Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: emergency management

The Year of Disaster: A Paradigm Shift in Emergency Management

While the Chinese Zodiac defines 2020 as the Year of the Rat, most people will remember it as the Year of Disaster. It seems that 2020 will not only be the demarcation of a new decade in this young millennium, but will also be a clear milestone year that will transition us from one historical era to the next. We will think back on events in the early part of this century as either before or after 2020 and its great pandemic. With disaster and disruption at the forefront of the collective consciousness, emergency management can finally mature into a known and essential discipline. Across industries, emergency managers are now being leveraged for the tools and skill sets that they bring to the table. Yet during this critical time, our own internal resources are stretched thin as we juggle a pendulum swinging constantly between response and recovery.

The traditional disaster cycle.

A core emergency management concept is that of the ‘disaster cycle.’ We have all seen the diagram or variations of it and most of us have used it to convey this theory in training presentations. This diagram describes conventional disasters that move through time with a linear narrative. Emergency plans typically follow suit, assuming there will be an initial response, an expanded response and then an initial recovery. Through my time working at CalOES I became fascinated with the ‘response to recovery transition’ and the triggers that guide a community or organization from response to recovery. This period between expanded response and initial recovery is a critical one as careful navigation can set the stage for smooth sailing through the long term recovery. The transition is typically marked by evacuations lifting, the storm dissipating or the firefighters advancing containment. The community breathes a sigh of relief, damage assessments begin and the organization looks toward next steps for longer term planning. This is an opportunity to move from a reactive stance toward a proactive, calculated plan for recovery.

COVID-19 has flipped this paradigm on its head. A pandemic is capricious, slow moving and nonlinear. The metrics we have to measure it have a serious lagtime from the time of disease transmission. Case count and positivity rate are reflective of community transmission from weeks ago. We do not know how long this altered living will last, but we do know that it will be at least several more months and probably closer to a year. When a vaccine is finalized, it will still take months to deploy it to the millions who will want it. As our focus begins to blur with fatigue, questions creep in from the peripheries within the emergency management community, are we in response or recovery? Should emergency operations centers remain active or should we move to operating through a recovery task force model? We have spent the past six months creating new systems and processes to quell the effects of this virus, we have in essence created a new normal. So is it really still an emergency situation? It doesn’t have the markers of your typical disaster anymore. There is hardly a rush of adrenaline as we respond to the same EOC desk we have each day since March. Yet, when a community experiences a sudden outbreak, as many colleges and universities have in recent weeks, the adrenaline resurges and the mad dash of response takes over. With a pandemic, multiple waves of the virus are likely and you can’t easily identify the point where high tide has been reached and the waters begin to recede.

A summary of CalFIRE’s 2020 incidents as of 9.23.20

But for many of us the pandemic is not even the only incident on our plates. In California, we have already been thrust into the deep end of a devastating wildfire season. Our neighbors to the north in Oregon and Washington are hurting as well. By August 18th, the State Operations Center was activated to its highest level in response to the August 2020 wildfires that dominated seven counties and leaked toxic smoke into the air of most of Northern California. While conditions cooled off about 10 days later and outdoor activities were able to resume, the SOC never had a chance to scale back fire response before yet another round of fire weather heralded a new surge of wildfires. Fire resources committed to fully containing the original round of fires had to be diverted to the snarling infernos now on the loose in other portions of the state. People were airlifted from remote areas, barely escaping before the fire descended upon them. This second wave prompted another round of state emergency declarations from the Governor. A new statewide fire event had already arrived, linked loosely to the first only through a prolonged heat event and lack of precipitation. So where is the line between these two events? Can we ever get to recovery if we always must be vigilant in a responsive posture throughout the near year-round wildfire season? As years of drought and more extreme heat conditions combine to ripen fire weather for prolonged periods due to permanent changes to the Earth’s climate, we must prepare to exist in this realm outside of the traditional disaster cycle diagram.

This shift in posture presents significant new challenges for emergency managers. A constant response stance is exhausting, especially for the many one person shops that exist at the local level and in universities across the country. If your EOC has remained activated for six months, that is a lot of EOC action plans and situation reports that you are ultimately responsible for. You are probably facing burnout and increasing apathy from your EOC team members, if you are lucky enough to still have them. Many EOC’s have moved to a low-level activation, which is typically just an emergency manager and maybe one or two others supporting. If you don’t have anyone to trade off with, you may feel like you are constantly on call, a duty officer shift with no end in sight as various headlines on COVID-19 outbreaks, new legislation at every level, and shifting metrics present a behemoth of evolving information on the virus. A typical incident is fairly localized which makes it much easier to maintain situational awareness. This is a worldwide event and thus the data sources are infinite.

Destruction in Santa Cruz County following the August 2020 CA wildfires.

When your focus is a continued and prolonged response, recovery activities quickly begin to run parallel to response rather than dovetailing gracefully at the distinct end of an EOC activation. You must collect your expenses for reimbursement from FEMA and/or the CARES act as it is applicable. FEMA has recently announced that there is no incident termination date in sight, so your collection of documentation is a new constant–a new full-time job that emergency managers must facilitate. Having a good Finance Section Chief can be a lifesaver here, but that person may also experience burnout and bitterness at the sheer scope of the incident which is continuously growing. The bottom line is that when your organization must focus on both response (to COVID and additional incidents that might occur within the pandemic environment) and recovery simultaneously, neither task can be achieved with high standards of excellence.

Constant response and recovery renders preparedness time obsolete.

However the greatest problem with this posture is that we are forced to nearly abandon preparedness, planning, and mitigation. In a typical year, an emergency manager will likely spend the majority of his/her time planning, training, educating, and coordinating prevention-oriented activities. In the classic disaster cycle model, we imagine ourselves in the ‘blue skies’ preparedness environment for most of the time, readying ourselves for when the incident occurs. But in the COVID-19 era we simply do not have the bandwidth to do our normal jobs. And we know from years of advocating for investment in emergency management, that for every dollar spent on mitigation, we save an average of six dollars later when the disaster hits. When we can’t devote our attention to these critical activities that normally make up our full time jobs, we leave our communities further vulnerable to other hazards. The catastrophic earthquake will not care that California has spent its year focused on pandemic and wildfire response. It will descend upon us either way and if we haven’t recently exercised or updated our plans we will not be prepared to meet the moment.

Photo by Sergi Kabrera on Unsplash

Luckily, there are some silver linings to this new reality. The need for EOC training and exercises is greatly reduced because we are living in activation mode and everyone is feeling increasingly comfortable with tools and processes. We also have the spotlight right now, for better or for worse. I have never seen so many of my non-EM social media friends posting about wildfires, disaster preparedness, evacuation tips, and pandemic prevention measures. Suddenly, disaster is trending continually. Typically, PIOs like to capitalize on a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster in the news to remind people in their own jurisdictions about the importance of preparedness. In 2020, we don’t have to worry about drawing people’s attention to planning for the what if, everyone has been impacted in some way and has started thinking about disruptions and preparedness.

Now is also an excellent time to make a case to leadership about the importance of investing in emergency management. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, you can argue that additional full-time staff support is needed–we can’t possibly support constant response and a ballooning recovery while also providing top notch preparedness and planning programs. Strong emergency management programs are also more critical than ever with the eye of the media watching so closely. While budgets are extremely constrained across all organizations, creative solutions are possible. Leadership can consider shifting staff responsibilities from positions that have seen a reduced workload due to COVID, like those that manage conferences, special events, sporting or tourism activities that have ceased.

Destruction from the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura County.

When this first started, we hoped that it would be over relatively quickly. Past pandemics in our lifetimes have never caused such prolonged disruptions to our lives. But as the year has worn on and we’ve seen multiple resurgences of disease transmission here in Southern California I know that the pandemic is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and this fact has permanently shifted our world. For the fourth year in a row California is experiencing an incredibly destructive wildfire season which has only just begun. Just in the last month we have seen 3 of the top 4 largest wildfires in the state’s history burn over 3 million acres. That is unprecedented. The Cedar Fire held the title for 14 years, before being overtaken by the Thomas Fire which only stayed in first place for seven months before the Mendocino Complex Fire eclipsed it. That was only two years ago.

Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash

In response to the fact that many of these devastating fires have been started by electrical equipment failure, our utility companies have instituted preemptive power shut offs under the guise of public safety during fire weather events. While it may be well intentioned, the result is that we now have additional disruptions in the pandemic era when the workforce has shifted to a remote environment. These disruptions often proceed the actual wildfire disasters that inevitably seem to break out despite these protective measures. We have activations for PSPS, on top of activations for the pandemic, on top of wildfire activations. These types of weather induced phenomena will only increase in frequency as the earth’s climate permanently shifts due to human activity. We are predicted to see more frequent and longer heat waves in 21st century California, precipitation will become less frequent yet more intense, likely triggering debris flow hazards on our charred hillsides.

The disasters of this brave new world are dominated by constant hazards and stressors. The underlying culprit, climate change, which will  trigger further public health crises as air quality continues to deteriorate and bring widespread respiratory impacts. Environmental inequities will further exacerbate social tensions due to systemic racism, which we have seen as a prominent stressor in 2020. Many EOC’s were activated for the resulting civil unrest in urban centers throughout the United States this year. Like the pandemic, these demonstrations are with us for the forseeable future while lawmakers mold and debate policy changes and America’s culture slowly shifts. Emergency managers are faced directly with coordinating resources for people experiencing homelessness in the pandemic, which has compounded this pre-existing social stressor. Substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide rates have also skyrocketed during the pandemic, further complicating social services. Managing these constant stressors and maintaining an active state of response will continue to be our new normal.

This year has truly ushered in a new paradigm within emergency management. Like it or not, the disaster cycle concept can no longer guide us. During these times, we must think critically on how to adapt our field to best meet changing needs. We must work together in tandem with our leadership to rise to the many challenges of this new and hazardous world.

Three Years Working for a State Emergency Management Agency: What I’ve Learned

Last week amidst the continued frenzy of the COVID-19 response, I hit a big milestone: my three year anniversary working for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES). This is a milestone I’ve come close to at a couple different jobs but have never surpassed. Prior to this position all of my experience comes from the local and campus level (and a touch of private & NGO sectors). When I set out on this journey three years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what it would bring. I was hoping to gain response experience (big check) and gain a broader understanding of emergency management functions over multiple jurisdictions (check). Today I’m reflecting on what the major lessons and takeaways have been thus far. 

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

The Heartbeat of Incident Response

The past three years have been some of the very busiest response years in the state’s history. My first 6 months were eerily quiet, but ever since then we haven’t stopped engaging in either response or recovery. We saw some of the state’s largest wildfires and I was directly involved in response and recovery for the Thomas Fire and the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County. I also responded to the Borderline shooting in 2018 and now I’m embedded in a pandemic response. Our agency responded to the earthquakes in Trona / Ridgecrest last summer too while I was out on maternity leave.

While there are many detailed technical lessons I’ve learned, I would say the important big picture take away from all this experience is a better understanding of the battle rhythm of these incidents, particularly wildfires since there have been so many. I’m no stranger to the flurry of information, the whirlwind adrenaline and anxiety of a wildfire sparking during Santa Ana winds and the lifesaving push for evacuations. I have endured the weeks long EOC activations and felt the burn out from both responders and evacuated residents. I have navigated the turn from a response toward a recovery and rebuilding effort. I have settled in for the long haul and partnered up with FEMA for major disaster recovery operations and the establishment of long term recovery groups. Each phase comes with a different pace, a different flavor and different prioritized information needs. 

Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash

Responsiveness for Relationship Building

It’s been said time and time again, so I won’t take time to explain that relationships are key in emergency management. But I will share one strategy to build good relationships that I have discovered during my time with CalOES: Responsiveness. It can certainly be difficult to practice, especially when we are all so busy right now with this response or even just in the normal day to day managing our own programs. It can be tempting to only reply quickly to the most time sensitive emails, or to the ones that will impact you the most directly (i.e. the ones from the boss). But, I have really tried to pride myself on being responsive to inquiries from colleagues both in and outside of my organization and I have found it to pay dividends. 

My role is a little bit tricky because while as a regional liaison I am the face of the organization to many of my EM colleagues in SoCal, I also work in a field office and am not directly embedded within all the various state programming in Sacramento. Accordingly I get a lot of questions thrown my way and I often don’t know the answers. At first I felt embarrassed about this and it was tempting to just flag an email and let it sit. No one in my chain of command would ever know if I just didn’t field the question. Instead, I have practiced replying quickly to the person–it lets them know that I care about their question or concern, that I’m here for them and that I will try to advocate for them and get their question answered as quickly as I can. Then I try to dig up answers. If I do know the answer, I try to reply right away even from my phone while I’m in the field instead of waiting to get back to my computer the next day. People have really appreciated this “customer service” type of strategy, and I believe that relationships are strengthened significantly when we engage in these small exchanges of information and correspondence.

Photo by Natalie Pedigo on Unsplash

The Importance of Teams

The majority of Emergency Management jobs are one person shops that do not come with a dedicated team. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most about working at the state level is that I am a part of a massive extended team and a close knit team here in the Southern Region. Throughout the years I’ve seen our team step up to support each other through the good times and the bad and I’m so happy to work with a great group of folks. When I needed to take time off to have a baby last year, I wasn’t worried at all because I knew I was leaving my projects in capable hands and that the team would be able to backfill me. It’s one of the perks I treasure the most.

Just because your position doesn’t come with a built in team, doesn’t mean that you can’t work to build one. Most of us manage EOC’s and that can be a great place to start. You may not be able to groom anyone on your EOC team to fall in love with EM quite as much as you have, but you can at least work to get one or two good EOC coordinator backups or train up a Planning or Sit Stat Unit to alleviate some of the stress from an incident falling 100% on your shoulders. During my time as the EM for Cal State Northridge, I worked to build a ‘preparedness coalition’ that became my interdepartmental team. I held regular meetings and got them jazzed about some of the fun preparedness events I was planning. My enthusiasm and angle of making it enjoyable got a couple of them hooked and even scored one of them a trip to the White House with me to accept a FEMA Individual & Community Preparedness Award for our efforts. It might not be the easiest or most obvious solution but I think that operating as part of a team is extremely important for emergency managers.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Balance

Working for the state, I feel like we constantly have to work toward attaining an appropriate balance. Mainly between providing the leadership that is sought from our large, statewide agency and respecting the expertise and unparalleled local knowledge of our Southern California emergency managers. We have to find the sweet spot between stringent mandates and hands off silence, often opting for issuing a kind of ‘guidance’ on hot topic issues. However, sometimes our initiatives are tied to local eligibility for state funding and this is when we can quickly fall from favor if our guidelines are too demanding or not so feasible. During my 3 year tenure I have heard both opinions: “the state should be doing more,” and “the state keeps pushing things on us and asking too many questions.”

One niche that I think we can fill to maintain some balance is by identifying and creating opportunities to share best practices. Because I work with eleven counties in my role, I am uniquely positioned to see and hear about different programs and processes that have been successful in different jurisdictions. I see it as an excellent utilization of our position to be able to make others aware of these best practices and to create forums for this type of information sharing. While I haven’t really been able to create brand new initiatives, I have tried my best to bring these best practices into some of the forums I do have influence over, such as our quarterly mutual aid committee meetings and the recent workshops for our catastrophic earthquake plan. I would love to work to expand these efforts in the future and continue to provide that mechanism for sharing.

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It’s been a great ride and I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far. Although sometimes I miss having my own program and a more hands on role, I wouldn’t trade these past three years for anything. What kind of lessons do you think are important to share from your level with EM’s from other types of jurisdictions?

Emergency Managers: Who are they and how are they helping with COVID-19?

I am an Emergency Manager–but what the heck does that mean? I like to explain my job as a California Emergency Manager as ‘like FEMA but for the state.’ While the majority of the general public has not heard of emergency management, they have heard of FEMA and generally understand that FEMA works on disaster response, recovery and preparedness. Positions like mine exist for cities and counties too, as well as universities, school districts, museums, and many large corporations like Disney, Target and Walmart. 

So right now, while the world is in a state of emergency due to a global pandemic I want to take some time to tell you what we emergency managers are doing and further explain why our function is important. It’s important to note that we are working very collaboratively with public health professionals and that while most of the subject matter expertise is in their court, we play a major role in supporting them.

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Coordinating Resources

Facilitating the resource request process is a critical function of emergency managers. When we say ‘resource’ it can mean any supply, material, or personnel needed to accomplish the mission. The scope of this disaster is massive and literally every entity is involved in this response, which makes resource coordination trickier than usual. In California, when a city runs out of a resource, they will in turn ask their local county if they are able to help, if not the county will make an ask for state assistance. If the state can’t fill the request, we will ask the federal government for help. Emergency managers are in charge of creating and managing the way that this information is transmitted by the various levels of government. These are the common types of resource requests that we are helping with in the pandemic: 

  • Personal Protective Equipment such as N95 masks, gloves, Tyvek suits and gowns 
  • Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer 
  • Trailers to provide isolation space for quarantine of homeless populations
  • Personnel to assist with food distribution
  • Personnel to assist with onsite logistics for medical field hospitals and drive thru testing sites
  • Cots, blankets, and hygiene supplies for congregate shelters
  • Meals Ready to Eat (emergency food for first responders)
  • Communication equipment to support virtual operations to ensure better social distancing. 
  • Body bags for mass fatality planning.

It’s important to note that the public health side of the house has their own resource ordering system so they handle the ordering and distribution for actual medical equipment and medically trained staff.

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

Producing Situation Reports

Another key function of emergency managers is to coordinate information. An incident like this is incredibly dynamic as the situation changes daily. We try to keep track of all the updates in our assigned areas and produce reports that can be shared with partner agencies to keep everyone on the same page. We also work with GIS folks to create dashboards that are interactive and accessible to the public. We are working closely with public health on this, since they are the keepers of the official case and fatality counts. Information you might not think of that’s important to us include: 

  • Actions of other departments within our agencies
  • Emergency Operations Center activations within our areas (the coordination centers where we work together)
  • The status of emergency proclamations by our local governments and requests for state / federal assistance (the legal documentation of states of emergencies)
  • The number of resource requests pending and filled
  • The status of first responders (i.e. are police and fire at full functioning status)
  • The status of executive emergency orders such as business / public facility closures, banning of gatherings, etc.
  • Press conferences scheduled / public information that has been disseminated

Monitoring Continuity

While collecting data for situation reports from other departments, emergency managers are also learning about continuity of their organization. This is an especially important function of private sector agency emergency managers. In an event like COVID-19, it’s important for us to understand how employee absenteeism and/or telework is impacting the mission of the agency overall and if we are still able to meet our customer service goals–including continuity of government for public agencies. In a pandemic this is really critical and I think that as the situation continues to evolve the focus will shift a bit toward organizational continuity, especially as closures endure for months. How will businesses stay afloat? Can their models evolve toward delivery or online service / products? I’ve seen many yoga studios and gyms move toward online courses and our schools are being forced to rapidly evolve to meet their goals. Emergency managers (and business continuity managers) play a huge role in planning for this and helping the organization continue to meet its goals.

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Managing Public Information

Emergency Managers also have a responsibility for keeping the public informed about emergency actions that are being taken. An emergency management department typically has a Public Information Officer assigned or works closely with a PIO from another department to ensure that talking points for press conferences are vetted, press releases have actionable and accurate information and that social media is engaged with current information. During press conferences, I’ve seen the Emergency Management Director of California, as well as the City of Los Angeles, make appearances. I have also seen agencies utilizing the Wireless Emergency Alert system (i.e. the Amber alert function on your phone) to send messaging to all cell phones in their areas. I’ve gotten several notifications with COVID-19 updates from my City’s emergency notification system too. 

Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

Planning for Recovery

As Emergency Managers we plan for all functions of the ‘disaster cycle.’ That includes planning for the aftermath of the incident–even though it feels like it might never come in this one. What is the future going to look like economically for the agency? How many citizens in the jurisdiction might be impacted by unemployment? In this disaster, because we don’t have debris removal or rebuilding to worry about, our focus will be on helping people and businesses to get through this in order for our communities to return to normalcy. What existing social service programs can be expanded to support people in the aftermath of this crisis? We also apply for reimbursement from the federal government through the disaster cost recovery process. In coordination with grants personnel we fill out the forms needed to account for all the overtime and ‘emergency protective measures’ that we expended during the response so that our local jurisdictions can recoup some of what was spent in this already very expensive disaster.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

How Can You Help?

Now that you have a better understanding of what emergency managers are doing during this pandemic, you may be thinking what can I do to support the mission? Here are three ways…

  1. Keep Emergency Supplies: What I’m hoping will be a major takeaway for the general public is to keep a disaster preparedness kit–including food and toilet paper!–ready for future disasters. We saw how everyone made a run on the stores and the negative impacts that had. Make sure you’ve got some emergency food and water already stored up. We were lucky no major supply chain impacts (besides some disruptions to PPE) have occurred in this disaster, but the next one may cause major physical damage that will disrupt supply lines. Take this as a lesson to have what you need to survive on hand before it happens. 
  2. Know How to Stay Informed: We hope you are more dialed into the emergency channels now–hopefully you’ve signed up for emergency alerts in your local jurisdiction and/or followed them on Twitter and other social media. This is a great way to stay informed. The COVID response is somewhat slow moving compared to other disasters, so it’s a good idea to continue to follow these outlets closely in future emergencies. 
  3. Advocate for Emergency Planning: And finally if you’re ever in a position where you can speak up about the importance of funding emergency management, please do! We are the ones working behind the scene to make improvements to the plans, processes, and systems so that we can respond swiftly to the next disaster. Give us a shout out to your executive management or let your local representative know!

How COVID-19 will change Emergency Management Forever

This disaster is nowhere near over, in fact I think things will continue to escalate in the United States for weeks. Yet the global pandemic of 2020, COVID-19, has already changed the field of emergency management forever. 

Depicts how small a person is in comparison to the Grand Canyon.
Photo by David Mullins on Unsplash

Scale

The word I keep finding myself using is unprecedented. I know we’ve said that before, to the devastation of the Camp Fire in 2018, the colossal losses in the Carribean when two category five hurricanes hit within 10 days, the drain on resources in Ventura County when a mass shooting occurred within hours of two major wildfires breaking out, the destruction of the Tohoku earthquake and pan-Pacific tsunami…all of these were catastrophic, for the jurisdictions they impacted. But none of these were global disasters. They were all regional. In California, we are always planning for the Big One, we just recently put a ton of time and effort into developing a Catastrophic Earthquake Plan for Southern California. It was always seen as this extreme scenario that would truly test our limits. But even in that seemingly extreme scenario there would be outside resources available, we could activate mutual aid systems and rely on our neighboring states, or at least the East Coast to alleviate some of our burden. If people wanted to escape the devastated region, they could migrate to other parts of the country as we saw with the diaspora following Hurricane Katrina. 

The pandemic is different. You cannot escape it, because you don’t know exactly where it is. You have to assume that it is literally everywhere in the world. Every jurisdiction is impacted. Everyone is proclaiming an emergency and everyone is activating their EOC (as of this morning there were 106 EOC’s activated in Southern California). The scale is just enormous, and I don’t think that it’s something that the state or the federal government ever really thought through or anticipated to the degree that we are now impacted. As it turns out when everyone everywhere is impacted a lot of the assumptions we have always made about emergency management change. How can the federal government possibly reimburse every jurisdiction? How can we make and distribute tens of millions of masks, gloves and other supplies everywhere simultaneously? Can FEMA and the American Red Cross be everywhere at once? Neighbors can’t help neighbors if everyone is impacted and if getting too close to each other puts our lives at risk. As we move forward from COVID-19 I anticipate a new subset of this field focused solely on global disasters, and not in the distant mythical kind of approach that we always used when talking about ‘megadisasters’ before. 

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Response Experience

The pandemic will be a great equalizer in a way because now every emergency manager who was working in 2020 has response experience. Obviously everyone’s role is a little different right now, but in some way literally all of us are having to respond or adapt our planning because of COVID-19. There are many emergency managers for small jurisdictions who might have NEVER had to activate their EOC in the twenty years they were working there. There are cities I have never even heard of in Southern California that now have activated EOCs. Some of us that activate regularly are getting a whole new kind of experience–one where there are real resource requests that need to be filled ASAP and LOTS of them. There are true shortages of supplies in this incident and we are all using that system for real now, not just talking about it in an exercise scenario. No matter what type of jurisdiction or what your role is, if you are an emergency manager in 2020 you have now earned your pandemic response badge. This response will be the topic of discussion and dissection for many years to come, everyone will have a story to tell and every jurisdiction is learning how to better operate their EOC’s after this incident. 

Photo by L N on Unsplash

Safety in the EOC

In most responses that I’ve been a part of, the Safety Officer position in the EOC typically became an ‘other duty as assigned’ because there was just not enough to do. This position makes a lot of sense in the field, at the ICP for a shooting or a wildfire, but EOC’s are pretty inherently safe working environments. Most of them are secured facilities that are built to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, car bombs, etc. When non-EM friends see my posts about responding to fires, they typically say ‘stay safe’ without realizing that when I respond to an EOC I’m responding to an office like environment. I’ve joked many times that the biggest hazard for me is the 10 pounds I’ll inevitably gain from sitting too much and snacking on EOC food all day. But in this incident, all of the sudden our jobs did become dangerous. The Safety Officer is now critical in protecting EOC staff from spreading the virus–implementing medical screenings, keeping a strict sanitation schedule and ensuring work spaces are 6 feet apart are enough to keep any one person busy all day. Things we normally don’t think about like sharing a common pen with the sign in sheet, or using a common key pad to access a facility…all of these practices have now become hazardous. 

It is also distressing in a way that many of us aren’t used to. If you came into this field having studied it and are passionate about operating at a coordination level separate from the field operations, this is probably the first time your job has truly been dangerous. We are not first responders, like firefighters and police officers. We aren’t used to putting our lives and our family’s safety on the line by going to work and now many of us are. I know several EOC’s that don’t have the space to practice social distancing–cramming 50-100 bodies into a small room and spending 12+ hours there. In the future, this is going to become a huge consideration for how we can better protect ourselves. I also think some of us may have a lot to chew on mentally–myself included–about whether we want to work in a job that can be so dangerous.

Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

Remote EOC’s

The discussion of safety in the EOC leads me to my next point. Most of us aren’t well equipped enough in our processes and procedures to take our operations virtual at this point. Some of our essential functions are still done with pen and paper, or with T-cards, or with hard copy 214’s, or with a desktop computer that has to be hooked up to a certain server. Many are scrambling right now to be able to execute the essential functions of their EOC’s remotely so as to preserve the safety of their critical staff. The tools are out there and some jurisdictions are extremely successful at this. Your planning meetings can be conducted over web conferencing, even press conferences can be as we are seeing in California. Email and phone allow you to ask questions of other sections. Virtual environments like slack that are conducive to group chats and discussion threads are extremely useful to engage several people working on the same problems. I think many of us have drastically underutilized WebEOC, VEOCI, and other EOC management software. It hasn’t been trained and integrated enough into our operation to be able to function at its full capability. I think this is a huge lesson learned from COVID-19. The ability to work remotely is crucial, and it is possible, we just need to practice and equip our responders to be able to do it comfortably. Pandemics aren’t the only disasters this can be good for, if roads are damaged in a major earthquake but communications are still up it might be a lot easier to get your EOC up and running virtually for the first operational period. This is the major way that I think this disaster will change the field.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a conference on the COVID-19 conference on March 15, 2020. (Credit: KTXL)

Political Ubiquity

Now that every jurisdiction has been involved in such a major disaster response, all of our elected leaders are getting a crash course in disaster management. Whether they were engaged with EM before or not, they now undoubtedly have had to function in a crisis environment. More proclamations means that every city council and board of supervisors out there has had to draft and approve a resolution pertaining to an emergency. I bet it was the first time many of them had done it in decades. Mayors, governors, and even our President are giving press conferences on this disaster daily and having to learn good risk communication. They are learning a lot about continuity of government and just what services are essential. They are having to make some pretty big decisions that impact their constituents in huge ways–shelter in place orders? Closing down local businesses? These are not things that are easy to do and certainly won’t please all the voters. But as emergency managers I think that this is a win for us because I don’t think we’re going to have trouble convincing our bosses in the future why emergency management is important. For the next several years this disaster will be fresh in everyone’s memories on a scale we’ve never seen before. We are used to seeing news of distant disasters and being entranced for a couple weeks, sending donations and creating hashtags #anyplacestrong. But now that our lives are truly disrupted in a major way for an extended period, politicians and previously detached coworkers are going to care about our field. 

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

More Funding? 

That brings me to my last point, more funding. I have it with a question mark because in the immediate future I think a pretty big recession is inevitable, so I don’t think there is going to be much money to go around. However, I can tell you one thing. Emergency management programs are certainly not going to be the first on the chopping block as they historically have been in some jurisdictions. Executives will remember the plan, the program, the person they had to turn to in this dark time for guidance and they will not cut that program. I think that the long term fiscal impact on EM funding is going to be positive after COVID-19. I think there will be more emergency management positions created and hopefully more young folks interested in filling them. For once, everyone is going to see our value because this will be an incident that is not soon forgotten. 

I am sure there will be many more lessons learned in the weeks to come of this prolonged disaster. But these are the initial ways in which I think our field will never be the same.

COVID-19 and Society

Today we watch the outbreak known as COVID-19 continue to grow with ferocity, spurring emergency proclamations from more than half of the United States. The number of Emergency Operations Centers active in California softly escalates to what is likely an all-time high since my career in emergency management began. The scale of impacts the COVID-19 virus will have on our society remains to be seen, yet there are already some salient lessons that can be gleaned from this experience. These are my thoughts so far as my world is slowly consumed by the first pandemic of my emergency management career.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Social Distancing, Telework and Disproportionate Impacts

The Governor of the State of California announced late last night a statewide ban on public gatherings and more and more agencies are implementing telework policies that allow employees to work from home. Universities throughout the nation are moving toward online classes and almost all conferences are being canceled / postponed to a later date. Major music festivals such as Coachella and major sports such as the NBA are being suspended. The impacts of COVID-19 are widespread. I commend the decisions in most of these cases to minimize the spread of disease, especially the move of computer work to an online environment. I have always been a proponent of telework, even in a blue skies environment, particularly after becoming a mother. So many people work in industries that are almost entirely computer based and don’t actually require in person interactions at all. So why do we still get in our cars everyday and drive to an office, making traffic just a little bit worse? I think that the widespread usage of telework in response to COVID-19 may enlighten agencies that telework can be a feasible option that actually increases productivity and boosts employee morale (and people will see how much this helps traffic in urban areas!). Especially as a breastfeeding mother, the ability to directly nurse throughout the day would actually increase my working hours as pumping, washing bottles, and properly storing and rationing breastmilk is significantly more time consuming than nursing.

Today, anyone who can definitely should try to complete their work in a place of relative isolation. Those of us who are young and relatively healthy may not see this as imperative, but if it slows the spread of this disease that could be fatal to our elderly families and immune comprised peers (including pregnant women!) then it is certainly worth it. I believe we will find that many of the in person meetings we previously held may have been a drain on resources and will be shorter and more efficient if conducted in an online environment—either through video conferencing, phone calls, or email exchanges.

However, the move toward online work will inevitably leave behind many hourly workers who typically earn lower wages than their salaried office counterparts. Even though the disease does not discriminate based on wealth and fame, as we have already seen with Tom Hanks, politicians, and NBA players being impacted, exposure will almost certainly be disproportionate. In line with so many other disasters, this outbreak will impact socially vulnerable groups, particularly low income populations who already struggle day to day. These are the folks who most often work in customer service roles at gas stations, grocery stores, as hotel maids, as servers in restaurants. Often they don’t have paid sick leave, and shifts may even be canceled due to event cancelations as many aren’t represented by unions to guarantee a set number of hours. These are the people we need to consider and support as a community to ensure that they feel financially secure enough to stay home if they are sick and feel able to care for family members who may be sick. I am fully supportive of extending government paid sick leave for these purposes. We need to think through how we can best protect these workers and how we can sustain these functions with as little human exposure as necessary. I think we need to be innovative now and rise to the challenge of public health to protect all citizens not just those privileged enough to be able to work from home.

Photo by Matcha & CO on Unsplash

Health is Precious

With my daughter starting day care recently and immediately being stricken with a tough cold that had her home for a week and the anxiety of a recent personal health scare, the subject of health was already at the forefront of my thoughts. But now that COVID-19 has so rampantly run through our society, we need to rethink health as a priority. Every day, healthy people take for granted their ability to breathe, to walk, to eat without pain or difficulty. But this status can change rapidly at any moment, especially with such a highly contagious disease that is now so prominent worldwide. This is another way that COVID-19 will have disproportionate impacts, in this case on those who are already challenged by underlying medical issues. We need to take actions to boost our health and our immune systems and to actively be thankful when are well. Far too many of us only think of and wish for health when we are already sick. Instead, I challenge you to be mindfully thankful for your health every day—take pride in heathy choices that you make, eat your veggies, go on that walk, do that yoga, drink that water, EmergenC and green tea! Wash your hands, stay home if you can and remember that if we can slow the spread of this disease we can diminish the immediate need for finite resources such as hospital beds and ventilators, giving older people and those with compromised immune systems the best chance to fight this illness.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Technology and the Culmination of Couch Culture

I just recently returned to work after a 7 month maternity leave, some of which I didn’t have a personal vehicle. I am well practiced at social isolation and one of the major factors that makes me feel empowered to stay home is technology. Particularly the plethora of readily available delivery services—I am a regular user of Amazon Prime, Uber Eats and Vons grocery delivery. All of these were not available with the speed and precision just 5 years ago and are still not as accessible in many rural parts of the country. These technologies are a very powerful weapon in the fight against COVID-19 and I think we should make ready use of them. There is no need to make a rush on Costco or Walmart when you can have the essentials brought to your door step. I am aware that there are humans involved in these logistical processes, but I guarantee there are far fewer total opportunities for exposure in the quick interaction of the exchange at the doorstep then there are if you went to a crowded store or restaurant and spent an hour there. As technology progresses, it’s possible to envision a future where we could utilize drones and other automated technologies such as autonomous vehicles rather than Ubers to further mitigate the spread of this biological threat. It goes without saying that the Internet, smart phones, and tools such as Zoom and Go To Meeting are huge technological enablers in the work from home revolution. I know that loss of some hourly jobs is inevitable as we lean more heavily on technology, but I believe there will be more opportunities for creative, strategic employment for the next generation who, like my infant daughter, are practically born with a knack for technology. And isn’t this the perfect culmination of the ‘couch culture’ that we have been cultivating for years?? This generation of 20 somethings goes out far less than prior generations, and who can blame them with so many movies, shows, tasty foods, and even alcohol available with a few swipes of the smart phone? We have already been training for social isolation, now it’s game day.

These are my immediate musings on COVID-19, as I enter a week long period as the Emergency Management Duty Officer for eleven counties in Southern California. In the first nine hours of my shift I have received ELEVEN proclamations of local emergencies for cities and counties in CA. Wish me luck as I attempt to stay on top of this dynamic situation, and feel free to share the thoughts this pandemic is triggering for you.

Evacuation Messaging: Best Practices from the Thomas Fire

Today marks two years since I made my first middle of the night drive 90 miles up the 101 freeway to respond to disaster in Ventura County. The Thomas Fire ignited near Santa Paula December 4, 2017 and within hours had forced evacuations 15 miles to the west in the City of Ventura. It would grow to become the largest wildfire in California history at that time. In 2018 I had the pleasure of presenting Ventura County OES with a California Emergency Services Association Exceptional Service Award for emergency management best practices in response to the Thomas Fire.  There were so many lessons learned and so many emotional moments during the response that I can’t even begin to capture them all in one article.

The most critical function that was coordinated out of the Ventura EOC was the crafting and dissemination of emergency evacuation messages. This was the action that undoubtedly saved lives during the fast moving fire that started at night and threw people off guard when they realized ‘that brush fire in Santa Paula’ was lapping at backyards in Ventura. So today I am focusing just on the stellar emergency notification process that Ventura County OES honed during the fire. I’ll break down their EOC structure and processes into several parts so you can see how the system functioned.

The first WEA alert for the Thomas Fire.

Methods of Notification

In addition to traditional door to door notices by officers, news media partnerships and social media, the Ventura EOC primarily handled two methods: an opt-in system called ‘VC Alert’ that was coordinated through EverBridge software and the Wireless Emergency Alert through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (aka the technology that gives us Amber Alerts). The EOC heavily used VC Alert with detailed information about who was being evacuated, since this information could be shared with very targeted geographic areas and everyone receiving it had already indicated their interest by signing up for the system. They could also receive notifications through email, voice call and text message. This method is great but since it relies on sign ups, they knew that it only reached a small fraction of the county’s population. On that fateful night, the Ventura EOC Director made the decision to ‘push the big red button’ and utilize WEA for their first time ever when they realized how dire the situation was and needed to get the word out far and wide as quickly as possible. The WEA alerted everyone with a cell phone in that part of the county about the fast moving fire and directed them to seek emergency information on the VC Emergency website. The number of characters that can be included in a WEA is limited so they had to be very concise and could not share evacuation area specifics.

Thomas Fire perimeter map from early in the fire’s progression.

Alert & Warning Coordinator

Both the WEA and VCAlert messages were crafted from an Alert and Warning position within the EOC’s Planning Section. This person was knowledgeable in EverBridge and IPAWS. it was definitely a highly skilled position that needed to be filled by highly trained VCOES staff. The position coordinated directly with an EOC liaison at the Incident Command Post in order to obtain the latest evacuation orders coming from Law and Fire. This position also provided the intel from the field to the Website Coordinators in the Situation Unit and to the Planning Section Coordinator and the EOC Director. He or she was always a very popular and busy person during the activation. If you wanted the latest and greatest information on what the fire was doing, you went to this person.

Briefing at the Thomas Fire Incident Command Post.

The EOC Liaison at the ICP

The EOC Liaison was physically stationed at the ICP although he/she was an actual Emergency Manager who was part of the VCOES team. I think this is a great practice because this person’s sole responsibility was to watch out for information about evacuations and immediately relay it to the EOC. When this responsibility is tacked onto the already full plate of fire and law personnel it may slip through the cracks. A physical presence is also important so that Incident Command will have that constant reminder of emergency management needs and resources that can be coordinated through the EOC. It is also great for building strong relationships with law and fire partners—standing side by side in the smoke together solidifies a bond that can never be replicated over the phone.

The Website Coordinator(s)

Within the situation unit, there was one person entirely dedicated to making sure that the VC Emergency website was kept up to date with all the current details of the incident. Most importantly this was evacuation information, but it grew to include information on shelters, school closures, air quality information, road closures, and more. It included a detailed, interactive map that was kept up to date with real time evacuation information through the assistance of a GIS specialist also working within the planning section. The website was such a critical mechanism for the public to maintain information about the response that it actually temporarily crashed due to high volume on the first night. It was certainly a lesson learned for future responses to ensure that your website can handle a sudden increase in traffic during an emergency situation. As the fire continued to burn and keep community members out of their homes for two weeks, the need for providing better real-time information in Spanish became apparent. They were originally using Google Translate to provide the information in Spanish, however the system was imperfect as ‘brushfire’ was translated into ‘hairbrush’ along with other unintentional translation mishaps. Ventura eventually expanded the team to add a bilingual website position that was responsible for keeping a Spanish version of the site up to date whenever the English version was updated.

EOC organization chart from the Thomas Fire.

The EOC Hotline

The Ventura EOC also housed a hotline call center with a minimum of 2 staff at all times to answer any inquiries from the public. The hotline number was shared far and wide on social and traditional media. The call volume would have put a burden on an emergency dispatch center and would have been overwhelming for a single public information position. Call center staff answered phones and mainly utilized the website to share information with the public about what was going on in the fire. Even though people could’ve just looked at the website on their own, many felt better about interacting with an actual human being. They were also able to request additional information or get messages into the EOC if needed. I believe this function is vital within or directly adjacent to an EOC and it is often overlooked with the assumption that dispatch will be able to handle it. Within the org chart, the call center fell under the Public Information function, and the Call Center Supervisor reported to the PIO for questions and connected the calls for media interviews to him.

Inside the EOC.

The EOC Collateral Program

You might wonder how Ventura was able to staff all these positions using their emergency management team and the answer is that they didn’t. They created an optional program called the ‘EOC Collateral Program’ where staff from other county departments could volunteer to undergo training to augment EOC functions and earn overtime during emergency activations. This program is truly a best practice because everyone participating applied, interviewed, and underwent significant training. These staff viewed the experience as a privilege rather than as an unfortunate ‘other duty as assigned.’ The way this program was framed by OES as competitive and selective created a culture of people who actually wanted to help out in the EOC. People in this program staffed the website, situation status, call center, and logistics support functions.

Public Information Officer(s)

Both Fire and Law provided PIOs to the EOC. These PIOs were primarily responsible for giving media interviews, drafting press releases, and coordinating EOC visits for media or dignitaries. Social media for this response was handled by field personnel for fire and law. The EOC did not utilize its own Twitter Account for emergency notifications since they had not built up a following or trained on that method.

Presenting Ventura OES with the Exceptional Service Award at the 2018 CESA Conference.

Saving Lives

Emergency notification is an extremely critical function that should be coordinated through the EOC rather than at the field level whenever possible. Ventura had learned from the mistakes of Sonoma County just two months earlier during the wine country fires of October 2017 when 44 lives were lost as the fire swept through neighborhoods in the middle of the night. Their decision not to use WEA limited the spread of life saving information, and I believe that Ventura’s decision to send its first WEA absolutely reduced the loss of life in the Thomas Fire. There is much that can be learned from the response and recovery from such a major disaster, but I believe these are the most salient emergency management lessons to be shared on this day of remembrance.

Mass Shooting Response: Different than ‘Natural’ Disasters

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting incident that occurred in Thousand Oaks in Ventura County, California. With so many of these types of incidents occurring each year in the U.S., you might not recall the details of this particular one. A gunman (young male ex-Marine) entered the popular line dancing / country music establishment just before midnight on college night. He shot staff members, then opened fire on the patrons as they fled, many jumping from second story windows to escape. Two officers made entry and engaged in a shootout with the suspect, Ventura County Sergeant Ron Helus was fatally wounded. The gunman killed himself before authorities attempted a second entry. A total of 12 innocent lives, mostly college students, were taken that night. The incident hit Thousand Oaks hard and the community was still reeling from the tragedy when many residents were forced to evacuate from the Woolsey Fire less than 24 hours later.

This was also the first (and currently the only) mass shooting incident that I ever responded to. As I listen to the news broadcasts about the community healing events and the dedication of the Ron Helus memorial highway today I am remembering how this tragedy impacted me personally and what elements made this response unique among all the natural hazards induced disasters that I’ve responded to. At the time, I hadn’t yet found out I was pregnant with Scarlett. So much has changed in this year and it’s given me the clarity to reflect honestly on what was the craziest day in my emergency response career so far, and how responding to this man made disaster was different in many ways than responding to nature induced disasters.

The view from the Central Ave overpass of Highway 101 during the law enforcement procession for Sgt Helus.

A Different Rhythm

Unlike the frequent wildfire / hurricane / storm responses that we emergency managers are used to dealing with mass shootings are quick. For ‘natural’ disasters we usually have days to ramp up our response as weather predictions show us when the danger is likely to occur to our communities. The response period is prolonged as we issue evacuations and then monitor sheltering and impacts with our EOC’s active for several days or weeks until the threat has passed. With mass shootings, nearly 70% end in less than 5 minutes. Of course, we are still in response mode while first responders arrive and establish command on the scene. But the incident very quickly enters the recovery phrase, the threat has passed in the blink of an eye and as emergency managers our role is entirely to deal with the aftermath. Your EOC does not need a position dedicated to advanced planning, weather monitoring or predictive services on fire behavior. These incidents are extremely hot and heavy—they come on quickly with intensity and are almost always totally unexpected. The good news is that your EOC activation will not last long, the bad news is that you will immediately have fatalities and that always ups the ante on any response.

News stations at the Ventura EOC report on the status of the shooter.

Criminal Investigations

Because you already have fatalities and these were no accidental deaths, your coordination will have to work around a criminal investigation of the incident. That does mean that your incident command post will need to be organized to endure for a much longer duration than law enforcement led incidents usually do. There will be new partners descending on the scene to fill their roles and your agency may have never worked with them before. One of the most critical being the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and their Victim Services Division. Your state may also have a victim services branch that will want to be involved in the response. This means that your field staff will almost certainly be seeing a lot of new faces at the ICP, but if you have taken the time to plan and train in advance they should at least be aware of the support these agencies can offer and what their processes are like. Be aware that victim identification may take longer than it would for a single shooting or for a nature induced incident because of the ongoing criminal investigation and the involvement of the FBI as they determine whether the incident will be categorized as terrorism.

The cover of the EOC Action plan for the incident.

The Role of Emergency Managers

The most important role that emergency managers should own in these incidents is to coordinate a Family Assistance / Reunification Center. I prefer the terminology ‘Assistance’ Center since inherently some will not be reunified with loved ones and the usage of this word can bring unnecessary additional grief to the families of the deceased. At the Ventura County EOC supporting the logistics of both the Incident Command Post and the Family Assistance Center quickly became our primary focus. The ICP will need things like lighting, barricades, and additional security measures to protect the responders from the public due to the sensitive nature of the response. The Family Assistance Center will need a location, and agency representatives who can assist families including behavioral health staff, chaplains, the American Red Cross and any other local NGO’s who can offer support, and law enforcement representatives to provide and collect information. Both locations will need basic items like tables and chairs and it helps to create a comforting environment to be able to provide things like tissue, snacks, and coffee at the Family Assistance Center. It’s ideal to get this going very quickly to alleviate the pressure on the ICP as family members and media will be drawn to the scene of the crime. If you have a FAC plan in place with locations and agency contacts predetermined it will certainly expedite the process. Remember that this could happen in the middle of the night, as it did in Thousand Oaks, so having 24-hour points of contact for facilities and agencies is ideal.

The memorial for the victims outside the Borderline Grill.

Gun Control Politics

Your jurisdiction will quickly become the focus of national and international news attention. You shouldn’t be surprised if you’re trending on Twitter very quickly and ‘your town + strong’ becomes a popular hashtag. People are shocked and horrified by mass shootings, and the attention will be immediate and intensely laser focused on the incident. Although natural disasters may cause more physical destruction and also take lives, mass shootings are seen as more preventable and the brutal intentionality of these incidents draws the attention of the nation, if not the world. During the Borderline incident, we were shocked to receive an interview request in Hebrew from a news outlet in Israel. When planning for mass shootings, the importance of effective public information cannot be overstated. You must have your best PIOs available both at the ICP and in the EOC to disseminate accurate information, showcase what your agency is doing to respond, and to convey compassion. You will also find yourself thrown unwillingly into the national gun debate immediately and both elected officials and PIOs should be equipped to respond appropriately to heavily political questions they may receive. I highly recommend testing public information as a core capability during mass shooting exercises as it can become overwhelming quickly and commanding messaging with clarity and dignity is critical in how your response and your community will be portrayed and remembered in the international eye.

Each victim was honored with memorabilia and items specific to their interests and personalities.

Emotional Nature

The absolute most important element of a mass shooting response in contrast to a natural hazard incident is the intensity of the emotions involved. Be prepared for an extremely somber atmosphere, your EOC will feel very different than it does during routine weather events. While your EOC staff will be working very hard to fulfill their roles, they will also be very distraught, saddened, and scared that such a horrific tragedy has occurred in their community. In Ventura, everyone knew Sgt Helus, he had trained with the EOC team and had been involved in the Thomas Fire response the previous year. So while the team was working hard intellectually to deal with an unprecedented type of response, they were also working extremely hard emotionally to process that a colleague had been murdered. In the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, the victims included many county staff who were attacked during a holiday luncheon. These incidents often hit very close to home for those of us involved in the response and can have ramifications for continuity of operations as well. When everyone on the team is devastated by the deaths of colleagues or if some of the victims include the team members, how can you continue to respond and provide services to the community? While it’s a very delicate subject and nearly impossible to fully prepare for, I recommend that these personal elements be tested and discussed during any emergency exercises with mass shooting scenarios. And if you are responding to an EOC for a mass shooting as an outside agency representative, remember that this is deeply personal. While you may have dealt with loss of life during a disaster before, as we had recently in the Montecito mudslides incident, this was different, this was intentional murder. Take off your vest for a moment and remember that you are all human beings and the most important thing is to recognize and honor the humanity of those responding beside you. They are dealing with loss while still performing their duties and they can use your personal support. The night that I responded to Borderline, I wore my Ventura OES polo instead of my CalOES one (against protocol). I hoped this small, non-verbal gesture would show them that on that night I responded as one of them. I greeted each of the team members with compassion, looking into their eyes and telling each that I was sorry for their loss, as I realized these were not simply my colleagues they were my friends. I came that night not just as a state employee supporting local government, but as a human being honoring their organization and giving all of myself to the team however I could.

A painting of hero Ron Helus at his memorial on 11/15/18.

In Remembrance

Today, I honor the memory of those innocent lives that were taken too soon a year ago and particularly the heroism of Ron Helus, who died trying to stop additional murders in his hometown. The community of Thousand Oaks has been through a tremendous amount of adversity in the past year and it’s been my honor to support them as a state liaison. It’s important to remember that while these incidents will be ‘over’ quickly, the healing and recovery process will take years. Thousand Oaks has responded with some innovative outlets for community healing, including a writing project and a community healing garden. In remembrance of this tragedy, take some time today to think about your own plans for an active shooter and what you can add or exercise next to remain vigilant to the nuances of these man made incidents.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs: A California Emergency Manager’s Perspective

Last week, California experienced the largest Public Safety Power Shut Off (PSPS) to date when Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), its largest investor owned utility cut power to approximately 738,000 customers in 35 counties. One of which was Humboldt County, where I grew up and still have many friends and family members, which lost power for 24 hours with one day’s notice. Another was Tuolumne County, where my sister-in-law and her family live, where customers were plunged into darkness for nearly 4 days. While I have been dealing with the new reality of PSPS as an emergency manager for more than a year, most people are only learning of the protocol and its significance this month as a result of the massive outage.

I wanted to take the opportunity while there is public attention on this issue to write an opinion piece on PSPS and its ramifications. While I am currently employed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), I want to be clear that what I’ve written here is my individual opinion and does not represent the opinion of my employer. However, I do want to commend Governor Newsom on his letter earlier this week to the California Public Utilities Commission and echo some of his sentiments that the scope and duration of this PSPS was unacceptable and executed with astounding neglect and lack of preparation on behalf of PG&E.

Wildfire destruction in Ventura, CA after the December 2017 Thomas Fire, caused by SCE electrical equipment.

What is PSPS?

Public Safety Power Shut Offs, or ‘PSPS’ as they are affectionately called in our industry, are a new tactic employed by investor owned power companies in California to proactively shut off power in specific areas during times of high wildfire risk. While San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been practicing this for years, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have just started implementing PSPS in the last couple years, due mainly to the fall out from recent devastating fires in Sonoma, Butte and Ventura Counties that were determined to be started by electrical equipment. This allows the companies to play it safe when weather conditions are primed for wildfires and avoid potential future liability that could be incurred through wildfires caused by electrical equipment. They closely monitor the impending weather conditions utilizing their own staff meteorologists, then send field staff out to the most fire prone locations as the weather event commences. When localized weather equipment and field staff concur that dangerous conditions exist, they proactively shut off power to select circuits in vulnerable areas.

People generally aren’t too happy about this new protocol—it means that perfectly good groceries will rot in refrigerators and cranky Californians will fumble with flashlights in sweltering homes on the state’s hottest days. For what reason? Will this really stop wildfires from starting? Great questions, I’ll attempt to address this below. It’s important to note that although many people are seeing ‘CalOES mandated’ with some of the notifications on the power outage, CalOES does not mandate the power companies to turn off power. CalOES mandates that if they are going to do this, that they notify both customers and local governments in the affected areas in a timely manner.

Long lines of cars awaiting gas at a station in Eureka, CA in advance of the October 2019 PSPS event. Photo by Kali Cozyris via the North Coast Journal.

Community Repercussions

The highly publicized widespread planned outages allowed us a view into the current level of California’s preparedness, and it didn’t look good. In Humboldt County, gas station lines were extremely lengthy until they transitioned into being eerily empty as many stations ran out of gas. Grocery stores were swarmed with crowds until the shelves were cleared of water, canned goods, toilet paper and other essentials. Some stores offered steep discounts on perishable refrigerated and frozen foods that were likely to be destroyed in the extended outage. There was a general sense of mayhem as people went into a frenzy trying to prepare for a few days without power. This shows us that in general, people didn’t feel that what they had at home was adequate to comfortably survive even a few days. This is not a good sign for being prepared for the Big One. Fortunately, it’s a great time for emergency managers to capitalize on this by encouraging participation in the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill later this week.

The Arcata plaza under a starlight sky with no power on in the city during the October 2019 PSPS event. Photo by Dave Wilson via the Lost Coast Outpost.

The upside to this is that people were forced to give disaster—or living in this alternate universe without power—their thoughts and attention. It is so common for people to push it out of their minds by saying they’ll prepare next month or that disaster won’t happen in their lifetimes. When they knew that the outage was impending, people considered their current commodities and took action. While a full tank of a gas or stash of canned goods will be fleeting, some of the items procured will have a lasting impact and will boost overall personal preparedness. Perhaps people will be more likely to purchase generators to mitigate the darkness of future outages. Thinking through the scenario and discussing it with family members is also going to pay dividends toward the creation of a family emergency plan, even if it’s conversational and focused mainly on power outages. Hopefully it can start the train of thought toward greater emergencies and what to do if gas or sewer systems are also not working. Maybe in the future, people will recall the long gas station lines and remember what a precious commodity fuel really is so they’ll keep their tanks at least half full so that emergencies won’t limit their mobility.

Refrigerated beverages that went to waste after the October 2019 PSPS event from a grocery store in Humboldt County.

The outages had a big impact on small businesses that did not have generators. In Humboldt County most of these businesses were forced to close and lose revenue for the duration of the outage. Gas stations closed such as the Chevron in Eureka where my brother works and even the Safeway in Arcata where my mom works as a result of their generator malfunctioning. Excess product that needed refrigeration became waste and money was lost on these products. While corporations like Safeway and Chevron will be just fine, a PSPS event can wreak havoc on small businesses that are often teetering on the brink of profitability in rural areas such as Humboldt or Tuolumne.

My current stash over 100+ ounces of breastmilk. It has taken me about 2 months to accumulate what’s currently in my freezer.

As with most disasters, populations with access and functional needs will be the hardest hit with PSPS. Lower income people who cannot afford to refill their freezers and refrigerators with food staples that they’ve been depending on were adversely impacted by this event. Hourly employees of shuttered businesses lost wages when they could no longer go into work. As a breastfeeding mother, I could be very impacted by an outage. I would be horrified to lose my supply of frozen milk that I have been building for months—it is literally priceless, produced by my own body for my infant and cannot be replaced.

A screenshot of PG&E’s Tweet last week encouraging those with medical needs to have preparedness plans.

Perhaps the most important consideration of all for PSPS, is those who need electricity for medical reasons. This includes those dependent on oxygen, dialysis or CPAP machines, motorized mobility equipment or insulin that needs to be refrigerated. A power shut off can be catastrophic for people with these needs. PG&E was outspoken on social media during last week’s outage that these patients need to develop their own emergency plans and be prepared. Is this an acceptable stance to take when lives are at stake because a power company wants to reduce their own liability?

Impact on Emergency Management

An EOC action plan from the Inland Regional Operations Center for last week’s event.

For local emergency management agencies, PSPS means more planning calls and more Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activations in anticipation of possible emergencies rather than in response to real emergencies. While this can be great practice in activation protocols and running through the process for smaller jurisdictions that don’t get much action, it can also become a huge headache quickly. And it can present a level of danger—if staff are already tired from being activated for a forced power outage, does it make them more capable or less capable to respond swiftly and competently when real disaster strikes? I know that at the Regional level, activations for PSPS exhaust our resources quickly. CalOES deploys Emergency Services Coordinators to any activated counties and also to utility EOC’s. If a real wildfire emergency occurs and shifts need to be filled overnight and to staff our Regional EOC, then we quickly begin to run out of personnel resources and must rely on overtired staff who would’ve otherwise been refreshed and ready to go when the real fire ignited. I can personally testify to this happening in November 2018 when the Camp and Hill / Woolsey fires began as we had been in PSPS mode all week. Although I’m out on maternity leave, I have also heard that this was the case last week with the October 2019 Saddle Ridge fire. These types of activations will become more and more common, with Southern California Edison already moving into a constant state of EOC activation for every weekend through wildfire season in 2019.

The other drawback is that the capability of communicating important emergency evacuation information with the public can be greatly diminished if power is out. There are many ways for wildfires to ignite and cutting the power simply won’t mitigate all fire start potential. So if a fire starts a different way and begins to impact a community in the dark, how can emergency management quickly notify them? Television media won’t reach them and cell phones may have varying levels of battery power depending on outage duration and community access to generators. Sending first responders door to door is a very resource intensive option that can be slower than other methods. This presents a greater danger to these communities.

One per county.

PG&E committed to opening one ‘Community Resource Center’ per county with a maximum of 100 people to provide device charging capabilities and controlled temperatures. While I appreciate the gesture, I find it almost laughable that these centers would even begin to meet needs. In many of the 35 impacted counties, it would be quite a drive for those most at risk in the more rural mountainous areas to the resource center in the more populous part of the county. In Humboldt County, the resource center opened hours after power had been restored for much of the county, with the exception of the distant rural areas. This quickly becomes a need that local emergency management becomes involved with by opening additional cooling centers or resource centers. These centers further stretch staff resources that would be needed as shelter workers if a wildfire hits.

As stewards of the whole community, local emergency managers must also plan for the needs of the medically vulnerable populations previously mentioned. Since many do not have the resources or knowledge to fully prepare themselves as PG&E suggests, emergency managers try to fill this gap by working with public health to identify and check on the well-being of these populations during outages. As you can imagine, this can quickly become an information management challenge and a losing battle as the number of people impacted increases.

Does it work?

In short, PSPS will never be able to stop all fires from starting and it is impossible to prove success with this protocol because we will never know if electrical equipment would’ve started a fire during the time of the outage. From my observations, it has already not worked on November 8th, 2018 when the Woolsey Fire started from electrical equipment during a time that Southern California Edison had actively been implementing PSPS protocols all week. The Camp Fire also ignited that day and was started by electrical equipment although I’m not sure if that area was being analyzed for PSPS that day or not.

Even with the best analysis available, I believe that it is impossible to know exactly where and when a fire will begin. Wind and weather conditions can shift in an instant. We all know that weather predictions are not all that accurate all the time (sorry NWS friends) and these predictions are what PSPS is solely based around. I also do not believe that shutting off power to massive areas as was conducted by PG&E last week is the solution. So many of these areas never had any fire danger, including the one nearest and dearest to my heart, coastal Humboldt County. My parents had wanted to run their heater because it was actually chilly, cold and plenty humid, with overnight temperatures down to the 40’s in their home a mile from the Pacific Ocean in October. But they couldn’t because their power was off for fire danger. Putting so many people in the dark who are nowhere near the danger zones seems to me to be more of an attention-grabbing political ploy than an actual life safety necessity. I believe that the leadership of California’s investor owned utilities hope that these massive outages will create political pressure to legislate them out of liability for future fires in exchange for keeping the power on.

As evidenced by last week’s outage, PG&E was not prepared for the level of customer service and information needs that their planned outage created. Humboldt County was not on the list of impacted counties until the day before the power outage occurred. The notification process to individual customers was subpar, with many complaints of never receiving the notification. The company’s website crashed and customers were unable to gain information as to whether the outage would impact them. Clearly, there is much work to be done before the company claim to be prepared to undertake such a massive planned outage again.

How can we stop CA wildfires?

Damage in Ventura, CA after Dec 2017 Thomas Fire.

While shutting off power may stop electrical equipment driven wildfires from starting, there are other measures that I think would could be bring similar success without such adverse impacts on populations. For one, PG&E should begin by focusing their efforts on updating their infrastructure to upgrade transmission lines and increase grid segmentation so that if they choose to continue with PSPS in the future they will have the capability to be much more targeted. Such incredibly large swaths of land were impacted by last week’s outage and this could have been avoided if they had the capability to segment their grid to focus impacts the way that Southern California Edison and SDG&E do.

Microgrid graphic courtesy of Berkeley Labs via Yale Climate Connection.

Additionally, the impacts of PSPS could be mitigated by investments in microgrid technology. A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources that typically operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional centralized grid but can disconnect and maintain operation autonomously. An excellent example of a success story for this type of innovation was revealed in Humboldt County last week when the Blue Lake Rancheria’s microgrid continued to function while the rest of the county went dark. The tribe has been a huge proponent of resiliency planning and has become a leader in tribal emergency management, even bringing FEMA’s emergency management advanced academy to Humboldt earlier this year! During the outage, the tribe’s gas station remained functioning and their facilities provided access to electricity and warmth for local families. The tribe also worked with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services to house eight people who relied on electricity for medical needs in its casino—an outstanding example of an intergovernmental and quasi public-private partnership. In the darkness of PSPS, this mini success shines a light on potential future technology advances that could alleviate hardship.

Unfortunately, it will not be such an easy fix as shutting off power to decrease wildfire frequency. California experienced a prolonged drought from 2011 – 2015 that was the driest since record keeping began in 1885. The amount of dry vegetation in the state’s wildlands coupled with the devastating effects of bark beetles creates a massive amount of fuel that is ripe for burning. Additionally, the state continues to experience record breaking temperatures and an increase in the number of extremely hot days. When humidity dips and high winds commence, massive wildfires are born. While the Cedar Fire of 2003 was California’s largest wildfire for 14 years, the Thomas Fire (2017) only held that title for a mere 8 months before the Mendocino Complex fire overtook it. These disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency due to climate induced conditions. Examining the drivers of climate change and taking action to reduce anthropogenic impacts on the environment is one avenue of working to reduce wildfires.

Image of homes at the Wildland Urban Interface from US Fire Administration via FEMA.

Another is to reduce further development into the Wildland Urban Interface, the area where suburban developments encroach into traditionally wild environments. California has more people and homes located in the WUI than any other state in the continental US—close to 4.5 million homes and 11 million people. This creates a new type of ignition ready fuel for small brushfires to really take flight. While communities continue to expand outward into the hills and the state faces a housing affordability crisis, policymakers and community developers must consider the price that we will pay when wildfire strikes these areas and reconsider the decisions to continue to infringe on these wild spaces.

Until we are ready to truly address these greater issues, no amount of PSPS will solve California’s wildfire crisis. Is it worth the death of a medical patient dependent on electricity to possibly save the lives and property of many from a wildfire that does not yet exist? While policy makers must grapple with these decisions, California emergency managers must react to the new normal in the wake of devastating climate change induced disasters and rise to this challenge.

Emergency Preparedness Careers Panel at CSUN

Career center introduces job opportunities through emergency preparedness panel