Blog Archives

What an EM Needs to Know During Ebola

Ebola.  Are you tired of hearing about it yet?  Not that it isn’t a notable virus that deserves our attention and our preparations, but as emergency managers, our job right now is not to eliminate the threat.  Our job right now has very little to do with the actual virus itself.  Allow me to make a case for you.

Case File

This blog just got serious…

Ebola is a virus that is spread through contact of the bodily fluids of an infected person.  It’s not in the air and to get it, you’d have to have a direct exposure that allowed for entry into your own body.  Once you’ve got it, yeah, that’s a problem.  But in many places, especially the US, actually catching the disease?  That is not going to be easy.

Lots of viruses are spread this way and our hospital systems are not only prepared, trained and ready for what’s already here, they’re prepared for what’s coming.  Personal protective equipment exists to build a barrier between our healthcare workers and those who require their services.  Processes and procedures have been in place to handle the worst of the worst for years on years.  So, why then all the fuss, and what are emergency managers actually supposed to be doing with this?

We already know that people fear what they don’t know, and that there are so many unanswered questions about the disease itself is the worst kind of unknown.  Where does it originate?  Can it mutate?  Why isn’t there a cure?  I get it – I find these questions intriguing myself!

Right now, however, our job isn’t to answer these questions.  Our job lies in the public panic.  I would estimate that is roughly 85% of our responsibility since the beginning of disease spread.  Of course there is training, drills, exercises and inter-agency communication to be done, but the major focus simply must be on communicating clearly with the public.  Most essentially on a local level.  Why?  Because the public has a disconnect in personal trust on a federal level.

And why shouldn’t they?  They don’t “know” federal departments.  Federal agencies aren’t first responders, and they’re more often than not separated from the local message and response.  They have a huge task before them (i.e answering those questions above that we aren’t challenged to solve), but they won’t be able to truly touch public panic and public perception.

publictrust

As emergency managers, it isn’t our job to answer the questions of the specialty agencies we support.  What we need to focus on is developing a consistent, calming, accurate message from our partner agencies to our community members, because their perceptions and their unnecessary panic is the emergency right now.

Those plans you’ve worked so diligently on?  People need to know they exist.  Those exercises you participate in?  People need to know that they happened.  We can’t answer the questions that make people so afraid, but we can keep fear from turning into panic by showing all of the ways we have always been prepared and we will continue to be prepared.  Our community members need to hear from us that we have a plan, that they can trust we know what we’re doing.  And we need to be trusted enough to explain how these scary things work, and what we’ll do about it.

It won’t be enough to go out and tell everyone they have nothing to worry about.  Let’s face it, that message ain’t gonna cut it!  It’s okay to allow our community members to feel something.  But when was the last time a scare tactic changed anything about anyone’s actual preparedness status?  Go ahead, I’ll give you some time to think about it…

Scare tactics don’t work.  We need to communicate all of this, take away the element of panic, and turn relevant concern into beneficial action.

Explaining what we do, having a consistent presence, facilitating that message and then showing people that just as we have prepared ourselves for the worst of the worst, so too can they prepare, is where the success is.  Our plans don’t fall to the wayside because they’re flexible enough to fit the different disasters we face.  Our plans, kits and equipment are adaptable.  Anyone’s can be, if they know where to start.

Here’s the catch…it really only works if your community has faith in your message.

Do you exist outside of the walls of your office?  Does your agency know you, does your community know you?  Are you equipped to lead the message our public needs to hear, or will you be out of touch?  And, for those of you who dread the role of the public information officer, that doesn’t mean being the man or woman on camera.  That means being a part of the development of the message and being a trusted source people can turn to in order to successfully receive it.

What have you done to create a trustworthy atmosphere in your community in advance of times like these where our success relies so heavily on our ability to share critical information?  Are you prepared for what happens if the community doesn’t hear us and panic does ensue?

Right now is the right time to get ahead of your message, and if you already are, it’s a great time to tell someone else how you’re nailing it.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

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The Perversion of Social Media

I read an article today about a fatal accident that occurred in the Dallas/Fort Worth, TX area yesterday (6/3/2014).  The article focused somewhat on the accident itself, but moreso on the reaction of an off-duty responder who noticed bystanders using their phones to capture footage of the accident, rather than assisting.  (You can find the aforementioned article here in a new window if you’re interested in its content before reading further.)

The article shares the point of view of Lt. Anthony Williams (the off-duty responder) who attempted to assist in the incident as he pulled on-scene to a burning car where reportedly two people died, burned beyond recognition.  He recalled onlookers pointing their phones at the scene in his peripheral vision and called it “the perversion of social media” that they would be more interested in capturing video footage instead of helping the victims.  That phrase caught my attention and left me wondering…is that where social media has now led the public in emergency situations?

BipHkL_CcAApVR4 Post plane-crash selfie…

Upon further investigation, I found that even being a part of disaster situations isn’t enough to distract from the need to immediately share those experiences on social media.  You can search for  “selfie after plane crash” or “selfie after stabbed” and there are, in fact, results that turn up by the plenty.  Another video seen today made light of a teenager with his dad who saw a semi-truck stuck on some rail road tracks.  As a train approached, they began recording the unfolding incident and the video was soon uploaded to YouTube and shared across the web.  And the teenager literally stood in the middle of the debris saying, “is this real life??”

So what is encouraging the public to make these choices during disaster situations?  I would argue it’s actually a list on influences that should be considerably eye-opening for my fellow emergency management focused friends, especially in their planning and response strategies.

The public isn’t empowered enough to act during disaster.  

We spend a lot of our time telling people what they can’t touch, where there can’t go, what can’t do, what they can’t say, or generally protecting whatever “territory” we feel is ours that it’s no wonder community members look a a crisis unfolding and feel helpless to do anything.  For the lay community member, what is outside of their daily job function is outside of their “basement” level thinking – the kind of thinking that happens naturally and automatically in response to a stressful situation. (I should note that concept is learned from a 2011 meta-leadership seminar I attended!)  For the officer in the story above, jumping into response mode was the obvious choice.  For the other bystanders, they’re so often made to feel that the only thing they can and should be allowed to do is wait patiently.  Is this all encompassing, of course not.  Is it pretty common?  Well, the story above is one of many examples.

The public experiences fear, and fear can be paralyzing.

One of my favorite books related to emergency management was Amanda Ripley’s Unthinkable.  It’s a great read, not too complicated and very eye opening about the reactions people have to disasters.  Plane going down?  Everyone shares a laugh.  Building burning down?  Let’s wait and see what’s REALLY going to happen.  Fear paralyzes people, removes their normal thought process and makes excuses against what they’re experiencing to put it in a more digestable format.  When you’re afraid, the ability to make rational decisions is quickly diminished, and that lack of recognition and decision making is paralyzing.  What do you do when you don’t know what to do?  Which leads me to my next thought…

The public has a disconnect with crises. 

We’re not empowering them, and without knowledge or training there is fear.  And where there is fear and inexperience there is a disconnect from what a crisis really is: a bad situation that can happen to anyone, anytime that is completely dependent on who will step up to handle it.  The 24-7 news-like exposure folks have to disaster in our culture so often puts them in a realm of automatic disconnect to the reality of it that when it’s in front of them, it automatically turns into almost a movie-like experience.  As long as nothing happens to someone, they will believe that nothing will happen to them.  And when it happens to others, it’s a very unfortunate, very impersonal scene that they haven’t been given a role to play in.

The public processes information in a very unprecedented way.  

There was a point in my life that if I didn’t know what to do, I’d open my phone and click on Twitter.  Or I’d sit down to do a task at my computer and type “Faceb…” before I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.  Am I proud of this fact?  No way!  “Recovering” is a more accurate description.  The point is, social media is a decision A LOT of people make when we’re in the basic, “basement” way of thinking.  Nowadays, events haven’t been experienced until they’ve been shared.  They’re not processed unless they’re discussed.  We use social media to document information, to show we’re the first to know it, to receive empathy, to alert that we’re okay, to share the unbelievable.  We use social media to experience that which simply “can’t be happening to me” during the times we “can’t do anything about it” because it isn’t real life until we can go through our notes with those we connect with.

Yes, I realize I’m speaking in absolutes, recognizing this is a thought for a general population and not all-encompassing.  But you get the idea.  It is a terrible tragedy that anyone should lose their life needlessly in disaster.  It’s even worse when there are things that can be done that aren’t done, whether for ones self (evacuating, preparing, sheltering…) or for others.

So what are you going to change about your message and your interactions with your community to humanize the emergency management field, empower your citizens and foster a whole community response to keep these things from happening any more?

Tweet #BiggerThanMyself or mention me @tjlasagna if you have some suggestions.  If this is a topic you’d like to see researched further, please also let me know.

-Tanya

Strengths, Weaknesses and Finding your fit in EM

It took me a long time to figure out the things I was good at, and the things I wasn’t so good at.  Or maybe, rather, it took me a long time to accept it.  Maybe that’s because it’s easy to see what you’re bad at, albeit tough to admit, and hard to give yourself credit for what you do well.


Kind of hoping the arm on the left represents my strengths…

For me, I know I’m great at developing new concepts and starting them off, I’m bad at following through and completing them.  I’m sure of my decisions when directing others, but doubt my decisions when I’m the one pulling the trigger.  I enjoy being in the middle of action and long for that hands-on response, but know I’m most useful waiting until there’s a role and a function I can fulfill.  I have strengths and weaknesses, but in the end all I want is to do is provide an effective response. I know I’m talking a lot about me, but I do so because I want to exemplify a very important task that we all, including myself, need to do.

As folks involved in disaster, we have to recognize our weaknesses and our strengths.  Not just know…recognize.  And then plan to deal with them.

Don’t get me wrong, this statement is true for everyone.  But the reason it is so critical for our field is because emergency management drives passion and excitement, and those things can cause us to enter superhero mode (and yes, I believe everyone I work with is a superhero) without realizing where we’re really needed.

When it comes to response, so many people want to save the day as soon as it is understood the day will need saving.  It is one of the things that make our career field so different from many others…when our day gets worse (i.e. a disaster strikes), we can’t stop working.  We don’t want to stop working.  Our pulses race, our instincts take over and all we want to do is protect life, property and everything in between.

The problem with this is we are at great risk for doing a disservice to that which is motivating us.  I want to protect my community, but I can’t if I’m burnt out.  I can’t do that if I’m duplicating someone else’s efforts at the same time as them or if I haven’t recognized where I can do the most good.  We want to keep working and want to fulfill every task because we want to protect everyone, but by not recognizing our strengths and weaknesses,  we are not doing what is best for the community.


Can’t…stop…working…!

I have a special place in my heart for public information…it was my introduction to the world of emergency management over six and a half years ago.  I knew my strength was working with the press because I had been on the other side of that relationship, but my excitement became my weakness because I’d develop tunnel vision when I was on the ground.

With the help of some very good mentors and the stress of real-life application, I realized I could easily become lost in the PIO role, and lost people are at risk for making bad decisions and being ineffective.

By recognizing my weakness, I was able to develop tools in order to manage it and then step back and figure out what my strength was in the same arena and learn how to make a true difference.  I used to feel bad realizing that something I loved deeply wasn’t the best fit for me in its active form.  Even now, I hate admitting this on my blog because I wouldn’t want anyone to lose faith in the assistance I can provide.  But weaknesses are only disabling when you don’t make a plan to adjust to them or let them lead you to your other strengths.


Yep, still hate admitting it!

Now, wherever I am involved in my broader level of emergency response, public information is addressed where it may often be neglected.  I’m great at Joint Information Center support and evaluation and found that social media is a niche I am most at ease with…a largely uncharted territory in EM.

I wanted to share this piece of my journey in identifying some of my weaknesses and strengths because once I finally did, my effectiveness in emergency management was altered in such a positive way.  You may be amazing at on-scene media management and speaking for your agency.  Or maybe you are the BEST at training others.  Or an invaluable asset with your ability to track supplies or finances.  Perhaps you are level-headed in disaster and perform flawlessly as boots on the ground, providing those critical services that literally save lives.

Whatever it is that you are the best at, give yourself credit for it.  And then stop letting your weaknesses get in the way of finding your perfect fit.

November Disaster in Place – Winter Storms!

It’s time for a new “Disaster in Place”.  Take 5-10 minutes to play along!

This month’s scenario is just in time…winter storms.

WinterStorm

If severe winter weather were to affect your area right now, what would you do?  Could you safely shelter in place at work or at home through the next few nights?  What if you lost power and needed to find creative ways to stay warm and cook food, how would you do it?  What if…you were stranded in your car for hours in the cold, do you have what you need to stay warm and safe already in there?

For information about prepping your home, car, and mind for severe cold and winter storms, check out this FEMA site and “Pledge to Prepare”: http://www.ready.gov/winter-weather

For a few tips about what to do if winter weather strands you in your car, check out this short (1:46) video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cR9sJKdsY4o

For tips about cooking food, as well as some great non-perishable recipes for your kit, check out: http://www.emergencykitcookoff.org/

All signs point to a busy winter for Virginia…please be prepared!
Tanya

October Disaster in Place: Rad/Nuc Event!

Happy October!  Please take 10 minutes to enjoy this month’s Disaster in Place and as always, please feel free to share with your partners and peers.  If you do, send me a message or leave a comment and let me know who’s joining in!

Also, for the fellow emergency leaders distributing this in your areas, here is the link to the Radiological Terrorism Toolkit referenced below where you can print, download or order a full kit of your own for no charge (and I strongly encourage this for you, your peeps, and your partners!)

It’s that time again!

Welcome to the October Disaster in Place!

This month’s scenario is a radiological/nuclear terrorism event.

If a radiological/nuclear event were to happen in your area right now, how would you protect yourself?  Are you familiar with your local evacuation routes?  What if it happened in Washington, DC (or your nearest well-populated city?)…could you support our closest state managed shelter and leave your family for 1-3 days without worrying about them, and are you affiliated with an agency that allows you to do so?  What if you were told to shelter in place for the next two weeks?

For all kinds of information about being involved in a radiological/nuclear event, check out these resources from the CDC, including protection, treatment and health effects: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/

For training on responding to a radiological/nuclear event, check out the free online course from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – Radiation Terror 101: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-public-health-preparedness/training/online/rad101.html

You can also email me if interested in learning more about our cache of Radiological Terrorism kits, full of information for public health professionals and clinicians, available free from the CDC.

See you next month! Tanya

August Disaster in Place – Chemical Event!

Below you will find the August content of my monthly Disaster in Place.  Disaster in Place is an email series I began in May 2013 to engage Medical Reserve Corps team members to think practically about preparedness for just a few minutes a month and increase our alert responses (what we use in Virginia to see who is available to respond in disaster).  It comes complete with training and educational opportunities for those who are so inclined.  (I wrote a blog post introducing this series back in May!)

I’ve been instituting the Disaster in Place training series with my three MRC units since May and am happy to share stats, info, and previous months’ with you.  Feel free to participate, use and share, but if you do, please let me know so I can keep track of the reach of this program!  It would be quite appreciated.  I’ll be posting these every month…enjoy!

August Disaster in Place – Chemical Event!

Good morning!

Welcome to the fourth of our monthly Disaster in Place series. As always, please click on the alert link in this message and indicate you did or did not participate in this exercise so we can track that everyone knows how to receive and respond to requests with  availability!

This month’s scenario is a chemical event.

A chemical exposure can happen for a few reasons, including terrorism and human error in a factory or even at home. If you were exposed to a chemical material, how would you react? Would you know to remove exposed clothing and wash for fifteen minutes with soap and water (or what we call decontamination)? What if that chemical was at home and a family member or friend was exposed?

For information about various chemical agents, including lists, FAQ’s, and decontamination, check out this fantastic resource from the CDC: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/chemical/

For additional training on hazardous materials at home, visit this free online course from FEMA, IS-55.a: Household Hazardous Materials ? A Guide for Citizens http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/courseOverview.aspx?code=IS-55.a

For even more training, check out this course from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – Intro to Chemical Agents: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-public-health-preparedness/training/online/intro_chem_agents.html

And remember these important numbers: Poison Control Center – 800-222-1222 and Virginia 2-1-1 for all types of questions, connections and resources.

Hope you enjoyed this month!
Tanya