The 7 Pitfalls of Emergency Management
I have been having a lot of interesting conversations lately about why emergency management fails (or appears to fail) even in the smallest of disastrous situations. There have been occasions lately where I will see an incident on the news and the response to that incident is almost comedic if not tragic. What happened to logic and common sense? What happened to having a plan?
As I have been having these conversations, it is apparent that there are some key elements missing long before the incident. FEMA has published 7 common mistakes in managing emergency operations, but a list may not be enough which is why I am going to use up some internet space to look at those 7 reasons and maybe add some thoughts over a cup of coffee…
First of all, in keeping with my obsession with definitions, let’s look at a word that is too commonly used in emergency management. PITFALLS.
I hear this word all the time, especially in news stories or in after action reports when there are statements made such as “We were not aware of the pitfalls we would encounter” or “There are numerous pitfalls that made this response exceptionally difficult”.
The first recorded use of the word “pitfall” apparently was in the 14th Century and comes from the combination PIT+FALL in the sense to pit trap or pit snare. The new word grew from the Proto-Germanic word falla or fallaz, meaning “a fall”.
So let us go back to the pit trap for those of you who are not familiar. Trapping pits are deep pits dug in the ground, or built from stone, in order to trap animals. European rock drawings and cave paintings reveal red deer and elk were hunted since the Stone Age using trapping pits. Remains of trapping pits used for hunting elk, deer, reindeer, wolves and bears can still be found in Northern Scandanavia. These pits can measure up to 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep. They were usually camouflaged with sticks and leaves so the animal would step into it without seeing it.
So if we are going to talk about “pitfalls”. Let’s talk about the concept behind a pitfall.
If you are trapped in a pit trap, it is because you were not looking or you were not stepping carefully. If you were not looking and stepping carefully, it is because you either thought you could not fall or you refused to believe that there was an entity out there that wanted you to fall.
If you wish, you might want to stop, read that last paragraph again and think for a moment about how this applies to emergency management.
If you are traversing through the forest with your herd behind you and you suddenly fall into a pit trap, you will not be the only victim. Those closest to you will also fall into the trap and you will find yourself looking up into the faces of a few helpless deer that were following YOU because they thought YOUR knew where you were walking!
Pitfalls. Who knew?
Now that we have established that walking into a pitfall is the same as failing, we should look into the etymology of the word “fail”.
If we go back to the year 1200, we find the word fail in common use despite the word going back to the beginning of time, we have a clear definition at the beginning of the 14th Century. The definition we find in 1200 is "to be unsuccessful in accomplishing a purpose;" also "cease to exist or to function, come to an end;" "fail in expectation or performance.”
We find the word in old French to mean "be lacking, miss, not succeed; run out, come to an end; err, make a mistake; be dying; let down, disappoint" but most importantly we discover the vulgar Latin word “fail” means to “trip and fall”.
Pitfalls. Pitfalls are avoidable, they are not reasons nor are they excuses. They exist, they are sometimes well camouflaged, but they are avoidable.
FEMA names the number one pitfall as a Lack of a viable disaster plan. They say that planning provides the foundation and blueprint for all emergency response actions. Managers should ensure plans are up to date and include accurate contact information.
Your plan should include a certain paranoia that encourages you to expand your plan beyond the general scope of a template. What is the worst case scenario? What happens when you experience compounded disasters such as a tornado in the winter when the area is already flooded? What happens when you realize that mutual aid was a fantasy and not a guarantee because the region has been inundated with the same disaster you are experiencing?
A plan is nothing if you do not share it. If your plan has not been the focus of meetings with local stakeholders such as your local businesses, Chamber, banking institutions, schools, libraries, churches and response agencies then you do not have a plan yet. You have paper.
Make a plan for your plan so it becomes a real plan.
FEMA brings Lack of disaster resources in as number two on the list of pitfalls. Their messaging says that Emergency Managers must be aware of all the specialized resources that are available and their limitations. Improper use and designation of resources ranks high as a major complication in disaster operations.
There is no end to the value of networking and becoming involved in the community. I unfortunately rarely see emergency managers at Chamber meetings or local business events but this is where a majority of the resources reside! When it comes to human resources, there is still no place like the church and if you will ever need smart, professional people that know their way around the community as well as the internet, go spend time with your local librarians. Not realizing that these groups and this time spent will help you achieve disaster response and recovery goals is a major pitfall. Too many Emergency Managers spend their time in the office between disasters making it quite difficult to utilize a network that could have existed but does not.
Sitting at Number 3 on the charts for yet another week in a row is a Lack of visible leadership! The folks at FEMA say that as a disaster intensifies, fewer individuals will voluntarily step forward to assume a leadership role. Emergency managers should identify and assign leadership positions during the planning process. This will allow time for training and procedural familiarity.
I just had this conversation two days ago with an emergency manager. We spoke about the how difficult the job of a PIO was and he referred to my blog on the topic from last week. I proposed that PIO’s be allowed to shop for assistants (not assistance) before it is needed.
There is a plethora of people in every community that could serve voluntarily in assisting the PIO in the event of a major disaster. The same goes for Emergency Managers. Generally an Emergency Manager does not have a staff so why not recruit some assistants )not assistance) from the community; people with a set of skills that you can train throughout the year and expose to your plan so that when you need them they can step in?
Coming in at Number 4 is a song entitled “Bad decisions make the situation worse”. I like that FEMA even had to put this one in there. It shows a small amount of humor from the Feds. They say that Emergency Managers must have a comprehensive understanding of the emergency situation based on accurate information. They cannot allow ineffective response actions and misinformation to derail a response.
This kind of goes back to what I was just saying. Several years ago I watched an amazing Emergency Manager in a horrible situation as they utilized a volunteer staff they had created in advance. Several of those volunteers would never have fit the criteria of “Emergency Management Staff” had the county been hiring but they were energetic and educated people that lived throughout the community. The Emergency Manager utilized these folks as “surveillance officers”. Reports were filed with the EM every few hours by these folks from all over the county giving the EM a beautiful 30,000 foot view of the entire situation.
FEMA'S Number 5 is Trying to obtain too much information, while neglecting the information flow. Information flow, both incoming and outgoing, should be regulated and monitored frequently by the emergency manager to ensure the necessary and accurate information is being communicated.
Information is like gold. Hunting for it when you are broke is pretty stupid. Mining for gold should occur long before you actually need it. The gold rush was primarily people that were flat busted broke when they began and never did strike it rich because they ran out of funds.
The smart move is to begin mining for information BEFORE the event. How many do you have that fit the description of “vulnerable population”? You know how many rooftops but do you know how many people reside in your community? If you are in a tourism area, what is your transient population? Do you check on your shelter locations regularly to see if they are under construction or in some need of repairs that may prevent them from being used?
If you are constantly mining information, you will begin your response with a bankroll. Now that you have begun, check that bank balance to make sure it is accurate and then pay attention to the information coming in to see if it matches or if something is amiss.
FEMA says that Number 6 is Focusing on the insignificant stuff. This is all about prioritizing. While I know there is great value in computer software that tells you how and when to manage issues, how to log them, how to track them and even how to deal with them, nothing works like a massive dry-wipe board somewhere on the wall.
Use that “staff” you built to keep track of the little things and make sure they do not fall through the cracks while you prioritize the big stuff. There is definitely a big difference between a gas leak and a water leak, but make sure you find a balance when looking at that list of what is happening because a good sized water leak can flood the gas company.
Identify the key issues and prioritize according to your response objectives.
We have come to the end of FEMA’s list of pitfalls with what they call “Unknown Operations Staff”. We can now scratch this off the list because of what we have learned in this blog. FEMA says to identify key response personnel and resources before an incident occurs and understand individual capabilities and responsibilities.
Get out in that community of yours and start meeting and mining. Walk carefully the next time an event occurs and watch where you step. Pitfalls are to catch those not paying attention and moving too fast.