Help Research and Support the Response to Hurricane Irma

Help Research and Support the Response to Hurricane Irma

We need your help! If you have a few minutes, please read below.  

As Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida, hundreds, maybe thousands of organizations are preparing to descend upon the state to support the survivors. It is an effort that takes many different types of people from many different organizations. But who are these groups?  How do they find each other?  

These questions are the impetus for the Response Roster Project. We want to understand response efforts from the perspective of both the official and unofficial response. Who are the unsung heroes and responders taking time to help in any way they can?

Read More

Public Safety Practitioners Needed for Hackathon...Tech Skills NOT Required

I just came across a fairly well-funded and notable hackathon taking place in Washington, DC May 2-3.  The event is looking for public safety practitioners to help guide development.  No technical knowledge or skills are required, just an interest in furthering mobile application development in public safety.  This is a great event for first timers to get their feet wet in this domain and network with other people and organizations.

Sponsors and participants include a range of people from Google, AT&T, Apperian, McAfee, the Department of Homeland Security and many others.  Here is the intro:

Building on commercially available software, leveraging APIs from AT&T, Apperian, Google, and McAfee and engineering support from these tech powerhouses, you’ll be able to work with some of America’s finest with actual police, fire, and EMS communications experts on hand from the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) to help you conceptualize solutions and work through some of these unique and exciting Public Safety challenges. Additionally, you will have application security experts from Department of Homeland Security assisting you to enhance the function, performance, and security of your application that is critical to public safety.

Teams can win up to $10,000 centered around four main challenges:

1) Communications: Mobile communications are essential to public safety. Interoperable voice, video, and information sharing between all personnel, which often includes responders from different disciplines and jurisdictions would dramatically enhance response efficiency and safety. Communication must be convenient and reliable. The right person having the right access at the right time to sensitive information is essential. How can your creation provide seamless and straightforward communications capabilities for public safety?
2) Situational Awareness: Public safety users must be aware of their surroundings and access to the most up-to-date information in order to make the best real-time, tactical decisions. However, too much information can inhibit decision-making. Reducing distractions and focusing on the outputs of data analysis can help the first responder react appropriately in a high-stress, disorderly environment. How can your creation provide data to the first responder to quickly identify relevant and actionable information about their situation or environment?
3) Augmented Reality: First responders can benefit from an enhanced view of the environment while in the field. This view may be supplemented by interactive map overlays, multi-user awareness, virtual browsing, and/or virtual showcasing. For instance, a tool could give these professionals information that would not otherwise be visible (example: “seeing” other responders, electrical wires, stand pipes, through obstructions) could be valuable for emergency response and first responder safety. How can your creation help to provide an augmented reality experience for the user?
4) APCO Location Challenge: Option 1 - The existing 9-1-1 network has been designed to automatically identify a mobile 9-1-1 caller’s location however, on occasion the location information of a mobile 911 caller is not accurate or not sent in a timely manner to the Public Safety Answer Point (911 Call Center). How can your application assist Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) receive accurate and timely information so they can better respond to emergency calls?
Option 2 - Emergency responders live in an inherently mobile environment – but their work is often done in collaboration. Thus location of first responder assets is critical to any emergency operation. To that end, how can your application help provide location-based information to a first responder in the field about his/her location, the location of others in their cohort, and give permissioned access about that information to their command (i.e. PSAP)?

For more information and to register, check out the event website.

Getting Started on a Emergency Management/Business Continuity Program

The disaster domain is huge. The level of detail and specificity to which you can get is almost infinite. As such, it can be an overwhelming experience for businesses and nonprofits to get started with preparing their organizations for disasters.

In response to an email I just got from a former MPA classmate, I wanted to share some helpful thoughts on how to get started.

The Actions to Take

When discussing this topic, there are four main actions that organizations can take:

  1. Prepare for a Disaster (through planning, training, exercise and equipment)
  2. Plan for Response/Continuity of Operations (responding in the moment/maintaining operations, if possible)
  3. Plan for Recovery (getting back to normal)
  4. Mitigate Impact (stop things from happening in the first place)

Implementing into the Organization

There are many approaches and models to implement these actions (think program management vs. project management). However, the process typically starts with leadership forming a disaster committee of some sort to begin addressing the organization's disaster needs and corrective actions.  The committee then establishes a path forward.

Typical agendas are a variation of the following:

  1. Identify Risks and Gaps
  2. Develop Plan(s) to Address Risks and Gaps (keeping in mind the four actions mentioned above)
  3. Train and Exercise on Those Plans and Purchase Required Tools/Equipment
  4. Redo Steps 1-3 annually (or at designated intervals).

Given the typical resource constrained environment of organizations, there is a lot of potential to address "low hanging fruit" once risk and gaps are identified.  This is not perfect as the approach should be as comprehensive as possible, but it is helpful nonetheless.

The important thing is to not fall into a false sense of security because you have only addressed some of the risk and gaps.  The coordination of effort and understanding your strengths and weakness is vital to a successful disaster management program.

High Value Resources

Here are a few high value resources on what nonprofits can begin to do. Grant making institutions should consider baking some of these principles into their grant requirements.

Domain Headings

If you are looking to do more research in this area, especially as your disaster management program matures, you should look for resources in the following domains:

Getting Started

As a starting point, I highly recommend the following priorities:

  1. Develop a disaster committee led by someone willing and able to champion the effort
  2. Decide if it is best to shut down, continue operations at full or reduced scale, and/or respond to the disaster (i.e., support the community)?  This will help clarify how detailed the planning should be for all scenarios.
  3. Identify 3 targets for the next year (i.e., establish committee, develop a program plan, develop a plan)

It is easy to get overwhelmed.  Focus on establishing realistic goals and moving forward.  Any forward movement is better than no movement at all.

#OpenData and Disaster Management

Beth NoveckAs I reflect on the past month in my Government 3.0 class with Beth Noveck, I am reminded of how much I am learning and how much it relates to my current and future work in Disaster Management.  Overall, this class is an opportunity to learn about concurrent and ongoing initiatives that are furthering the goals of government and its constituents.  But more importantly, the class has allowed me to translate the many things going on government wide to the unique challenges of Disaster Management.
Specifically, disaster management suffers from a lack of "open data" from which to address some of the unique challenges such as scalability and the infrequency of events.

The Unique Challenges of Disaster Management

Scalability.  We plan and prepare for events the best we can by building response capacity and training our staff, volunteers, and partners to respond appropriately; but at the end of the day when a disaster strikes, we need more resources that help us deal with the volumes of information and needs that are coming from every direction.  In addition, the more complex the incident, the more important effective coordination is as more and more response partners join the response.

The more data that is easily available in machine readable format, the more we can innovate with better applications that allow us to slice and dice data to turn it into actionable information for decision-making at all levels and parts of the response.  As a result, we as the collective response can make more informed real-time decisions that begin to really do the greatest good for the greatest number.  The more people (citizens included) with access to the right information at the right time can help alleviate the response burdens of governments and non-profits during major disasters.

Exceptional Emergency Management volunteers re...

High Impact/Low Frequency.  Many industries benefit from the mounds of data they sit on for consistent and repeatable events and processes.  As a result, they are better able to learn and adapt to better manage risk.  However, we are often planning for sentinel events that we may or may not know will occur and for which we often don't know the exact impacts.  As a result, we make many planning assumptions based on a combination of scientific evidence, experience and pure conjecture.  We need better "response data" to validate our assumptions and activities.  What is it about our response that really worked well?  How come?

We work hard to complete after action reports that detail lessons learned and document best practices. contains a lot of these reports that are accessible to other industry professionals.  But who has the time to sift through everything?  What if you could slice and dice all the information from every report to help answer your specific questions?  What what if we could index all of the data and information contained in these documents to identify national trends?   Our ability to learn from our past would skyrocket.

Open data is not just about the ability to view it, it is about the ability to mash it together to gain new insights that were previously undetectable.

However, our existing evidence-base is largely anecdotal and based on subject matter expertise only.  Ongoing research is changing our understanding of management and coordination, but decisions are still made this way based on anecdotal evident and expertise.  So what if we could add meaningful metrics and data to the equation?  Essentially, open data would help us review not what worked and what didn't, but the degree to which it worked or didn't work.  Data can come from internal systems or even external systems.  The more "open" and available it is, the better chance we have to collect meaningful data that helps us learn from our past.

Interdependencies.  If we could everything alone, we wouldn't be facing many of the challenges we face today.  However, we need to balance the anticipated risk with our capabilities in a fiscally responsible,  yet politically acceptable manner.   So we turn to our neighbors, non-profits, private sector organizations and other government agencies to become force multipliers.   This creates significant coordination and management challenges as the list grows and grows.  We need more data about what these relationships look like.

English: Datasets in the Linking Open Data pro...

Data allows us to actually map interdependencies that could potentially result in catastrophic failures during an event.   We can also better identify and prioritize these interdependencies to help improve system resielence.  After all, regardless of where or how we operate, we ALWAYS operate in some sort of system that has to work together in order to perform well.  MindAlliance has a great tool that helps organizations identify gaps and weakness is their preparedness.  With additional data, we can further validate planning assumptions in relationship to our dependencies to help distribute risk as best as possible.

English: President Clinton spends a moment wit...Government Led, Community Reliant.  Building off the issues with interdependencies, we also have a mismatch occurring in that initiatives are often government led, but effective responses to disasters are extraordinarily community reliant.  President Obama and FEMA have picked up on this issue with their "Whole Community" approach outlined in PPD-8.  But in moving forward, do we have the resources needed for a true "Whole Community" approach?  In the past, many great initiatives have simply failed due to a lack of funding or time (or the next disaster).

Data will help us prioritize our efforts for maximum effectiveness.  And if the whole community is to participate, they need to data in which to help.  The more data we can work with, we can turn planning and interdependency "assumptions" into "factual" planning points that leave us better prepared for the impacts we actually face, not just what we "think" we face.  Essentially, open data can really help us perform better risk and gap analyses to better inform our mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts.

"Zero Fail."  This term has been thrown around a lot in the industry.  Most often, it is used in the context of fear for trying something new.  Essentially, we need to do what we know works in order to not "fail."  Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Gustav, Irene, and Sandy are quickly showing how inadequate this assumption is.  Our missions are extraordinarily important, but failures are how we learn best.  I would take this a step further and argue that mini-failures are likely the best way of learning.  Eric Reis's book The Lean Startup, provides some great anecdotes for failing fast, but still accomplishing the mission.

Developing an "experimentation" culture based on real-time and meaningful data is essential.  Data will helps us fail fast, while still helping us accomplish our mission.  As a result, we can better identify ways to mitigate failure in the future and maximize the effectiveness of our response.  We are always hailed as a "dynamic" industry; but what if we could be even more dynamic to fail and react in the moment?  What if we could change course easily?  Open data enables these things.  Granted, some of this may be a few years off, but it highlights what is possible, even more so than we might think!

Overall, #OpenData represents one of the most important ways we can learn and advance the industry better when dealing with the unique challenges of the industry.

What do you think?  Have you had any wins with OpenData at your organization or in your community?  What have you been able to build with open data?

Innovation at the Sahana Software Foundation: Interview with Mark Prutsalis

Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Prutsalis from the Sahana Software Foundation.  We spoke for a while on the history and vision for Sahana, a non-profit organization developing open source software for disaster management and humanitarian needs.  In recent years, it has had a lot of success and is poised to continue. Some highlights from the audio below:

  • Sahana was built by a local technology group in the aftermath if the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.
  • In 2009, the local technology group discovered they had a different mission and Mark took it over as part of the Sahana Software Foundation.
  • New York City, Los Angeles, and International Red Cross all use Sahana software.
  • Current software version is "hard to use out of the box" and development focus right now is on project requirements.
  • There are plans to become more strategic and shift to an "expert system" that is easier to implement and has features based on best practices, not just customer requirements.  Hosted solutions and less technical and operational customization will be required in the future.
  • However, Sahana is trying to build solutions that don't yet exist in the market.
  • The ability to scale operations with hundreds of thousands of people and sites is a priority for Sahana to better enable real-time planning and management.
  • Haiti earthquake in 2010 was a "watershed moment" for Sahana where it was able to crowdsource and geo-locate almost all 150-160 hospitals in Haiti within 24 hours.  Only two couldn't be geo-located.  Sahana, in partnership with OpenStreetMap, used geo-rectification to confirm crowdsourced locations.

Check out the audio for the complete 15 minute interview!  (sorry for the initial background noise, but audio is still clear)

[soundcloud url="" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Smartphone Apps, the Next Step for Emergency Management?

I love the idea of mobile first strategy when it comes to applications. We are increasingly virtual and need the flexibility our phones offer to input and receive relevant information.My question, though, is is a mobile application by jurisdiction the best way to go since the public and other citizen responders are not bounded by jurisdiction, but rather geography?

Market Driven Technology Innovation in Emergency Management

I recently attended a great demo by a new emergency management technology called Veoci.  This has great potential.  I even sent this along to my friend who works emergency management at a major airline. But as I look at the market for technical solutions and compare it against the problems of emergency management (and business continuity), which is increasingly cost-conscious, I realize there is a great divide between what is out there and what is needed such as feature mix, usability and scalability.  This post focuses on the innovative entrepreneur who wants to help the "disaster" solutions market go beyond its current technical limitations, provide a great service to its customers, and realize success.

Features and Specialization.  Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that product specialization is a key element of growth strategy and innovation.  After all, it is very hard to pinpoint precise problems and actually develop innovative solutions, even more so when the solution tries to do everything.  The more a company can continually test and improve, the more likely it is to solve customer problems beyond expectations.   But the problem is, where should companies specialize and how should they approach it?  This requires integrated innovation.

Usability, Scalability and The Fallacy of the "One" Solution.  In the past, many providers, especially at the enterprise level, have included feature rich solutions at the expense of usability and scalability.   In fact, emergency management is so dynamic and interdependent that one solution is simply not practical.  As a result, this model has proven tiresome, costly, and ineffective for our most important needs...collaboration, coordination, and management.  Additionally, and most importantly, it is not reflective of what is really needed, integrated innovation.

Integrated Innovation

So what exactly do I mean by Integrated Innovation?  I am defining this as the ability of companies to innovate through specialization, but better serve customers through integration.  Understanding this concept is most important to getting better market-driven solutions.  Here is what it entails:

  1. Focus on a niche - Select a very particular problem that you want to solve.  This is includes management and coordination, resource management, financial management, mass communications, and health and medical, etc.  Look at the many Emergency Support Functions to identify functional areas and explore them from tactical through strategic priorities and users.   Be the best at one really important thing.
  2. Build with integration in mind - If I only focus on one thing, what is the value-add?  Integration. Period.  Building your system with enough flexibility that customers can easily connect other systems that compliment your  product will enable customers to build a cost-effective and efficient ecosystem customized to their needs.  Should this integration be in the form of APIs, standards, a marketplace, user provisioning, or single sign-on?  The jury is still out, but the market will help drive this decision.  Just be prepared and begin forming technical alliances among other solutions so your customers don't feel like they are getting proprietary solutions that require customization after customization.  Start with similar size solutions to yours and look at how Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and other social media solutions have built with integration in mind.  If fact, there is a now a secondary market of social media management and analytic tools (another market for emergency management)?
  3. Growth - Growth ties all this together.  In fact, that is why companies start in the first place.  They want to grow to a point where they have significant market share to realize profits and investor value.  But how should this occur?  It is highly unlikely that with a market full of solution providers, many will sustain themselves in the long-term.   The market is only so big.  However, that should not prevent anyone from developing a solution they believe in.  Solution providers should understand ALL their exit strategies and still feel successful whether they are bought-out or merged with another solution.   Either way, you have contributed meaningful innovation to the market, something that is sorely needed.

This post is my message to all solution providers and has a few more implications.  Help change outdated the procurement cycle and help drive innovation through your approach to development and growth.  The end result will be meaningful solutions that make your customers happy, not just "satisfied" with a solution that has too many features, is hard to train on, and does not reflect the emerging collaborative and interdependent landscape.  And regardless of your approach, user-centered design and frequent user testing should be a part of your solution.  Consider design thinking and agile development in your approach.

The U.S. Emergency Management System Is Not Perfect, but It Works - Room for Debate -

The is a great article from a leading disaster researcher about the privatization of emergency management.  via The U.S. Emergency Management System Is Not Perfect, but It Works - Room for Debate - Here is the full text:

Questions regarding the privatization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the assignment of its functions to states must be addressed within the context of the agency's responsibilities and how it functions in relation to state and local government capabilities.

Most people think of FEMA as a disaster response agency, but that is only partly true. FEMA has many responsibilities both during disasters and at other times. These responsibilities include assisting states, local governments, tribal governments and U.S. territories in the preparation of disaster mitigation plans aimed at taking long-term steps to reduce losses from future disasters, pursuant to the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000; providing funding and guidance so that communities can make sound decisions regarding their mitigation options; and managing the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set up specifically because of a market failure in the private insurance industry for flood coverage.

If private companies fail us during disasters, what recourse would the public have? Private corporations are responsible to their shareholders, not the general public.

These and other functions, including the provision of disaster assistance, are carried out through an extensive web of public-private partnerships and contracting agreements. Private entities like Booz Allen Hamilton and Michael Baker, Jr., Inc. work closely with FEMA in areas like preparedness planning and flood hazard mapping, and many disaster-related services are provided through contracts with private-sector service providers. Both the National Response Framework, our current federal plan for managing disaster events, and FEMA’s “whole community” approach to disaster loss reduction, explicitly acknowledge that the private and nonprofit sectors are integral players in emergency management activities. So our current approach to disaster management is one that is based on the concept of public-private partnerships, not on a government monopoly over disaster management tasks.

Those who would argue for a privatized emergency management system must address a series of questions. Under a profit-motivated private sector system, what would prevent private entities from “cherry-picking” easy emergency management activities while shunning more difficult tasks, like preparing huge, highly diverse cities with large vulnerable populations? What private-sector entities would offer assistance to bankrupt, but still vulnerable, communities, like many California jurisdictions, or communities caught in the vise of the fiscal downturn? Would services be more abundant in communities that are willing and able to pay for them? What would prevent companies from overpromising results and gaming the system, as they have in offering infeasible solutions in the war on terror while racking up large profits?

A cornerstone of our democratic system is that responsibility for governance rests with elected and appointed officials at all levels of government. That system gives us the ability to “throw the rascals out.” If private companies fail us during disasters, what recourse would the public have? Private corporations are responsible to their shareholders, not the general public, which should give us pause in thinking about the privatization of essential life-safety and disaster relief activities.

Regarding the devolution of emergency management activities to states, researchers have long pointed out that states, as well as local communities, vary significantly in their emergency management capabilities — a pattern known as the “leaders and laggers” phenomenon. Frankly, while strong programs do exist nationwide, many states and cities lack the expertise and capacity to manage disasters effectively; think here of the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Federal guidance, technical assistance and incentives aim at addressing these disparities. How would the public feel about having an uneven patchwork of state policies, practices and capabilities? Under state control and with all the financial pressures experienced by states, would we see a “race to the bottom” in disaster loss reduction programs? Disasters do not respect state borders, as shown by Hurricane Sandy and numerous other disasters. Many federally initiated policy directives and programs seek to protect the public against nationwide threats like pandemic influenza and intentional acts of bioterrorism. Would state-by-state pandemic planning be preferable? How would that work out in practice?

The bottom line is that the U.S. currently has an emergency management system that is second to none in the world. It is by no means perfect, and it needs to continually evolve in response to new threats and disaster experiences. But it is clearly not in need of a radical overhaul.

State of Disaster (Part III): Technology

Inspired by Gisli Olafsson' post, The Disaster Manifesto: I Have a Dream...", I too am inspired to write about our transforming field as a way to focus efforts on meaningful dialogue, research, and advancement.

The state of disaster management in the U.S. is a cross between the capabilities of today and tomorrow and the conventions of yester-year.  Disaster management is at the crossroads of a transformation that is enabling organizations across the country and around the world better serve their communities.  But our ability to adapt is showing signs of strain and opposition.  This post is part of a three-part series examiningg the challenges associated with the following issues in Disaster Management:

In each post, I offer industry-wide recommendations to help advance the baseline and adapbility of disaster management. 



Technology is poised to change the way we think.  The advancement in technology over the past few years is enabling our organizations to do more with less.  Innovation is occurring at a rapid pace and it is certainly hard to keep up, most notably in Social Media.  But there is more to technology; technology that supports information, personnel, and resource management.  Technology also needs to be built with scalability, usability, integration in mind.  OASIS is leading efforts to standardize technology development in emergency management and other fields.  However, technology is Not THE Answer, it is only part of the equation that will help propel disaster management to new levels of ability and advancement.  

History of Technology

In the past 40 years, as technology has transformed corporations and business processes, disaster management organizations have adopted software to help meet the growing demand for disaster services.  Traditionally, organizations have purchased stand-a-lone software or had custom solutions developed.  The burden of maintenance has often rested on the IT departments of each organization at great expense and solutions have often lacked focus on usability.  Additionally, while more organizations are increasingly working with other jurisdictions and partners, the expense of technology has often been duplicated instead shared between organizations.  Today's solutions do not meet the complex and inter-organizational and -jurisdictional needs of disaster management organizations and partners. 

Trends in Technology

Social media is the big behemoth driving technological change in disaster management.  However, it is not the only transformation.  As we look forward, solutions are being developed with scalability and usability in mind.  Over the internet delivery models (a.k.a. software as a service) are becoming more common and are being accepted as valid disaster recovery (IT) strategies.  However, pricing structures remain similar and the cost of acquisition and implementation is still very high.  Additionally, standards don't exist for the integration of multiple platforms that are often used to round out an organization's or region's capabilities.  Integrations are largely custom services provided by technology vendors and add to the costs of acquisition. 

Future of Technology

The future of technology is truly an evolution.  Moving forward, customers will not only be looking for solutions that are scalable and easily used, but solutions that solve specific problems and improve specific processes.  They will also be demanding that solutions are flexible and have the ability to easily integrate with other solutions to help streamline operations.  It is unrealistic to believe that one vendor can do this all; and as a result, vendors much look to partner with complimentary businesses as wells as their competitors. 

With solutions that meet foundational needs and truly address problems, the cost of sales (and subsequently acquisition) will decrease dramatically as solutions divide into two major categories that work well together:  Platform and Speciality Solutions.  For example, WebEOC may meet the core functional needs of its customers with a basic, easily duplicated platform.  While they may offer additional speciality solutions, other vendors will build solutions that tightly integrate with the WebEOC platform for things like Alert and Notification and Resource Management.  Organizations can then select from an array of solutions that will better meet their needs while keeping costs down.


Technology is not the answer to all our problems, but it is a viable path to overcoming problems, improving processes, and reducing costs.   In order to do so, though, here are some recommendations:

I call on technology vendors and developers to:

  • Continue to promote and sell the Software as a Service (SAAS) delivery model, reinforce its efficacy as a Disaster Recovery (IT) strategy, and show its return on investment
  • Develop scalable and integrated solutions through the use of APIs, Platform Partners, and OASIS and other accepted standards.  Highly proprietary and closed software is no longer advantageous to disaster management organizations. 
  • Focus their development efforts not just on features and capabilities, but usability.  Make sure your solution is easy to use, navigate, and intuitive.  Work with your customers to conduct usability tests and incorporate new customer support platforms and strategies into your services to expand on the collective knowledge and ideas of your users. 
  • Ensure systems follow generally accepted standards for documentation, reporting, and information ownership.
  • Develop solutions with Federal and state security requirements having already been met AND streamlined.  For example, give more thought to developing and integrating meaningful validation processes for users.
  • Develop solutions that enable customers to have more control over the product without requiring costly customizations or support each time.   

I call on disaster management organizations to:

  • Critically think about ways technology can better support your operations and reduce costs.  While all solutions may not yet be available, they will be if you demand them. 
  • Engage your employees and staff in defining technology requirements and identifying ways to improve operations.

State of Disaster (Part II): Education, Research, Professional Development and Training

Inspired by Gisli Olafsson' post, The Disaster Manifesto: I Have a Dream...", I too am inspired to write about our transforming field as a way to focus efforts on meaningful dialogue, research, and advancement.

The state of disaster management in the U.S. is a cross between the capabilities of today and tomorrow and the conventions of yester-year.  Disaster management in at the crossroads of a transformation that is enabling organizations across the country and around the world better serve their communities.  But our ability to adapt is showing signs of strain and opposition.  This post is part of a three-part series examining the challenges associated with the following issues in Disaster Management:

In each post, I offer industry-wide recommendations to help advance the baseline and adapbility of disaster management. 



Industry advancements are not only rooted in the hard sciences, but also the social sciences.  And disasters are no longer just a study of their science.  They are now a study of their impact and challenges in relation to today’s modern society, political climate, and increasingly social and non-linear communications (e.g., social media).  Disaster management is now a field of study that combines the principles of communication, business, and public administration and policy. The people that succeed in disaster management are well-rounded and have a thirst for learning and a sense of patience and calm. 

U.S. News and World Report recently listed disaster management as one of the 50 best jobs of 2011.   Check out the comments section for some great commentary as well.  But as we grow in size and maturity, we must find additional ways to professionally develop our staff and response partners. 

Education and Research

Over are the days of understanding how hurricanes, snow storms, and terrorist events occur.  We know.  We have researched these things for years and perhaps more research is needed.  But the truth is we need more research on the evolution of the industry as a whole, not just the hard sciences that necessitate our existence.  In the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of higher education programs.  FEMA's Higher Education Project has fueled this fire by creating curriculum standards and uniting the efforts of the emergency management academics with practitioners.  But we are out-growing the peer evaluation and validation model.  Program evaluation must incorporate student and employer feedback to help identify emerging gaps and stale content in today's programs.  Independent and blind feedback like the surveys that U.S. News and World Report does for other types of education programs must be applied to disaster management programs. 

Additionally, we need more researchers in the field of disaster management to push the envelope of what we know now and help us proactively accommodate the emergence of new concepts in social media, technology, regionalization, GIS, planning, and exercising, etc.  At this stage, we can benefit far more from knowing how to respond to and engage with the public using social media than exactly how a hurricane develops and spins. 

Professional Development and Training

From Disaster Academia BlogI see it everyday...more and more jobs are requiring Master's degrees to fulfill positions.  But with experience still required, which is part of the Training/Education/Experience Triad, many students are at a loss on how to begin their careers with a disproportionate amount of education.  Professional development is a key element of incorporating new students into the field and we must work harder to stand-up meaningful and structured internship programs that guide students through practical experience.  As they go, they can add additional training to round out their expertise. 

Internships are an underutilized and undervalued way to help advance your organization while giving great hands on experience to undergraduate and graduate students studying disaster management.  More training opportunities are also needed on Leadership, Management, and Integrated Response.  The FEMA Emergency Management Institute curriculum needs to expand further or other organizations, such as higher education institutions, need to ensure these topics are well covered.  Education and training curriculum also needs to be constantly update with principles of leadership from new and noted authors and strategists such as Charlene LiJeremiah Owyang, and John P. Kotter.

Steps to Progress

The surge in higher education programs in the last 10 years has been notable, progressive, and warranted.  But internship opportunities need to grow in number and in structure.  While disaster management is an area of growth, job opportunities and salaries must also begin to match the more educated professional base as we transition to becoming a true profession.  Jobs demanding experience need to give way to opportunities for mentorship, especially when the educational foundation is sound and strong. 

As you look at your organization, look at the opportunities to develop your people rather than hire an already experienced person.  And as we move forward and higher education programs become develop, we need continue reinforcing critical thinking and thinking outside the confines of established procedures, especially when those plans or procedures prove ineffective or inadequate for your needs.


The people in and around this industry are our most valued assets and they need to feel accomplishment at the same time they feel there is opportunity.  In order to do so, here are some recommendations:

I call on a resourceful person or group of people to:

  • Develop an independent non-profit that accredits disaster management programs and encourages programs to achieve other mainstream accreditation;
  • Create a standardized evaluation and rating model for the growing number of higher education disaster management programs that incorporates 360 degree feedback;
  • Work with IAEM to develop and promote a standardized internship program and help students find additional experience opportunities.

I call on FEMA to:

  • Expand and update EMI's curriculum more regularly to incorporate many of the new concepts and issues challenging today's and tomorrow's emergency managers.  Draw on concepts from other fields of practice as well;
  • Challenge foundational concepts by offering new and innovative courses related to emergency management.  For example, host a SMEM Camp as part of the Crisis Commons SMEM Initiative.

I call on organizations to:

  • Find new and innovate ways to incorporate interns into your operations and establish relationships with higher education institutions in your local area;
  • Look more favorably on prospective hires with disaster management education, but lack the necessary experience.  Mentorship is a very viable option that may serve your organization better in the long run.

I call on IAEM to:

  • Expand it's scholarship program by developing a corporate sponsorship program instead of relying solely on the contributions of its members. 

What recommendations do you have?  Where have you succeeded in implementing change?  How?

State of Disaster (Part I): Government Rules, Regulations and Structures

Inspired by Gisli Olafsson' post, The Disaster Manifesto: I Have a Dream...", I too am inspired to write about our transforming field as a way to focus efforts on meaningful dialogue, research, and advancement.

The state of disaster management in the U.S. is a cross between the capabilities of today and tomorrow and the conventions of yester-year.  Disaster management in at the crossroads of a transformation that is enabling organizations across the country and around the world better serve their communities.  But our ability to adapt is showing signs of strain and opposition.  This post is part of a three-part series examining the challenges associated with the following issues in Disaster Management:

In each post, I offer industry-wide recommendations to help advance the baseline and adapbility of disaster management. 



In the U.S., we have countless rules and regulations that define our legal structures, authorities and responsibilities.  We need interpreters (lawyers) just to understand how to best navigate through them in order to achieve our missions.  What has been our Founding Fathers' dreams when developing the backbone our country over two hundred years ago continues to challenge us every day in this modern and unimagined era.  An overhaul of the entire legal system is unlikely and certainly not practical.  But our system, based on sound principles, allows us to influence change when needed.  And now more than ever, we need to be advocating change in the laws that have guided us over the past many years.  We need to amend the laws to represent the evolution of our modern capabilities and needs while at the same time preserving the sovereign rights of Federalism that recognize local and state authorities.  


In the disaster world of Federalism, we constantly remind ourselves that all disasters start and end locally.  This is a principle of our country's founding fathers and is noble in intentions, but hard to practice for expanding, complex and overwhelming incidents.  Furthermore, the dichotomy (see figure to the right) of this issue is that the funds necessary to complete our missions are often dictated by the flow of money from the Federal government.  Our tax bases and elected officials haven't fully bought into the need for disaster management nor do they fully understand all of our vital functions until it is too late.  We need to do more to ensure our community needs dictate the priorities of our disaster management organizations and that Federal funding sources offer enough flexibility to create programs, projects, and plans in ways that are relevant and specific to the uniqueness of our communities.  And communities are not just defined by their jurisdictional bounds; but also by a disaster's impact and consequences.  

Authorities and responsibilities

Every day we are bound by the authorities vested in us either by the executive branch and/or by the legislative branch of our jurisdictions.  Personality conflicts and understanding of our mission often complicate and inhibit the missions by which we are charged to serve. Complex processes and rules established by law makers certainly add to the challenges.  However, it is both our right and duty to lobby for change when change is necessary...and it is necessary.  State and local laws need to be updated to give authority where needed and ensure government operates efficiently and effectively.  Instead of advising us about what we can't do, lawmakers, elected officials AND the lawyers on our staff should be looking at ways to support our missions.  They need to be partners in developing the strategies for success. Lobbying, as part of the Executive Branch of our government is our right and we should work with our elected officials to reform outdated laws and pass new laws enabling us to do our jobs better.

Steps to Progress

EMAC and mutual aid agreements are probably the foundation of recognizing that disasters do not respect the bounds of Federalism and that our system must adapt.  In spear heading EMACNEMA has pushed our capabilities further into reality.  But success is in recognizing that we must must go far beyond EMAC and intra-state mutual aid agreements to sufficiently be prepared for the disasters that threaten us.  Regionalization and private-sector partnerships are also evolving greatly as we continue to recognize that we can't do it all by ourselves.  NIMS and ICS are great starts to response management structures, but have not done a very good job of building out complex response management structures for inter-state and/or large-scale disasters in ways that are well-aligned with the principles of Federalism, including the sovereign rights of States.  Localities still have immense trouble scaling their capabilities to the needs of the disaster.  The systems, processes and legal structures needed to support these efforts are complex and with limited precedent; and it is our duty and vital importance to ensure our process-oriented and governing structures adequately allow innovation and progress to succeed AND be captured in a timely manner. 

The simple truth is that we have far more capabilities than we did in the over the last 50 years.  We also have far more responsibility.  Exercising the extent of our capabilities is a hard and convoluted as we bring in more and more response partners at all levels of government and the private sector.  NIMS and ICS are great starts to recognizing the need for more best practices in large-scale disasters.  They are hierarchical structures that need revision to address the decentralized, non-linear, and nodal management structures that have organically evolved in large-scale incidents.  Shared responsibility is becoming an effective model for which we have no great understanding of or resources for.


Change is of course warranted as part of a modern evolution.  But more importantly, recognizing that we have the power to change and influence is of utmost priority.  Yes, we are undoubtedly strained by our budgets, our staffing, and the amount of time in our day; but it is still important to set ourselves up for success by recognizing the change that is needed and acting upon it.  To get us going, here are some recommendations I would like to see implemented 

I call on FEMA, DHS and other Federal organizations to:

  • Comprehensively review existing Federal laws and regulations (either directly or indirectly related to disasters), develop a strategic plan for getting them updated, and identify gaps in which new legislation is needed;
  • Create and/or reform grants so they are more flexible, allow creativity, and push the bounds of expectations.  Requirements should focus on measurable results as opposed to finite outcomes;
  • Spur innovation and advancement through meaningful challenge grants and/or loans that provide support and opportunity for both private (non-profit AND for-profit) AND public sector organizations.  Expand to provide innovation opportunities in a free-market environment.  FEMA can't do it all and a SBA partnership would serve the industry well. 

I call on state and local organizations to:

  • Comprehensively review existing state and local laws and regulations (either directly or indirectly related to disasters), develop a strategic plan for getting them updated, and identify gaps in which new legislation is needed;
  • Find opportunities to work with their elected officials and lobby for change in our legislative branches.
  • Work with your elected officials and/or legislature to ensure budgets are appopriated as best as possible and your mission is better incorporated into the tax-base of your community.  For example, does your community have and need an emergency fund?
  • Develop better working relationships with your legal departments and staff so they understand your needs and can provide meaningful can-do support rather than inefficient restrictions.  They are poised to help you navigate through the complex legal challenges that face your organization and perhaps provide solutions and work-arounds you may never have thought of on your own. 
  • Lay out 5 and 10 year strategic plans that better convey your needs, outlines actionable and measurable programmatic objectives, and ensures your are meeting the comprehensive needs of your community. 

What recommendations do you have?  Where have you succeeded in implementing change?  How? 

Disaster Technology and the Usability Conundrum: 6 Pillars of Useful Technology

As disaster managers, technology is one our tools of the trade that enhance our operational abilities.  They are not the end all be all of solutions, but they significantly help enhance critical activities for success.  In recent years, the number of technology solutions have exploded in both number and capability.  But what has often taken a back seat is the usability of programs that often require high degrees of training and business practices.  I can't say we will ever be free of this, but the level at which we operate is simply too inefficient and costly.  Technology must be intuitive and solve complex process-oriented problems in order to realize its true value.  

But are we really at the mercy of companies developing these solutions?  I take a different approach...we must not only ask, but demand that disaster technologies developed today (largely applications) meet my six pillars of usable software technology: Process-Oriented, Intuitive, Flexible, Secure, Available, and Integrated.  


This is a no-brainer.  All technology should help solve a process-oriented problem such as communicating with the public, exercise design and development, managing response resources, or maintaining situational awareness.  Sometimes though, we get caught up in the sales pitch or all the features it has.  

Regardless, the solution must help solve YOUR problem!  Defining these can be sometimes tricky, but good thought and effort must be put into identifying these areas for improvement.  In fact, use your technology procurement cycles as an opportunity to improve process by using tools such as SixSigma.    


Again, this is something we always hope for, but never fully attain.  From navigation to work flow, applications should be developed as simply and intuitively as possibly.  Can any steps be removed?  What steps are unnecessary or legacy?  Does the application match the flow of the process?  the job?  the mission?  Are buttons and icons easy read and understand?  

These questions are critical to understanding usability and should be expanded as necessary.  The point of this is to reduce costs by reducing the need for application training and complicated business practices.  User dashboards are becoming more common as a usability tool.  User interfaces should be intuitive for someone who knows their job well.  


Customization is a long running issue in any of our organizations.  In fact, we go as far to purchase a tool, then pay for more customizations despite common behaviors in the industry!  Our costs end up rising significantly as we realize we need X or Y or Z to help complete our missions.  The truth is, vendors have a tough job balancing what customizations should be in the hands of its customers and what should be retained due their specialized nature.  Many of their revenue models also depend on these customizations.

However, we need to push away from specialized customizations as they have a negative affect on our bottom line.  For example, once you have customized your software, updates, patches, and new features become very hard to deploy.  More problems are encountered, costing more to fix through your maintenance contract or service level agreement (btw, I really think these, as individual agreements, should go away completely; one master should suffice...probably a topic for another post.  This also limits the pace of innovation as many customers are using different versions.  

As mentioned above during the technology procurement process, carefully decide on YOUR needs ahead of time to help avoid this.  Heck, develop a technology strategy if need be.  Your administrative panel should ALWAYS have easy-to-use and flexible customization options that do not require "coding."  And vendors should understand that a strong and robust administrative panel is an absolute necessity!  


Security is always on my mind (and yours as well).  It reminds me of the song "Always on my Mind" by Willie Nelson.  While I am not talking about a lost love, I am talking about the constant threat of data and information compromise whether it be internal, external or a simple corruption.  We must recognize our threats and vulnerabilities in this area, but also recognize the issue with designing systems so secure it is hard to use and manage for its intended function.  

For example, the HSEEP Toolkit requires a very secure/hard to remember password that has to be renewed every 90 days.  Once more, if you account is moved to "inactive" status or your simply forgot your password, it requires a phone call instead of a simple and automated "Forgot My Password" process that can validate the same information.  I can go on and on about tools that don't balance security with usability very well.  And it truly is a balance.  We are all busy people who need to know that the tools we use are secure, but usable.  


We are all emergency managers, responders and continuity professional with critical roles during emergencies.  As a result, our systems are critical as well.  Downtime is not an option.  Much has been written about business continuity and disaster recovery strategies.  But moves to internet-based solutions is growing significantly and challenging existing strategies to maintain critical operations.  Vendors are working hard to ensure their data centers have 99.9% uptime and availability.  Applications stand a better chance of uptime when they are not in the disaster impact zone.  Additionally, when you use separate applications from different providers in different locations, you significantly decrease your downtime risk.  

I should note that the availability that I speak of heavily relies on internet access and is a critical failure point.  But when you know where you need to devote your money and resources, such as mainly ensuring reliable access to the Internet, continuity strategies become more cost effective and easier to maintain and implement.  Now you are not worried about dedicating IT staff to managing your servers during high load times, addressing network failure or VPN issues, or constantly trying to keep up with software updates and server requirements.   You are dedicating and devoting your time to one important mission, Internet access.


This is my bread and butter and where it will be at in the next five years.  Integration represents the many inter-dependencies that we have been trying to manage and coordinate for years.  Technology can make this easier, but if currently fails with all the customizations taking place.  Integrations should be a non-technical/non-coding activity based on the idea that you are simply connected to another platform that serves a complimentary need.  Revenue models need to shift from expensive customizations to standardized customer access.  I am not saying don't charge for this, but there is a middle ground that enables most of the customizations emergency managers are looking in a cost-effective manner that empowers the customer to modify the tool according to its needs.  

Integration still serves a greater purpose, though.  We no longer own ALL the data we work with and it is important that we can shift to an access control model no matter what platform you are using.  I was at a recent exercise where users of the emergency management software were hand posting information from their local status board to the Regional board and vice versa.  This SHOULD BE AUTOMATIC AND THE BOARDS SHOULD BE INTEGRATED!  OASIS is developing many standards to support this, but vendors need to step outside their silos and work in conjunction with their competitors by developing Application Programming Interfaces and pre-configured integrations with other applications.  We are an inter-dependent field that needs inter-dependent technology.  

Simple LDAP (a widely-used IT solution for managing organizational users) integration is a great start to support user provisioning.  Next up..the top five emergency management solution providers should develop integrations to each other's solutions.  


Well, as I write this post, I am realizing how big this issue is and perhaps I need to write a lot more about my pillars.  But I want to make sure I have stressed the one important overarching principle...the software we use today must be intuitive and reflective of our operating conditions.  Vendors have a long way to go to change their business model, get on constant and consistent innovative update cycles, and collaborate with their customers.  However, customers, the people who use this software every day must begin demanding these changes.  Cool features and capabilities mean little unless they are developed with our real-world needs in mind.  

I have hopefully provided some food for thought.  What are your thoughts and experiences?  What would you do differently?