EM Forum Presentation — February 13, 2013

Are Your Emergency Operations Plans Realistic?
A Group Discussion on Planning Assumptions

Lucien G. Canton CEM®, CPP, CBCP
Emergency Management Consultant and Author
San Francisco, California

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

A video recording of the live session is available at http://www.emforum.org/pub/eiip/lm130213.wmv
MP3 format at http://www.emforum.org/pub/eiip/lm130213.mp3
or in MP4format at http://www.emforum.org/pub/eiip/lm130213.mp4

[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 straightforward.

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 the state.

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 taxes.

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 planning.  

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 picture.

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 things.

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 sounds.

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 partners.

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 options?  

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 with that.”

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 capacity.

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 decisions?  

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 disaster operation.  

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 different jurisdictions?

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 come later.

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 need resources?

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 the coin.  

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 your instructions?

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 already?

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 opinions.

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 need?

 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 the quote.

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 learned?
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 idea.

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 that.

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.