Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

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Leadership: A Call to Action for Emergency Managers

By Jenny Novak & Alison Poste for the Emergency Management Growth Initiative

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Emergency Managers are experts in the art of compromise and consensus.

With infinite hazard scenarios to prepare for, including the emergence of cascading disasters as a reality, the job of an Emergency Manager is defined by our ability to adapt, pivot and re-prioritize based on the needs of the incident. In an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in particular, the most effective Emergency Managers (EMs) are those who can “[get] highly specialized groups like doctors, police, wastewater management, economists, lawyers, politicians, etc. to come to a consensus on an emergency timetable,” according to Jason Vezina, the CEO of Prepared Canada Corp. What this means in practice, is the most effective EM is one who can synthesize multiple and disparate perspectives, and ensure any resulting solution is responsive to the needs of the emergency or operational period. It’s no surprise that what makes an exceptional EM are also the traits sought after in leadership positions – in both senior management and elected official contexts. 

In order to move our discipline forward, consideration of our collective career growth and leadership opportunities is needed. We need to think beyond traditional goals of rising to leadership of state and national emergency management agencies. You may think that you have hit the ceiling in your current organization if you are in the most senior emergency management position. But perhaps there is room for local career growth into a broader leadership role that you haven’t yet considered.

As our profession matures, our backgrounds will be seen as less ‘niche’ and more essential to the core function of organizations – perfect platforms for leadership. We are so focused on the ever exciting world of disasters, many of us haven’t considered that we can (and should!) pursue promotional opportunities into the positions that oversee and dictate emergency management policy in our organizations. Leveraging our considerable experience and knowledge of best practises into policy positions will help to ensure that programming, budgets and departments incorporate an ‘EM’ perspective into corporate governance.  

The payoff for our field will be huge if we can collectively make an effort to step into these positions and get the emergency management perspective integrated into boardroom meetings across the world. Rather than relying on our bosses to advocate for our programs, we can be the ones doing it directly if we become our bosses. Someone has to step into the leadership role, so why not emergency managers? 

Generalists

You may worry that you don’t have the technical expertise or financial acumen to advance into a role that oversees multiple departments. However, anyone who advances to the highest level of leadership in organizations must generalize their knowledge. The more departments and programs under the purview of the leader, the less likely the person is to have intimate familiarity with all of them. Emergency managers already have an advantage in this regard because our work inherently familiarizes us with the different departments, functions and branches of our organizations. In order to develop a strong emergency plan and EOC team, we are already working with various departments across the organization. For continuity planning, we have honed in on the most essential functions of our organizations, we’ve learned who is responsible and the processes involved. These functions are not emergency management specific, however we have intimate knowledge of them that most other professionals do not possess. 

Leadership

Emergency managers are natural leaders. We run toward the fires rather than away from them. While others are shying away and melting down, we turn it on and rise to the challenge of crisis mode. When an emergency strikes our jurisdictions, we are the ones who elevate into the EOC Director roles (or advise the Directors in our roles as coordinators). Our colleagues and constituents turn to us for recommendations on next steps to handle the incident. They rely on us to be forward thinking and unwavering in times of crisis. Simply by stepping into this role as crisis leaders, we are demonstrating core competencies that are essential in everyday leadership. Many leaders would say that crises are some of the most challenging times to be in charge, and emergency managers are already leading during disasters.

Knowledge of Systems

We also have an understanding of the underlying societal systems that impact our organizations and our constituents. We are acutely aware of the factors that influence vulnerability and which segments of the community need the most support during disasters. Unsurprisingly, these populations tend to need the most support outside of crises as well. Disparities in access to resources, systemic racism, and generational poverty have huge impacts on who is disproportionately impacted during disaster. We are in tune with these and the cascade of negative impacts that can occur to these populations post-disaster. Oftentimes a simple promotion of personal preparedness is not enough to help, we need to address these inequities on a system wide level at the community level, and that work begins during blue skies. As an example, many Indigenous and remote communities face disproportionately greater impacts as a result of disasters. Our emergency management perspectives are a wonderful primer to these larger societal issues and chronic stressors that impact long term community health.

Relationships

Emergency managers are relationship builders. Our jobs require us to motivate others without direct line authority as we must find creative ways to encourage compliance and participation across departmental lines. This is best accomplished through building strong working and interpersonal relationships with colleagues, establishing trust, and building knowledge of what skills, motivations, and hurdles are in their daily work. We know the importance of building connections prior to disasters, so we invest in our social fabric and take the time to get to know others in our organizations. These relationships that pay off in a big way during disasters can also reward us as we advance professionally since we have already established allies across and beyond our organizations. When we promote, our networks will allow us to transition smoothly into our new roles and strengthen the relationships we formed in emergency management.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

A Step Above

We all know that the buck stops with the policy group (aka your organization’s elected leaders). While the advancement of emergency managers into VP or C-suite roles will be a huge boost to the discipline, emergency managers filling elected roles will truly instigate positive change. Emergency management provides a fantastic background for politics. Our missions are both altruistic and inspirational; life safety, preparedness and resilience are easy sells for public support. While a traditional law enforcement background can be politically divisive, emergency managers provide a more strategic and holistic approach to cultivating safe communities. The relationship skills that we use to motivate people to prepare for emergencies and strong networks we have built throughout our regions can be huge assets to launching a political campaign. Instead of strategizing on how we can get our elected officials to invest in disaster resilience, why not become the elected officials?

Disaster Recovery: Measuring the Impacts and Defining Survivors

Recovery remains the murkiest phase of the disaster cycle. Unless you have experienced a significant disaster in your jurisdiction then you haven’t had an opportunity to practice and explore recovery concepts. Recovery does not have a well-defined beginning and end, therefore we tend to shy away from it and choose to focus our planning instead on the distinctive and adrenaline filled response phase.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

US Federal Government Disaster Assistance

FEMA has two primary recovery programs that provide disaster assistance: Public Assistance (for local and state governments) and Individual Assistance (for individuals / households). The first step in accessing these programs is a request from the Governor to the President to declare a Major Disaster. Once received, FEMA will review information about the disaster’s impacts.

The metrics they typically rely on include the estimated monetary value to public property (obtained through initial damage estimates submitted by the local jurisdiction), the number of private housing units that are damaged or destroyed and the number of these which are uninsured. Based on these numeric estimates, and the Preliminary Damage Assessment validation process, FEMA will make a recommendation to the President about granting a disaster declaration and which types of assistance should be activated. Sometimes, only one type of assistance will be granted initially, and then additional categories will get added as more information is collected and verified.

Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Broadening the Definition of Disaster Survivors

This view of recovery is narrow, focused only on numbers and physical damages. As I outlined in my recent article on the ripple effect of disasters, the true impacts of disaster tend to be much broader. These include interruption to work and loss of hourly wages, losses experienced by undocumented populations, loss of outbuildings that were used for primary residences, displacement of renters outside of the disaster zone, school closures and childcare impacts, health impacts related to poor air quality, economic impacts due to air quality related closures, and psychological impacts on the greater community.

When we begin to think about the true number of people who could be defined as disaster survivors, we see that the reach is much broader than who qualifies for FEMA’s Individual and Household Assistance program currently.  Assuming that you live in a county that was included in a Major Disaster Declaration for which Individual Assistance was activated, you have to be able to prove that you lived in a disaster damaged residential structure, prove that you were uninsured or underinsured, and show evidence that a member of your household is a “US citizen, non-citizen national or qualified alien.”

As depicted in a recent NPR article on FEMA’s high denial rate for disaster assistance applications during the 2020 Oregon Wildfires, this is not an easy process. “During last year’s fire season in Oregon, FEMA didn’t approve roughly 70% of claims. That’s after FEMA filtered out applications it had deemed as potentially fraudulent. In California, FEMA didn’t approve 86% of claims.”

There is much room for error in the paperwork process and if the automated systems are unable to verify you along the way, your application will likely be denied. Of course, there is an appeal process but many who see the word ‘denied’ simply move on. Hassling with bureaucratic paperwork and jumping through hoops is the last thing that most disaster survivors want to do.

So if those who meet the currently narrow definition of survivors are experiencing their share of problems accessing aid, how do we go about creating a system that supports an expanded definition of disaster survivors?

Early 2018 meeting of Ventura’s Long Term Recovery Group

Involving Community Based Organizations

While government financial assistance can be extremely beneficial, it shouldn’t be relied upon as the only way to support individuals following disasters. That’s where non-profit organizations and community based organizations can step in to be incredibly important local assets. Case management efforts can be best coordinated by the formation of a Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG) for resource and information sharing.  Following the series of disasters in 2017 and 2018 in Ventura County, the LTRG became a critical driver of recovery efforts. The group ensured that monetary grants provided by the American Red Cross, Tzu Chi, the Salvation Army and others were issued in a coordinated manner and helped survivors navigate the process of identifying and applying for all available aid.

One of the leading organizations in Ventura’s LTRG is the Ventura Community Foundation. Before my experience with the recovery, I was unaware of the role that such foundations can play after disaster. According to the Council on Foundations,

“Community foundations are grantmaking public charities that are dedicated to improving the lives of people in a defined local geographic area. They bring together the financial resources of individuals, families and businesses to support effective nonprofits in their communities.”

As a trusted fiduciary agent in the community, the Ventura Community Foundation has been able to provide both short and long term recovery grants to individuals and community based organizations impacted by disaster and also partner with grassroots organizations to amplify fundraising and giving efforts. This is a largely untapped resource for emergency managers, and a critical stakeholder to identify and bring to the table in pre-planning efforts. The mission of such organizations aligns closely with filling the gap between survivor needs and available assistance.

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash

Shift the Focus to Community

My experience and research on recovery has revealed that an effective recovery strategy is to expand our focus from individuals to the community. While financially supporting the most deeply impacted individuals is a critical component of recovery, there are many non-financial factors that can support survivor recovery too. One is having the ability to share their story, which is most effectively done through community healing events, such as fundraisers, vigils, and memorials that specifically recognize the hurt and trauma that disaster has caused. Effective case management staff, volunteers, emergency managers and any other representatives working with the survivors can also help meet this need simply by allowing space and time for survivors to share their experiences. It may take an extra hour out of a busy day, but as architects of community recovery we need to recognize and understand this need and build time into our agendas to allow it.

Another key factor in survivor recovery and post traumatic growth is feeling connected to something greater than themselves. Service opportunities allow survivors to give back and regain their agency, thus rewriting the narrative that might have painted them as ‘victims.’ Creating such opportunities alongside community events can be a huge booster in community resiliency and recovery. As much as possible, survivors need to find a place and mechanism to connect with one another, to hear each other, and to console each other. Local businesses and organizations can be huge assets in facilitating these opportunities.

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

New Methods of Measuring Recovery

When I gave my recovery presentation at the IAEM Encore conference last month, I was asked a really interesting question: If acres burned and homes destroyed don’t tell us the full story, what metrics should we be using to measure recovery? As I’ve considered this question, some immediate ideas drawn from the ripple effect come to mind. Perhaps we can look at economic statistics—jobs lost, hours lost (although how do you gather that data?), retail losses, tourism losses, agriculture losses, etc. And maybe we could measure through days that schools and other anchor community establishments are closed. Another possible metric could be the number of people seeking assistance through local non-profits. In Ventura County, a good indicator was the number of disaster related calls placed to their local 2-1-1 (help line for general questions on services, resources, and information in the county).

But the more I thought about the question, the more I realized that trying to find a quantitative method to measure recovery might be the wrong approach. Instead, maybe we need to try to measure it qualitatively. Numbers can only tell us so much. Metrics cannot convey the true human impact of disaster the way that survivor stories can.

To really illustrate true impacts, relief agencies need to understand what it was like to be there during the disaster and the lingering social, psychological, and economic impacts that survivors feel. Focusing on the direct financial impacts will only ever tell a sliver of the story. Let’s look instead toward ways to collect qualitative data—what are the themes of loss, hope and healing among survivor stories?

At the beginning of 2020, Ventura Community Foundation held a ‘Ted Talks’ style event where disaster grant recipients shared brief stories about the impact of the funds on their recovery. It was emotionally moving and hugely successful– benefactors left with a much deeper understanding of where their dollars were going and a strong motivation to continue giving. When survivor stories are published in media, they can also reveal losses and plight of the more ‘invisible’ members of the community.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Expanding Emergency Management

In the recovery phase there is a fine line between making life better for disaster survivors and making life better in general. Often, disaster serves to illuminate pre-existing inequities and inadequacies in social systems. It’s hard to isolate needs that are related solely to the disaster and turn a blind eye to needs that also exist in blue skies. That is where recovery so closely blends into the mitigation phase of the cycle–what can we design, develop, and build back better so that the next incident doesn’t become a disaster?

This nexus between recovery and mitigation is the most fascinating to me personally, and the area where I think that our field has the most potential for growth. Here is the place where we can really show our value and embed our work with community development, economic development, urban planning, social advocacy, environmental justice, and other agencies who work on reducing social vulnerability every day. These may not be the first stakeholders we imagine when we think about whole community partnerships, but they are unequivocally important to engage during recovery. And as we all know, it’s better to build the relationships before the disaster hits.

The Ripple Effect of California’s Wildfires

Earlier this month I gave a presentation, Dynamics of Recovery: Navigating the Long Haul at the International Association of Emergency Managers Encore Conference. This was the first time the professional association had done a mid-year two-day virtual summit featuring follow up presentations by select speakers from last year’s conference. (You can view my 2020 presentation on Navigating the Transition from Response to Recovery here—it will be a few more months before I can release this month’s presentation.)

I was excited for the opportunity to expand on recovery after all the research I’ve been doing for my Ruin to Rebirth book project and the trends I’ve been seeing after recent disasters in California. One of the things I chose to focus on in this presentation was how we really need to broaden the definition of disaster survivors.  When it comes to determining eligibility for disaster aid, FEMA tends to rely heavily on statistics of damaged / destroyed homes and the percentage of uninsured losses in a community. The need for simple metrics is understandable when you must make comparisons between communities to determine the areas of greatest need. However, this approach is a drastic oversimplification of the impact disasters have on communities. In this article I will discuss the ripple effect of California’s wildfires as background for an upcoming article on new ideas for measuring recovery and how we can broaden the definition of disaster survivors.

A screenshot of California’s air quality map on 8/20/20 captured from Purple Air.

Smoke’s Influence on Air Quality

When discussing wildfires, the influence of smoke on air quality is a key issue that drives disaster impacts way beyond the burn area. While the direct physical impacts of flames are limited even in large fires, smoke quickly becomes a regional or even statewide affair. In California’s 2020 wildfires air quality impacts were observed hundreds of miles from the burn areas for nearly an entire month. When air quality is poor it ignites a domino effect of negative consequences for industries—prompting closures at schools, outdoor retail, recreation, and tourism, and placing severe limitations on agriculture, construction, and landscaping.

Poor air quality has also been linked to dire health impacts. During widespread smoke incidents, both emergency room visits and deaths of elderly people increase dramatically. While the official fatality count for the 2020 wildfires is 26, a Stanford study estimates that this number could be up to 50 times higher—up to 3,000–when smoke impacts are factored into the equation. “These are hidden deaths. These are people who were probably already sick but for whom air pollution made them even sicker,” Marshall Burke, Deputy Director of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment told the San Jose Mercury News.

With chronic respiratory disease such as asthma on the rise in recent years, likely due to ambient air pollution, this is especially troubling for the health consequences that prolonged and frequent wildfires could have on younger populations too. The 2020 wildfires also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that there was an even greater vulnerable population with compromised respiratory systems due to the disease.

2017 Thomas Fire: Economic Impacts

As you might remember from previous articles, I was heavily involved in the response and recovery to the Thomas Fire in Ventura County through my role with CalOES. So I’d like to share some impacts that the Thomas Fire had on Ventura County to illustrate how deeply the community was disrupted beyond the modest 1,000 or so homes that were lost. These social and economic impacts begin to help us understand the magnitude of the ripple throughout the community, much of it instigated by smoke.

The Thomas Fire began on December 4th, the height of the holiday shopping season for many of Ventura’s small retail businesses. In Southern California’s ideal coastal climate, many businesses are located in outdoor shopping malls that were forced to close due to poor air quality during a critical time period in the shopping season. It was estimated that retailers in the impacted and adjacent areas would lose 20% of their annual revenue for 2017 and continue to feel losses into 2018 due to the fire.

Agriculture makes up a large percentage of Ventura’s local economy. As smoke permeated the valleys below the flame engulfed mountains, it was unsafe for outdoor farmwork to continue and many of the community’s most vulnerable were out of work during the holiday season. No workers meant no crops and thus agriculture suffered too. Crops were also directly impacted by the heat of the fire. Avocados are one of the top 10 agricultural exports in Ventura’s $2.2 billion dollar industry.  The 2017 yield for avocados was decimated by the fire. But the impacts of the high heat were not limited to the current fruits, as it also caused a massive die off of the avocado trees, which would destroy business for years to come.

Tourism is another major industry in Ventura county. The picturesque location linking the Pacific Ocean with agricultural plains and oak covered hillsides makes for a perfect getaway backdrop. The Ojai Valley is reliant on tourism with about 31% of all jobs in that industry. Nestled in the rolling hills it is an ideal spot for retreats–for both business and pleasure. The Thomas Fire caused the Ojai Valley Inn, one of the major employers and economic drivers for the community, to close for two weeks as most of the Ojai Valley was evacuated when it was entirely surrounded by fire. Smaller hotels and businesses in Ojai were also closed. These closures caused many hospitality employees to lose hours or suffer unpaid weeks off during a time when most were reliant on their paychecks to give their families a good holiday season.

In all three of these industries, the majority of workers are hourly. Due to the uncertainty of the crisis, most employers were simply reducing hours rather than laying workers off, thus the true impact on jobs remains unknown since it is not reflected in unemployment data. This also made it difficult for workers to plan financially or access unemployment benefits since they were not technically unemployed.

School Closures

Due to air quality issues in the Thomas Fire, most of the schools in Eastern Ventura County were closed for two weeks in December prior to their holiday break. As the nation has seen during the COVID-19 crisis, school closures have massive ripple effects in a community. When children are out of school, many parents are forced to stay home from work–often in sectors that are not well equipped for telework or in industries where they do not have sick or vacation time benefits to use. This puts additional financial strain and mental stress on families who are forced to adapt to a lifestyle where everyone is at home and parents are unable to earn income or work productively. Many low income families are also reliant on school lunches so school closures can increase hunger and food insecurity in the community.

During the 2020 wildfires, I was managing the California State University system’s response. Over the span of August to September, we had seven campuses close for at least one business day due to poor air quality. We also had at least 26 members of our CSU campus communities lose their homes due to the wildfire. Power outages, evacuations, and closures also influenced the ability of students and faculty to participate in online courses, which made up most of our academic offerings at the time due to the pandemic.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Displacement and Housing Impacts

Prior to the fire, Ventura had already been experiencing a housing crisis. Rates of homelessness were on the rise due to increasing rents and plummeting vacancy rates. Ventura County was in the top ten least affordable housing markets in the nation and only about a quarter of the County’s population could afford a median priced home. The vacancy rate in Ojai was less than one percent and Ventura’s was less than 2%. So even if you were in that lucky 25% who could afford to own a home, they were incredibly difficult to come by.

The fire only exacerbated the housing crisis in Ventura. While over 900 housing units were destroyed, the County knew unofficially that many of these units housed multiple families, sharing space to alleviate the high cost of rent. There were also over 200 outbuildings destroyed. Although FEMA would not count these as homes in the certified count, it was known that many of them were occupied by extremely low income farm workers. Since they were not technically residential units these people would not have access to many of the benefits that other disaster survivors would.

Another way that the housing market shifted after the fire was through the displacement of renters. While the fire itself destroyed many large beautiful homes in the hills, renters in Ventura city came to bear the burden of seeking new housing. This was because homeowners in the destroyed neighborhoods owned more than one property. So, when their primary residences were destroyed, these landlords relocated to their rental units while rebuilding their homes. This meant that renters who had been paying month to month were now given notice and had to join the incredibly difficult hunt for housing in Ventura. They were an entirely untrackable population who were deeply impacted by the fire, having lost their place of residence but would have no access to any survivor benefits and would simply be on their own to fight for housing.

Looking Forward

To really understand this dynamic, complex, and lengthy phase of the disaster cycle, we need to broaden our perspective and consider the far-reaching impacts of disaster on our communities. In my next article, I will discuss new ideas for measuring recovery that go beyond the simple metrics of acres burned and homes lost.

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.
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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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