Climate Change and Are You Really Ready

When was the last time your agency updated their hazard vulnerability analysis (HVA)? Is it still based upon a twentieth-century model? According to a recent article published in The Atlantic, you might be in for the worst kind of surprise.

The title is foreboding enough:

Cities and Resilience – The Year Climate Started Hurting Politicians

But then you see the first five paragraphs littered with the names of politicians who are struggling, have struggled, and even some who subsequently lost elected office due, in part, to their response to natural disasters and emergencies.

So, what’s the deal behind all of this doom and gloom? Sure, some politicians just don’t prioritize emergency response, but not these guys. I say something else is up. The article proposes that climate change (y’know, global warming) might be the cause. Here’s the rationale, courtesy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Q: Are Extreme Events, Like Heat Waves, Droughts or Floods, Expected to Change as the Earth’s Climate Changes?

A: Yes; the type, frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change as Earth’s climate changes, and these changes could occur even with relatively small mean climate changes. Changes in some types of extreme events have already been observed, for example, increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and heavy precipitation events.

Like the Atlantic article notes, this is kind of technical. What it means is that the chances of an out-of-range weather event happening is increasing. What that means is that your HVA might be hamstrung by, well, twentieth-century thinking. Thinking that says a flood like that should only happen every hundred years, but you’ve had four of them in the last five years, is what this is getting at.

Four 12+ inch snowstorms in less than a year (like we’ve had in Philly) sound unusual? It might just be the new usual. Tornadoes, tropical cyclones, ice storms, snowstorms, wildfires, flooding, heat waves, drought, all of them may be understated as threats in your HVA.

So, what does that mean for us communicators? Well, besides brushing up on your disaster terminology, it might be helpful to review your template fact sheets. Is your boil water advisory ready to go (and easily activated)? Do you even have any FAQs delivered for wildfires, or smog? What are your three key messages surrounding tornado preparedness? (And I use that as an example because I have no idea—get in a ditch?)

As I look back on the last few years, it seems like there have been more weather-related disasters than usual. The cynical side of me says that’s just because the world is smaller, so we hear about more disasters than ever before. But the unprecedented nature of some of these disasters makes me believe something else is going on. From record heat and smoke in Moscow, to snow in the UK, to literally feet of water raining down in southern California, to nor’easter after nor’easter in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, something’s up. And you can only say “unprecedented” so many times before your citizens realize that it’s just the new normal and you’re not doing anything about it.

Mayor Cory Booker: Tweeting Us to the Next Big Thing in Emergency Management

What do you get when you mix old-style “common man on the street” politicking with today’s hottest social media tool, then add a dash of nearly twenty inches of snow?

Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Mayor Booker’s Twitter feed has turned into a veritable EOC resource request list and public information bonanza. As Newark residents tweet about problems associated with what’s been dubbed as the Snowpocalypse, Mayor Booker has been personally responding and directing resources throughout Newark to assist those in need. Whether it’s digging out a bus, delivering diapers or sending snowplows to streets that haven’t yet been cleared, Mayor Booker has been on the front lines of snow removal and responding to the storm that has crippled New York City and delivered a ton of bad press to the doorstep of New Jersey Governor Christie.

What does this mean for us? Mayor Booker is just the first in a string of politicians who will use the media’s infatuation with social media to garner good press for their actions. The public will see the value of being able to directly talk to their elected officials, and will use that “hotline” to get things accomplished. I won’t pretend to understand the political side of this equation; but I do see where this is going for public information officers and emergency management and response agencies. Residents are being primed to reach out to the government in case of emergency via social media.

We already knew that folks today believe that calls for help via social media should be seen and responded to, but this is the next step. Actual incorporation of social media monitoring and response based on those social media calls. The expectation exists, and now a proof of concept has been demonstrated. Modern emergency responders who do not respond to social media calls, especially in emergencies, are no longer on the cutting edge—and I would argue will quickly fall behind the rest of the field.

(And this is not because of any impetus in the emergency management world, but will come about solely as a result of political will. Mayor Booker is ably demonstrating the value of emergency social media to your local elected officials.)

Kudos to Mayor Booker for hitting the trifecta: using exciting new technology that the media will eat up, actually doing good in his community, and advancing the state of emergency response. It’s tough enough finding politicians who can do any one of those things.

Wherein @AmazonToys Avoids a (Minor) Crisis, And What We Can Learn From That

I had a really cool interaction last night with whoever was behind the Twitter account @AmazonToys at the time. Speaking with them validated my assumption that Amazon.com is a forward-thinking company, one that I will gladly continue to purchase from, and the value of social media—especially when coupled with direct interaction with customers and giving the power to make changes to those on the front lines.

At 5:30 pm last night, @AmazonToys posted the following:

Under $10 deals! LEGO Atlantis Wreck Raider $5.99 #moms #kids #makesmesmile #lastminutegifts #saving http://amzn.to/fVvwqK

Being a troublemaker and a Dad who is involved and invested in his kids, I replied at 5:47 pm:

Sigh, why the #moms tag? RT @AmazonToys:LEGO (toy) $5.99 #moms #kids #lastminutegifts #saving http://amzn.to/fVvwqK

@AmazonToys, just one minute later replied, cutely:

@jgarrow Moms should be informed about great deals :)

I explained myself a bit better:

Not Dads, too? RT @AmazonToys: @jgarrow Moms should be informed about great deals :)

and

@AmazonToys That said, I understand /why/ you tagged it that way, just dislike that it’s okay. Don’t mean to cause a fuss. Still a good deal.

@AmazonToys replied to my reasoning just one minute later:

@jgarrow Agreed, will be sure to add dads, too :)

I retweeted that last message, made sure to give them props and replayed the original LEGO toy link.

Every post since then by @AmazonToys has included both the #moms and #dads hashtags.

In the end, it was a trifle, and fixing it cost absolutely nothing, but look how warm and fuzzy it made me, a current (and potentially future) customer, feel. If I were an influential blogger, I might write it up and @AmazonToys could be seen by hundreds or thousands of Dads with disposable income, who are already annoyed that all child-rearing messages seem to default to Moms, as a hero company.

Or worse, @AmazonToys might not have responded to me, and I could have written a scathing post about how Amazon hates Dads and thinks they’re all absentee fathers, with the intention of sharing it with my (theoretical) legions of angry Dads.

Let’s look at what they did right. They saw my negatively slanted post, and responded right away (maybe not the same way I would have). I raised my issue with them, and not only did they reply right away, the person doing the replying was authorized to change what that message—and all future messages—said. Problem solved! One more happy customer, who retweeted their link three times, ended the conversation with a positive tweet and then wrote up a nice blog post on the interaction.

For companies, that seems pretty cut and dried, and is increasingly becoming the norm. But for you government communicators, when is the last time someone wrote something nice about an interaction they’ve had with your agency? Can you respond within a minute to a negative post online about your agency? Do you even track online posts?

I know that I talk a lot about emergency communications and online monitoring here, which seems different than this situation, but I assure you they are integrally tied together. @AmazonToys quick and satisfying response to me (which they were able to do because they monitor the space) allowed them to avoid a crisis situation, which is always preferable, obviously. So it’s important to first do the monitoring, but it’s just as important to be comfortable doing the monitoring and making changes on the fly. Which is why doing it in a non-emergency situation is the best possible time to do it.

Kudos once again to Amazon and the person behind @AmazonToys. You showed me how important I am as a customer, and how simple crisis communication can be when done proactively.

The Problem With Off-hours Emergencies

I have a special affinity/interest for water treatment emergencies, so this article out of the New Orleans Times-Picayune about an unexpected drop in water pressure at a treatment facility due to a loss of power is, by itself, super interesting. Add in the angle about notification failures and the unnecessary delay of public information, and this might be one of the most instructive articles we’ve seen!

So, to start, I am not looking to indict the officials in New Orleans. Reading between the lines of the article, it looks like there was an alert, notification and information release plan in place before the crisis. And from the looks of things, most of the problems that occurred would not have happened during a planned exercise. Sometimes things go wrong, and the folks who went through it—and the rest of us—are obligated to learn from it. In that interest if you haven’t heard it before, let me be the first to tell you, test your alert, notification and public information release process unannounced and during non-work hours.

Now onto the meat and potatoes. At 10:30 on a Friday evening, the water authority noticed a dramatic water pressure drop at a treatment facility that serves more than 300,000 residents. Within minutes, the emergency plan was activated. Within 45 minutes, it was decided that there was enough of a pressure drop to require the issuance of a boil water advisory.

(Quick test: What does a boil water advisory say? Boil for one minute? Boil for five minutes? Boil drinking water? Boil all water? Boil toothbrushing water? Don’t drink shower water? There’s a lot more to a boil water advisory than many people understand. If you don’t have an approved template, get one.)

Just past midnight Saturday morning, officials from the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety (OHS & PS) were in contact with water authority’s (S&WB) emergency preparedness director about the situation. S&WB noted then that they were recommending that the public in the affected area boil their water. It wasn’t until 7:30 Saturday morning that OHS & PS acknowledged this message, and asked for a copy of the advisory. S&WB quickly forwarded a four-sentence description of the order, but still had not updated their website or issued a formal press release. OHS & PS forwarded information out to the public using their ReadyNola.info emergency alerting system around 8:00 Saturday morning, with apparent disregard for their alerting protocols, which dictated that nothing be sent out with an official copy of the advisory. That official advisory was sent out on Sunday evening. The article also goes into problems with getting in contact with senior administration officials in the Mayor’s office.

So, what can we learn from all of this? Tons.

New Orleans noted that during emergency situations, emails should be followed by phone calls to ensure receipt, which is a great start. I would take it a bit further, and since it read like OHS & PS was up and available at the beginning of this all, they should have played a sort-of “watch command” role, wherein it was their duty to ensure that everyone who needed to know that something was going on, knew. While it’s nice (and important) to make sure anyone who needs to contact those who need to know, if one person in that chain takes the night off, or turns their phone off, the whole chain of command breaks down. Assigning responsibility to a 24/7 entity to coordinate the notification process speeds ensures that the job will get done.

The public information release part of this is interesting, too. Why did it take almost two days for S&WB to issue a formal alert about the situation? Given that situations that can cause a boil water alert to be issued are among the most likely of emergencies at treatment facilities, one has to wonder why a template press release and official alert weren’t previously developed and approved. Something with <insert information about treatment facility here> and <insert date and time of event here>, but that still had the official recommendations ready to go would have saved hours, I imagine.

And S&WB isn’t the only party that should learn something from this situation. OHS & PS should update their ReadyNola.info alerting protocol to allow for unofficial communications to be released — exactly as they did in this situation. So, kudos to OHS & PS for understanding that the public’s need for information in an emergency can trump protocol, but now they need to understand the value of the flexibility demonstrated by the person running the alert system and enshrine that in the official protocols.

In sum, again, I don’t mean to pile on to the folks in New Orleans. I think that they had a great plan and followed it—for the most part—to a “T.” But emergencies rarely happen between 8:30 and 5:00, from Monday through Friday. They happen on Friday and Saturday nights, in northern states on the coldest night of the year, in the south on the swelteringest August afternoon, when that one guy that’s crucial to the response is on a cruise. So while it impossible—especially with today’s budget climate—to do any large-scale exercising off-hours, it’s cheap and easy to do a call-down in the evening, on the weekend, when somebody’s out of town, just to make sure that you can.

Thank you, New Orleans, for being just prepared enough to prevent any real problems, but just “like the rest of us” enough that we can all learn something from your experience.

Via Emergency Management Magazine: Best Practices for Constructing an Emergency Message

Message label.
Identification of emergency message

Who’s speaking.
Identification of the official agency issuing the warning and potentially any relevant associated agencies.

Who the Message is for.
Statement of the targeted audience for which the message is intended. This should include specific geographic location boundaries.

What they should do, by when.
Explicit instructions on what actions citizens should take and in what timeframe. This should also include an explicit statement describing people who are NOT to take action.

Why they should do it.
A statement on the risks associated with the emergency and what specific consequences may be faced if action is not taken.

Repeat.
Repeating of who the message is for and what they should do within the required time frame.

End: Message label and pending information.
Close out the message with the alert identification and any instruction on where additional information can be obtained or where citizens should look for updated information as the situation changes.

Here’s a cool post via lots of people, originating with Dr. Thomas Mileti, on what your emergency message should look like.

My take on this is that it’s very good, though a bit proscribed. A lot of times, we might not know all of the answers to all of those questions. In that case, it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t know some important point, but describe the process we are undergoing to get that information.

As if I’m one to comment on Dr. Mileti’s work.