you have major devastation you are not going to get the
power back when there is nothing there to energize but they are pretty
good, the people who deal with power. They move very
quickly. While we are so used to having power if we are without it
for a few hours we think it is the end of the world. The fact is I’ve
seen minor events in other countries where it was a month before the
power came back. We are just talking about heavy snowfalls.
It didn’t bother them. It just happens.
You have other countries where the power comes on for just a few hours
each day. I think our folks do an amazing job and I think it is
because they have a very specific function. That is the other side of
As emergency managers we have a broad scope we have to deal with.
There are so many things we have to do and at the same time that we are
trying orchestrate response we are also thinking about recovery and our
next steps. That is what makes the job so challenging.
Of all the people involved in the disaster it is our job to look at the
big picture and avoid being drawn into just the response because we know
that is just the prelude. The real issue is coming as we go into
continuity and recovery and reconstruction. We are just getting
ready to reopen the Bay Bridge—the new extension that was damaged in
Loma Prieta in 1989. Recovery goes on forever.
Amy Sebring: This next question relates to assumption about how
your public will respond. Do you expect them to merely follow
7. Do your plans assume the public will do what you expect?
a. Yes 17/35 49%
b. No 11/35 31%
c. Don't know 6/35 17%
Lucien Canton: This gets to the core of realistic
planning. An awful lot of folks that I talk to in the field have
not bothered to look at the research about how the public will actually
react in disasters. Back in the fifties we started studying
disasters. It was part of the Cold War. The idea was if we
use disaster as an analog for nuclear attack, does it tell us something
about how people react in a crisis?
From there now it has become a study in its own about how we look at
disasters and how people react. We find we make assumptions about
how people are going to react and we look at anything that deviates from
that assumption as a bad thing or somehow a variant. We assume people
need to be led. We need a strong central authority.
We assume maybe people when given the opportunity will loot and pillage
and do all sorts of bad things. We assume people have to be taken
care of and we have to provide everything for them. The research
very clearly shows that is not true. People tend to react
altruistically in disasters. They tend to help each others.
They tend to focus on their own recovery.
The question, and the real crux of my thinking over the last few week,
is how do I channel that? Clearly as government I have an interest
in making sure the big picture is being taken care of. I can’t
throw up my hands and say it is a personal responsibility and you guys
can handle it. How can I interface with what is going on out there
I haven’t though through this a lot yet but I’m coming to the idea that
maybe it is in the provision of resources. We can’t get a granular
as going door to door to distribute something someone needs. That
is very difficult for us as government but we can do points of
distribution that community agencies can go to draw those things and
then go out to their neighborhoods to distribute things.
Maybe the congregate feeding facilities we have traditionally used in
the past aren’t the best way to deal with things. Maybe local
feeding might be more appropriate through churches or community
groups. I think this is something that is still wide open.
I’ve seen a lot of things come out of Sandy.
Social media is becoming the glue that is tying all these things
together. They are allowing people to identify needs and match
them up against resources. The real question for us as government
planners is how do we interface with that community spirit. How do
we emphasize it and keep it going? What is our part in this role?
Part of that too, when we talk about social media, is that we have to
accept that we are not necessarily leading that option at our
operation. We are so used to being the lead but we are a
facilitator and participant, but we may not be the lead. That is a hard
thing for a lot of us to accept.
Steven Spies: Their reaction depends in large part on their sense of community, available resources, and prior training.
Lucien Canton: That gets to it. That is part of the whole
community concept. How do we reach out to the community now?
There are things there are going to emerge. After the riots in
London we saw people organizing their community clean-ups by themselves.
The government had no hand in it. They set up Facebook sites and
websites. They set dates for people to come in. They found
the resources they needed. They are taking responsibility for
their own community.
So the question is when people start doing that sort of thing how do we
interface? That is one issue. The other issue is the more we
can bring people together ahead of time, the more we can find out who
the community leaders are and involve them in our planning, obviously
the better we are going to be.
The question I have, and again I don’t have an answer yet, is how do I
do that? When I’ve got limited planning resources and this list of
things I have to plan with public agencies, how do I bring the
community in on that? How do I do that kind of planning when I
don’t have the resources to do the planning I am supposed to do? I
think that will be the discussion over the next few years and it will
be an interesting one.
Geary Sikich: How do you overcome media driven perceptions regarding panic, chaos and fear?
Lucien Canton: That is kind of the Holy Grail. We have
been wrestling that since the first newspaper. I don’t have an
easy answer. There are a couple of things that make perfect
sense. First we need to look at crisis management and crisis
communications much better than we do. We tend to think our public
information folks are really about putting out information to the
public instead of looking at this from a crisis management perspective
saying how do I communicate my story quickly to the media.
We also need to work at getting rid of a lot of these mythologies
ourselves—to talk with people ahead of time, to do conferences.
You want to have a good working relationship with the media in your
jurisdiction. The problem is when you get a big event like this
you get the national media and they are looking for a big story.
It is very hard to work with them.
You have to beef up your public information side of things. You
have to be proactive. You have to look at some of the things we
looked at—crisis communication. We’ve got kind of a tool for
it with Facebook and some of the others. It is hard for day to
day for government to use social media because the stuff we are putting
on our Facebook nobody wants to read. It is as boring as sin.
At the time of crisis people may get into it if they view it as a
trusted source and we can quickly dispels rumors through that.
Social media is another part of the game change that is going on now in
terms of dealing with the community. Another part is finding out
who the folks are people listen to in communities and involving them.
There is no easy answer to that one because I don’t think we’ll ever
actually be able to do it but I think we can do a better job of
countering rumor and countering bad impressions. If you can
provide information to the media it is easier for them to do the story
than for them to go out and do it themselves.
Amy Sebring: Although plans are supposed to be updated following major events, how many of them actually are?
8. Are your drills and exercises based on accurate assumptions and reflect the contents of your plan?
a. Yes 13/30 43%
a. No 10/30 33%
b. Don't know 7/30 23%
Lucien Canton: I think each of the types of exercises out there
have very specific function for them and the reasons why you do
them. They have an appropriate place in your pantheon of exercise
plan. What I have found over the years is the most bang for the
buck is the tabletop. You can talk through issues and get people’s
Our monthly meeting in San Francisco we would always do a twenty minute
tabletop on some topical issue. Sometimes it occurred that
morning. It was very simple. Here is what happened.
Suppose it was worse. What would be our top three priorities? Who
would be responsible for this and what supporting resources would they
You are conditioning people to work together as a team. That
is part of it and they are very inexpensive. They are a good way
to go. When you are ready for the functional exercise you will
need funding, planning time and a lot of resources. You are going
to need to do that at some time. Lots of tabletops—you can really cover a
lot of ground.
There are two things people don’t do well in exercises. The first
is sit down and find out what objectives they are trying to test in the
exercise. What are we trying to find out here? You need to
clearly define that objective up front. Now I am not big on the
HSEEP where you have all the different capabilities you have to test in
and maybe HSEEP is going away because the target capabilities list is
going away. It is going to be interesting to see what happens
next. Ultimately you need to know why you are doing the exercise
and what you expect to accomplish.
The second thing people don’t do well is to make the scenario
realistic. I see so many exercises where the inject is this:
A citizen calls the EOC and reports this. Will in fact the
citizen call the EOC? Do they have their number? If you get
that call are you going to deal with it at the EOC or are you going to
pass it on to the dispatch? Realistically, how would you know
this? Build your scenario on cues and actual information you can
expect to get in the EOC.
Ray Pena: Reactions to crisis are shaped by role relationships -
spouses to each other, parents to their children, workers to
co-workers. Individuals will consider their obligations to others when
deciding what course of action to take in a major emergency.
Lucien Canton: I couldn’t agree more. Part of the
problem is that we don’t understand that. We don’t factor that
into our planning. Different cultural groups will react
differently in disasters. You need to understand the culture of
your community and how people view disasters.
There are some cultures where we sit down and wait to be helped.
There are others where we take care of our own and you don’t need to do
this. There are some people that are incredibly afraid of certain
types of events but not others. The folks in Guam with a hurricane
coming—it didn’t matter, we are used to that.
Earthquake in Southern California—a lot of the Latino community had
experience with the Mexico City earthquake so they were no interested in
going back into their homes even if we said it was safe, even if we had
done inspections, they were not interested until they were sure there
were no more aftershocks.
Again cultural differences are key. That also influences what
happens with your staff—whether they will come back to work or leave
work and so forth. It is shaped by people’s culture.
Jim Murray: I think the media can be managed by using a proactive approach. We speak of it but do not do it well.
Lucien Canton: You’re right. For years we talked about
the media like they were the enemy. We trained our emergency
managers; we talked about chumming the waters to keep the sharks at
bay. We referred to them as wolves. You have to
distinguish—it is not monolithic. We make the assumption the media
is all the same and they are not.
You have local media generally because they are part of the community,
they have a vested interest in working with you and you can build good
relationships with them. I find the broadcast media are a lot
easier to work with than the print media because a lot of times the
print media has already decided what the story is when they call me for
I’m a little leery of print media. I like working with broadcast
media because you can always say, “Let me shoot that again.” I
have always found the people I work with really looking to get my side
of the story honestly. Only once I felt like I was getting a
little bit of an ambush.
When you start getting national media they have no local
connection. They really don’t care. They are there about the
story and ratings so they are a little difficult to deal with. I
think he’s absolutely right that we talk a lot about dealing with the
media but we don’t train our people in crisis
communications. We train them in public information and
public relationships but don’t necessarily in crisis communications.
Geary Sikich: We create "Happy Face" exercises that do not
focus on "failure points" - find where the plan will fail - it is more
difficult than one thinks.
Lucien Canton: Absolutely. You get a lot of political
push. I’ve had in the military someone tell me, “If you tell me I
failed at this, my career is over.” Sorry, but you did.
There is this political pressure that people want to feel good after
exercises. I try to strike a balance. You should have people
coming out sweating after an exercise saying, “I pulled that out by the
skin of my teeth. We need to go back and look at our plans.”
I don’t believe you should have an exercise where everything goes
well. I try not to do that but I do realize sometimes there are
political pressures. You are right. We do a lot of feel good
exercises. I’m not a big believer personally on full-scale
exercises simply because they tend to become just that. They are
showboats for the media. You are better off holding drills and
functional exercises and tabletops. Sometimes when you get the
full-scale it takes on a life of its own and it’s very difficult to get
to those failure points.
I have crafted exercises deliberately to stress parts of systems.
We had a plan in San Francisco when I first took over that had certain
things people were very invested in. My colleagues and I looked at it
and said it wasn’t going to work. We inherited this plan but this
isn’t going to work. So we crafted an exercise to show it wasn’t going
to work and people were able to come back to us and it was their idea to
change the plan rather than the new kids on the block saying we need to
change the plan.
Richard Vandame: Your bio mentions a commitment to
standards. Can you elaborate on the impact of standards on this
aspect of emergency/incident management?
Lucien Canton: I’m a big believer in standards. The
question becomes—what do you mean by standards? I think there are
standards like NFP-1600 that give a general direction that says you need
to consider these things but you don’t necessarily have to have all of
them in your plan. Those standards that give you flexibility and
give you direction are worth doing and having. When you get
standards that are mandating you must do this or that—I’m a little leery
of those just because they tend to take away from the jurisdiction’s
ability to craft their plan based on their own individual needs.
Part of our problem with planning is we’re not research based. We
are not looking at things that really go on in disasters. We are
not standards based in a lot of cases. We are looking not so much
at what the flavor of the month is—the current CPG—but long term things
that we as a community should have.
Amy Sebring: We know that plans are supposed to be updated as needed following an actual event, but are they really?
9. Are your plans reviewed and updated following a
major event to reflect actual experience and incorporate lessons
a. Yes 16/24 67%
b. No 5/24 21%
c. Don't know 3/24 13%
Lucien Canton: This gets back to something that is
related to exercises as well and that is the idea of the corrective
action plan. For years we have done exercises and we have come
away with a report at the end with the problems we have found and we
never go anywhere with that. One of the things I like about
NFP-1600 and a lot of standards I see now is that we are pushing this
It is not so much important what you put into it but the idea is you
have to track whatever you have decided it a problem. A corrective
action plan talks about here is what we identified, here is what we are
going to do, here is who is going to do it, here is the timeline, here
are the resources, and you then review that at your monthly or quarterly
or wherever your oversight groups meets—you actually look at that and
say what is happening with it.
There is a vetting process that has to take place. I used to get
comments after exercises like, “We really need a place to hang our
raincoats”. From my perspective that is not a corrective action I
am going to track. The question becomes do you actually turn
around and change the plan? It’s expensive, time-consuming—how far
do you go and how do you make your change?
We talk about reviewing the plan every year and changing it every couple
of years and it is very difficult to do. The concept is
good. The corrective action is good. Maybe one of the things
we need to be looking at is how do we actually and physically present
our plan? With a lot of the electronic systems that are out there
it is fairly easy to have a plan people can access quickly that you can
make changes to. You don’t have to do the old—here is the
fifteen pages, take out page five and put in the new page five, take out
page 30 and put in pages 30A, 30B and 30C. We can get away from
Amy Sebring: Finally, this question relates to whether we should have an external “reality check” on our plans.
10. To what extent should the “whole community” be engaged in the planning process?
a. Not at all 1/23 4%
b. Public review and comment 12/23 52%
c. Advisory group 16/23 70%
d. Other 5/23 22%
Lucien Canton: If you’ve got people from the community
involved in the planning process to begin with it becomes a moot point
because they are already involved. The way a lot of us are
structured there is an opportunity for community involvement. Our
meetings are open to the public.
It is also interesting to see a lot of jurisdictions will post their
emergency plan and a lot of jurisdictions won’t. I think it
something a member of the community should have access to. It is a
community plan. If you want to formalize that—that is something a
community can decide. There are some communities where it would
make sense to have it available for people to comment.
It depends on what exactly you are talking about. If I am
integrating functional needs in my plan I really want the functional
needs community involved in that process. I want them vetting my
plan before I go final on it. I want their comments and
input. The same if I’m dealing with, for example, feeding—I may
reach out to a number of non-public sector agencies, for example, The
Salvation Army, and I would want their comments.
Each community can decide for itself but you do need that community input. It is their plan ultimately.
Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene, myself, and all our
participants today, we do thank you very much Lu for joining us
today. You have given us some good food for thought and we look
forward to seeing more of your blog posts in the future.
We are very pleased to welcome a new partner today, Dr. Thomas D.
Phelan, principal with Dr. Tom Phelan Consulting, formerly Strategic
Teaching Associates. http://www.drtomphelan.com/ Please see our Partner’s list for a link to his organization as well as our other partners.
Our next program is scheduled for February 27th when our topic will be a
public preparedness campaign, “Who Depends on You?” and our guest will
be Mary Schoenfeldt, Public Education Coordinator for the City of
Everett, Washington. Please make plans to join us then.
Have a great afternoon everyone! We are adjourned.