Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: preparedness

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.

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!

Jenny Novak’s EM Vision Talk

At the International Association of Emergency Managers conference in 2018, I delivered a ‘TedTalk’ style 7 minute presentation on making emergency preparedness messaging fun. This talk reveals the concept / formula behind my award-winning preparedness outreach programs.

CSUN Emergency Manager Awarded by FEMA

CSUN Emergency Preparedness Manager Jenny Novak receives award from FEMA Deputy Administrator Tim Manning at the White House on Sept. 13. Photo by Phillippe Nobile

CSUN Emergency Manager Awarded by FEMA for Zombie Preparedness

Coverage of 2016 Beat the Quake Event

Students shake fear of earthquake disaster

CSUN students practice safety tactics in an earthquake simulator for the “Beat the Quake” event at the Bayramian lawn April 28. From left, Senior Nestor Nieves, Junior Salvador Perez, Senior Kimberlu Antezana, and visiting participant Bridgett. Photo credit: Sarai Henry

Sundial Newspaper, April 28 2016

In 1994, Northridge suffered an earthquake with a 6.7 magnitude. Given the lack of recent earthquakes, it would seem Northridge is due for a tremor, which leaves some individuals on edge.