Google Voice: School / Childcare Solution for Out of Area Emergency Number?

One of the routinely frustrating things I see in the emergency plans for schools and childcare centers concerns the out-of-area contact (OAC). Typically, the OAC for these facilities is a relative (sister, uncle, etc.) of the principal or facility administrator who lives in another state – which often means it’s someone’s home or mobile phone number. The rationale of an OAC for a school or daycare is the same as it is for families: local phone lines are often disrupted during emergency / disaster incidents, even when there hasn’t been any significant damage to the telecommunications infrastructure. This is because the first thing most people do during an emergency is pull out their phone and try to connect with their loved ones. This surge use overwhelms the carrying capacity of the system, and within minutes or even seconds, users in the affected area will greeted with a busy signal or “please try your call again later” message. The out of area contact is a hedge, since local connections are generally overwhelmed first, while inter-state phone lines may remain open – or at least take longer to hit their capacity limits.

The thinking is that if you can’t connect a call with your spouse, kids, boss, etc. who are just across town, you might have better luck calling your common OAC in another state and let them know that you’re okay. The OAC in turn can relay that information to everyone else in your local “emergency” network. In certain situations, the OAC might even act as an “outside the fishbowl” coordinator of sorts – since they’ll know where everyone is (at least those they get a phone call from), and they may even have a better overall sense of the local situation than the locals, as they can monitor news feeds and social media, or pull up a map of the area. For example, if your OAC (e.g. grandma) knows [because they’ve received phone calls from Mom and Dad] that Dad’s at work, Mom’s at home, Billy’s at school, and little Susie’s at daycare – and they’ve also just seen a report that the main road standing between Dad and little Susie’s daycare is blocked, she might advise that Mom be the one to get Susie (instead of Dad who normally picks her up), while Dad heads for Billy’s school (who normally rides the bus).

When you consider the alternative of family spread out across town, totally unaware of each others’ status, and unable to communicate or connect with each other for hours or potentially days – the value of the out of area contact is obvious. And that value is no less applicable to organizations like schools and childcare facilities – because the first priority of any parent will be to know if their child is safe, and then reconnect with them.

But here’s where the OAC concept falls down: no school can be expected to call the individual OAC listed in the emergency file for every child, and imagine the result of dozens or hundreds of parents calling the school principal’s Aunt Edna in Iowa all within a matter of minutes. I say this, of course, knowing full well that 99% of parents with kids in school or in daycare have no idea what that facility’s out of area contact number is. But the problem remains the same – Aunt Edna isn’t really equipped to manage the volume of calls or information that would come streaming in – from either the calls of parents who got through to him – or from the frantic voicemails of those who didn’t.

Enter Google Voice (hereafter abbreviated “GV”). Google describes this service as “one number that is tied to you, not a device or a location.” Here’s their brief video description…

I’ve recently been exploring GV for my personal use, and came across this posting on LifeHacker.com that suggests it as a good emergency contact number alternative. I don’t think I made it through the first paragraph before it’s usefulness to schools and childcare facilities became immediately apparent.

A service like this offers schools and childcare centers the ability to set up a single GV number in an area code that is “located” in another state. What’s neat about the GV system is you can associate multiple “real” phone numbers with it – none of which have to be located in the same area code as the GV number. For example – a school in Seattle can set up their emergency OAC GV number picking an area code located in Indiana; then they identify five individuals – who could each be in a different state – to act as a cadre of OACs for the school if there’s ever an emergency. These OACs then add their own phone numbers into the school’s GV account. The school would then educate parents about the emergency GV number, and ask them to program it into their mobile phones.

When an incident occurs that is likely to overwhelm the local phone infrastructure, the first call the school administrator or designee should make is to the GV system – where they can update the voicemail greeting message with the appropriate information: the date/time, the general impact of the incident on the facility and occupants, what the staff is doing in response, and any special instructions the administrator wants parents to follow (e.g. what information to provide in their voicemail message, where to go to pick up students, what to do if they can’t, etc.).

Depending on how you decide to tweak the system settings, the OACs will be notified of the incident one way or another (e.g. a call, text msg, email), and can prepare to start receiving calls and coordinating information. [Those in the emergency management community will recognize this concept as similar to or even the same as a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST).]

Parents will of course begin calling into the system themselves. If they reach one of the OACs directly, they can learn the status of the school and any specific instructions, and then leave their own info with the OAC who will record it. Parents who are routed into voicemail will hear the recording, and then have the opportunity to leave their own message. These recorded messages can be accessed by any / all of the OACs with an internet connection, and can play them at will. Additionally, the GV system will attempt to transcribe the message and provide the text – although this feature is an imperfect extra for now.

As the situation evolves, the OACs may choose to divy up responsibilities or take shifts. They might even decide to coordinate between themselves using a Google Hangout [one of my favorite new internet enabled browser-based technologies]. So long as it remains easier or possible for parents to call the facility’s GV number, everyone concerned – the parents, the facility staff and administrators, and even those 1st responders in the local community – will benefit from having a central mechanism to exchange information that requires nothing more than a working phone in the affected area, a decent internet connection outside the affected area, and at least one OAC available and committed to supporting the number one functional priority during any crisis situation: the timely and effective exchange of accurate information.

Because I have school-aged kids myself, and know how dismal most schools’ OAC plans are, that was the community I thought of first when considering how GV could be used for this purpose. But it’s a concept that could applied and utilized just as well by any small -medium sized organization. Just remember, it’s a concept that would definitely need to be tested, and it only works if everyone is educated about the GV number itself and how it all works. And of course – for a function as important as this – you always want to have a back up plan. You never know, Aunt Edna may still be needed.

If anyone decides to try it out – I love to hear how it goes!

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You Do What You Can

Hiking

One of my hobbies prior to having children was hiking and camping. Okay, that’s not true. I really didn’t have any hobbies pre-parenthood, because I was so busy doing other stuff that could hardly be defined as anything remotely resembling a hobby. But if I did have a hobby before I had kids, it would have been back-country hiking and camping.

When I was finally in a position where I could pursue hiking and camping as an actual hobby, I had years worth of pre-conceived notions of what that experience was going to be like. Unfortunately, those notions didn’t take into consideration that a 3-year old can’t be expected to hike multi-day treks along backcountry goat trails. Since we couldn’t exactly leave him at home, my wife suggested I needed to figure out how to be okay with a 1-2 mile stroll in the local park, until we could work our way up to something more closely resembling the cover photo on Outdoor magazine.

Emergency preparedness can be like that too.

One of the frustrations I frequently hear is, “how am I supposed to do or get all of those things on that list?” There’s so much to do, there’s so many things to get. The list they’re referring to…well it’s any of them really. Go to any emergency / disaster preparedness website and pick one. The good ones focus more on actions you should take to prepare, versus the “stuff” you should acquire. Anyone who has attended one of my preparedness seminars know I have a bias against pre-packaged “disaster kits” – simply because it’s just too tempting for the average person to buy a kit, throw it in the trunk or the closet, and call it good. No plan. No conversation with the family, or the kids’ school, or the boss at work. “Hey, I got a kit  – isn’t that good enough!”

No – it isn’t. But at least it’s a start. And for those of us who are in the preparedness evangelism business, it’s often the best we can hope for. But we can still dream. And when we do dream, we dream of families sitting around the dinner table and playing the “what if?” game. It goes something like…

Dad: “Hey kids – what if tomorrow there was a really big earthquake. What would you do?”

Jr.: “Gee dad – I’d drop, cover and hold, just like you showed us!”

Susie: “Yeah! And then I’d secure my school emergency kit from my cubby, while I waited for the school administration to realize their earthquake plan didn’t consider anything beyond ‘drop, cover and hold,’ and now half their staff want to leave because they have their own kids at home, or in daycare.”

Mom: “That’s right Susie. And fortunately, because we know it might take a while for your Dad or me to get to there, we’ve made arrangements with our good friend Betty who lives right next to your school to come pick you up until we can get to her house. And we’ve included her on the emergency contact list at your school as someone authorized to pick you up during those types of incidents.”

Dad: “Mom’s right, kids. It could take a while for one of us to get there. But the maps we’ve put in all our kits highlight what routes each of us will be most likely to take, and have also indicated all the possible emergency shelter locations along the way – so that way we all have at least an idea of what each of us will try to do – or where we might be depending on the conditions.”

Jr: “Gosh dad – tomorrow night can we do a ‘what if’ we wake up in the middle of the night and smell smoke?”

Dad: “You bet son! And that reminds me, it’s been at least six months since I replaced the batteries in the smoke detectors. I’m going to take care of that while you and Susie clear the table.”

Can’t you picture it? Sure you can. Just like every Thanksgiving at your house resembles a Normal Rockwell painting, right?

But why not? Preparedness isn’t about doing everything all at once. It’s little actions here and there that over time add up. It’s the periodic (but regular) “what if?” conversations at the dinner table. It’s changing out the batteries in the flashlights. It’s picking up a few extra cans of food for the pantry. It’s refreshing the 5-gallon gas can you keep filled for the generator in the garden shed. It’s asking your co-workers if they’re ready for the approaching winter storm, and offering some encouragement via a few of easy preparedness tips. All little things you can do here and there, because it’s become a part of your “resilience culture” mind-set. And if just one of those things is all you can do this week – so be it.

But do what you can, when you can, and eventually you’ll have done a lot.


Finishing Up “Something That Matters”

Here it is, a few days away from New Year’s, a time when most of us invariably take stock of what we’ve achieved over the past 12 months, as well as opportunities missed. In the context of this, my third attempt at blogging, it’s a bleak assessment indeed. I’ve got about five posts in draft format that I’ve started somewhere along the way, but they never rose above my other priorities high enough to polish any of them up and post. [Note to self – nobody’s paying you to do this – they don’t have to be perfect.] There are certainly a couple I’d have preferred to get up before this one – but in this case – I made a commitment I needed to fulfill…Start Something That Matters

I recently finished reading a newly released book titled “Start Something That Matters,” by Blake Mycoskie. If you don’t know who Blake Mycoskie is (I didn’t), he’s the guy who started TOMS shoes. If you have no recognition of TOMS shoes (um… me again) – it’s a for-profit shoe company founded upon and dedicated to the promise that for each pair of shoes purchased, another pair will be provided to a child that needs them.

Great – so what?

I read as often as I can, but I never write book reviews. I’d just get started reading the next book on my list. In this instance, however, it was part of the deal. A few weeks ago, I saw a link, maybe I got an email… I can’t remember… about a guy who wrote a book, and if you had a blog and were willing to read the book and write an honest review of it on your blog – he’d send you two copies, one for yourself, and one to give away [via a contest – more on that later]. Since the book’s title sounded intriguing, I figured why not.

After completing the online form requesting the copies and committing to writing the review, I started to wonder if I hadn’t just willingly become a pawn in a brilliant guerrilla marketing campaign. It’s the kind of question you don’t really need to ask yourself, cause you already know the answer. But at this point, having not yet read or even received the books, it seemed like a pretty ballsy play: “Read the book, and write a review on your blog. If you think it sucks, say so.”

So now I’ve read the book, and it doesn’t suck. In fact, when I finished the last chapter around 11pm that night, I don’t think I finally got to sleep until around 4am, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the possible applications of the concepts in Start Something That Matters. As a guy who really enjoys his sleep, that’s saying something.

Now don’t get me wrong. The whole “we’ll send you a book for free – all you have to do is review it” thing still kinda has that late night Ginzu-knife-two-for-one-just-pay-shipping-and-handling feel to it; except for two things. First, I didn’t pay a dime, even for shipping and handling. And second, Mycoskie and his publisher clearly new they had a winner with this book. You’d have to be a pretty jaded individual to not be inspired not only by what Blake has achieved with TOMS, but by his sincere desire to get others to do the same thing.

If you still don’t know about TOMS… nutshell version:

Boy goes to 3rd world country. Boy sees barefoot children everywhere. Boy has brilliant, but unproven, unprecedented idea. Boy works hard to overcome tall odds and launch a wildly successful for-profit business that’s put over 1,000,000 pairs of new shoes on the feet of needy children around the world.

As I said, I’m not really into writing lengthy critiques of books (I said “books” – everything else is fair game). I like ’em, or I don’t. If I were the NYTimes book review type, there’s a couple of nit-picky things I might raise an eyebrow about – like the pragmatic realities of obtaining certain things for free being a part of your business plan (frunch? really?), or an over-reliance on unpaid interns – a subject I harbor very mixed feelings about.

These trivial issues aside, I was genuinely inspired by Mycoskie’s testament to what can be achieved when you identify a need, have a good idea, and don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. His book and his story have definitely given a new twist to an idea and a goal that’s been floating around in my head for a while – a twist that may actually make it more viable.

In any case, Mycoskie’s story and charge to “start something that matters” is a message that clearly resonates in today’s world, one in which people feel increasingly disenfranchised, are turned off by the vacuousness of celebrity and consumerism, or simply want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The book, along with his website and blog document the stories of others who either of their own accord or taking a cue from Blake have done some incredible things. Life changing things. World changing things.

If that appeals to you, it’s a book worth reading.

To that end – the second part of the deal for me was to give away the second copy by way of contest. No other stipulations. The possibilities almost feel like a call to silliness. But instead, I’m going to put on my grown-up hat, and engage thusly:

Given that emergency management is my thing, and public education is a persistent challenge within that field, I want to know what has inspired you to do something to become better prepared for an emergency or disaster. Did you see or hear about an incident that made you decide, “now’s the time to do X.” Was it hearing an interview or story about a disaster survivor that touched you emotionally, which translated into action on your part? Or did you experience an emergency/disaster yourself, and that’s what it took to get you to “do something.” Or was it something else?

What’s the most inspiring, motivating thing that made you take a significant step towards being better prepared?  Post your response in the comments section, and I’ll pick the winner using a random selection mechanism sometime in early Feburary and send you the book post haste.


How I Used G+ Hangout to Be the Coolest Teacher on Campus

Artzen Hall, Western Washington University.

WWU Arntzen HallImage via Wikipedia

Last night I used my favorite feature of Google Plus – the Hangout – to do something a little different in my Theory & Practice of Emergency Management class at Western Washington University.  If you’re not familiar with the Google Plus Hangout, it’s basically a web-based multi-site video-teleconference platform that allows up to ten locations to participate simultaneously.  [Given how well it works and the fact that it’s free, I’m surprised it hasn’t received greater attention so far.]

The whole thing was fairly experimental.  I meet with the class twice a week for an hour and 50 minute sessions, during which we discuss a different aspect of the emergency management field.  Most of the assigned readings address how a particular subject is supposed to be done from a “theoretical best practice” perspective, and then in class we discuss the who, what, when, where, how and why the theory is or isn’t reflected in practical application.  But at the end of the day, the only perspective the students get outside the readings I assign is mine, and as stunningly brilliant as I am, I wanted them to get some alternative viewpoints.

One tactic I’ve employed fairly consistently is to bring in a guest lecturer now and then.  This is a great opportunity for the students to hear from important voices in the local emergency management community.  Last quarter, the Director of Washington State Division of Emergency Management (and current President of the National Association of Emergency Managers) Jim Mullen did a guest stint, which the students really enjoyed.  Director Mullen is a strong supporter of the Disaster Reduction and Emergency Planning Program at the school, so while his willingness to travel all the way up to Bellingham for a 140 minute conversation wasn’t surprising, it was nevertheless very appreciated.  But as valuable as these local perspectives are – I still wanted to tap into the wealth of knowledge I was benefiting from personally via my #SMEM (social media for emergency managers) contacts.

Ever since Google Plus emerged, I began experimenting with using the Hangout feature for communicating within my department (at my day job – not my teaching gig), as well as with other members of the local emergency management community.  I immediately saw the potential use for this capability to bring additional voices into the classroom, and initiated a hurried attempt during my summer quarter class.Unfortunately, because it was such a last minute effort (and perhaps also because Google Plus was still somewhat nascent)  – only one person I contacted was able to participate on such short notice: Jim Garrow (@jgarrow) of Public Health / Social Media / Gov. 2.0 rockstar fame[that’s right Jim – I used the “R” word].  Being the progressive communications capable guy that he is, he was ready to go from the moment I asked.It was a valuable proof of concept both from a technology side of things, but more importantly, because the students really appreciated hearing the perspective of another practitioner from a) a different part of the country, and b) from a different agency than whence “emergency management” types often come.

Fast forward a couple months.  I starting the quarter knowing this was absolutely something I wanted to try again, and thus was a little more on the ball this time in identifying and lining up potential guest speakers.  My goal was five participants, each offering a different perspective, from different parts of the country.  I will also admit, I wanted to lean more toward the younger end of the spectrum – because frankly – my students are all within a year or two of entering the job market, and I wanted them to hear from people who might have some insight or personal experience to share in that regard.

Given the challenges I had securing participants last time, I invited six individuals of exceptional caliber, fully expecting at least one and maybe two would not be able to participate for one reason or another.  I toyed with inviting several others – but too many would be cumbersome – and honestly I wanted to keep the rest of the names in reserve to invite for a future class’ Hangout.

So imagine my surprise when all six very graciously said, “I’d be happy to.”  It was the perfect mix:

  • Heather Blanchard, co-founder CrisisCommons.org
  • Cheryl Bledsoe, Director, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency & President, Washington State Emergency Managers Association
  • Aaron Collins, Sr. Risk Control Manager, Starbucks Coffee Company
  • Alicia Johnson, Resilience & Recovery Manager, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management
  • Justin Kates, Director of Emergency Management, City of Nashua, NH [at 23, possibly the youngest Dir. of EM in the country]
  • Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director of NetHope

We all got connected about 4:10pm (Pacific), and having already provided everyone’s bios to my students, launched right into the Q&A.  I asked each panelist to state where the worked now, how they got into the field, and what they liked most / least about it.  Oh – and keep your answer under 3 minutes.  When you’ve got six people, the time/answer management ratio is important.

I’d asked my students to read the panelists backgrounds, and prepare some questions I could have at the ready once my opening question was done.  I don’t know if it was shyness, confusion, or something else, but none of the 17 or so students had any prepared questions ready to go.  So I free-formed it, and just asked questions I’d be curious about if I were in the students’ shoes.  As the insights starting flowing off the screen, all of sudden students starting scribbling down questions and bringing them to me.  First a single question, then two, then multi-part questions, then a whole page from one student…

It was awesome.  One or two of them were actually antsy as they waited for their question to be asked.

Ideally it would have been nice to let the students themselves ask the questions, but the technology made that an awkward proposition.  One of the neat features about the Hangout is that the main or “big” screen automatically shows whoever is speaking – or rather speaking the loudest.  Having said that, if one person is speaking and another starts typing (oh yeah – there’s a chat window participants can use simultaneously – more on that later), if the keyboard is particularly loud, the mic would pick that up and put the offending typist on the “big” screen.  Similarly, if the students starting commenting or shouting out questions… well… it would be easy for minor mayhem to ensue.  Fortunately, the system offers the ability to mute not only your own mic, but that of the other participants as well.  But the practical implication was the students needed to provide me with the questions, and then I’d un-mute, ask the panel, and re-mute.

Alright – enough about the ugly technical details.  Everyone was having such a good time, we continued on past the pre-designated endtime.  When it finally was over, all the panelists stated they definitely wanted their co-panelists’ contact info, and offered their own email addresses to the students in case they had additional questions that they didn’t have a chance to ask.  Once we’d signed-off and the students were packing up to head out the door, all of them expressed how much they enjoyed it, and at least a half-dozen of them came up to tell me that was one of the coolest experiences they’d had in school.

Wow.  What teacher wouldn’t like to hear that.

Now, roughly 24 hours later, I’m still on a little bit of an emotional high, but confounded at the same time.  I mean, conceptionally it’s pretty simple – bring in outside voices to add value to your educational program, using readily available, inexpensive technology.  It seems sort of like “so what – why does this feel like a big deal?”  Maybe it’s not.  But I can’t deny the nagging sense I’ve crossed some sort of boundary – or perhaps instead, that a boundary is merely melting away as we continue to explore how to utilize the new tools and technologies becoming increasingly ubiquitous and accessible.  If I can facilitate this kind of experience for my students using little more than a web-camera, an internet connection, and the generous time of a great group of smart people – what’s not possible anymore?

So maybe I’m not really the coolest teacher on campus.  But I sure felt like it last night.

[a final note: I have to acknowledge Gisli Olafsson, who participated from a hotel in Spain, Madrid – where it was 2:30am his time.  He was on the hook himself to get up that morning and teach his own class, so as one who thoroughly enjoys my own beauty-sleep, I owe you a special thank you!]


When it Comes to Preparedness, Deadlines Matter

It the last post I began by challenging a popular assumption that those of us in the emergency management profession are exemplars of preparedness.  While our professional responsibilities do generally reflect significant efforts and achievements towards making our departments, agencies or organizations more resilient to disasters, on the personal level, the truth is we’re just as human as the next person.  Preparedness and resilience isn’t something you achieve and then cross off the list, it’s a perpetual state of being – one that requires constant and consistent efforts.  But sometimes life gets in the way.

Detail of a sprinkler.

Image via Wikipedia

For me personally, my biggest challenge has been moving into a new residence three times in as many years.  I think we’re pretty set now where we are (which is a good thing) – but it also means it’s time to invest in long-term resilience tasks I’ve outlined for myself and my family: secure my house to its foundation; mitigate against potential house fires with an indoor fire sprinkler system; create defensible space around the outside of my house against potential wildland fires; and ensure I have adequate supplies of wood for winter heating for when the power goes out (which it frequently does in my neck of the woods during the winter months).  None of these are “small” projects – and while they’re each very important to me in their own way, they’re also subject to the “yeah – I’ll get to that someday” syndrome (aka procrastination), because – well – they’re BIG projects.

On the other hand, there’s a bunch of small “resilience” projects I have on my mental checklist as well:

  • add latches to the kitchen cabinets (so the dishes don’t all spill out onto the floor during an earthquake);
  • put up all our family’s photos and artwork using seismically resistant hangers;
  • place fire escape ladders in every bedroom and practice using them;
  • create bungee-cord retention system for our food pantry shelves;
  • etc., etc., etc.

While these tasks are more on the small to medium end of the project scale, they each still require a certain amount of time, energy and money – all items in short supply these days.

So what’s an emergency manager…er… resilient citizen to do?  According to research conducted by Dan Ariely, if you want to get something done, you have to set a deadline.

Procrastination Meter

Image by Emilie Ogez via Flickr

Now in Dan’s experiment testing this hypothesis using his university students as the subjects (see the previous  post), the most effective deadlines – in terms of the quality of outcome – were those set by someone else (i.e. the teacher), which were spaced out evenly, definitive and non-negotiable.  The second most effective deadlines were those set by the students themselves (also typically spaced out over time), but which once set were equally definitive.  The least effective deadlines – again in terms of the quality of the outcome produced by the students – were when the only deadline was the end of the quarter, which meant that the majority of the students in this last group waited until the last minute to produce what was now a great deal of work.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news; these results likely resonate with anyone who’s ever had to do a task with a deadline, or in the case of personal preparedness, without one.

Now obviously the first of the three scenarios above isn’t an option.  No one else is going to set a deadline for me.  However, I can certainly set one for myself regarding any particular project or task – just stick it on the calendar, right?

Yeah, okay.  So clearly the question is, without some form of negative consequence or repercussion (absent a disaster in the interim of course), how do I get myself to honor a deadline for a project I know I need to do (perhaps better than most) for my long-term benefit – especially when there are so many other things I want to do right now (i.e. short-term gratification)?

How would you approach this challenge?


Emergency Managers Procrastinate Too

A few weeks ago, a co-worker stuck this comic strip on my door.

It made me laugh, but in that “yeah, that’s pretty funny but not really because it’s too close to true” sort of way.

Unfortunately, it’s a message I’ve heard way too many times over the years, and illustrative of one of the most common assumptions made about people in the emergency management field: we’ve all got our disaster preparations wired tight.

Well, not exactly.  In fact, when I attended a local emergency management focused conference back in April (it’s the one conference I try to never miss), one of the session presenters did a quick survey of those in the room to gauge our collective level of preparedness.  He asked people to be honest (“no one’s keeping track”), and had everyone hold up a hand.  He then ran down a list of common tasks we as emergency managers frequently encourage our public audience to do, such as establish an out of state contact, identify a neighborhood rally point, build and place an emergency kit in your vehicle, etc.  There were maybe a dozen things he went through, starting from the most basic and increasing (but only slightly) in terms of complexity, cost, or time.  You were supposed to put your hand down the first time he mentioned a task that you had not done.  And wouldn’t you know it, in a room full of at least 40 people [my estimate] who do “emergency management” for a living, I think there were two people who still had their hand up at the end of his list.  And I wasn’t one of them.

Okay, so this is hardly a scientific study.  But regular conversations with many of my colleagues over the years tells me it’s not that far off the mark.  Emergency managers (and 1st responders for that matter, i.e. police, fire, ems), as a group, are not necessarily poster children when it comes to disaster preparedness.  After all, we’re people too.  Perhaps the only difference is, we’re supposed to know better.

So if it’s true that we “know better,” meaning we understand why it’s so important to “be prepared,” and more or less what it takes to get there, why are many of us just as unprepared as the rest of society?  Turns out, there’s a bunch of reasons.

One of icons of disaster academia, Eric Auf Der Heide, wrote a classroom text in 1989 titled Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation & Coordination that’s still referenced today in many emergency management university courses [including the course I teach at the local university].  One of the chapters is dedicated entirely to the subject of preparedness apathy.  He cites no less than 14 different types of apathy, or put more plainly, explanations for why individuals and organizations fail to prepare for disasters, despite the numerous compelling arguments for why they should.

Of the various types of apathy he identifies, some are economic in nature (short term profit vs. long-term benefit), some political (pressure from special interest groups, etc.), and some psychological (underestimation of risk, de-prioritization, etc.).  A few are a combination of all three.  At the end of the day, any one of them is sufficient to dissuade an individual or organization – sometimes consciously, most of the time subconsciously –  from pursuing active steps toward better preparedness.  Consider them all together, however, and it’s easy to see why disaster education / preparedness campaigns face such an uphill battle.  But since that doesn’t absolve me of my professional responsibility to keep pushing the boulder, I’ve got to figure out the path of least resistance.  There’s only so many “disaster prep on the cheap” tips and tricks, and the political aspect is above my pay-grade, so that pretty much left the psychological element.

Time to pull out the chase lounge, fluff up a pillow, and ask people to lie down and tell me – “So, how does thinking about disasters make you feeeeeel?”  – which I did, but without the chaise lounge and pillow.  Not that I didn’t want to use them, but… ya’know… I couldn’t get em’ to fit in my office.

Anyway…with rare exception, everyone I asked agreed that yes, being prepared for disasters was important, it was something they wanted to do, and they even had a good idea of the most significant and specific tasks they needed to complete to get them there.  Why?  Because for the last three years I’ve done countless presentations, seminars, one-on-one sessions, how-to’s, etc., all intended to motivate and encourage individual and family preparedness for my departments’ employees – so that when the disaster does happen (which in our area is presumed to be “the big one” – as in earthquake) – they’ll be able to focus on their professional responsibilities as part of the disaster response team, instead of panicked about their families.

Despite my efforts, all but a handful had done a single thing.

Just stab me in the heart.  After you’ve punched me in the gut.

But there it was.  Even though everyone I talked to agreed it was a perfectly rational, sane and not even terribly difficult set of goals and tasks that they fully intended and even wanted to do, they simply hadn’t gotten around to it yet.  When all was said and done, it came down to pure and simple procrastination.

Psychology is a funny thing.  And it appeared, as much as we may not like to admit it, we’re simply not rational beings.  So it was about now that I remembered one of my favorite books that had been long boxed up and recently re-shelved called Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.  Dan’s a social scientist / behavioral economist who’s CV reads like the index of the journal Schools I Never Could Have Gotten Into.  Which is why it’s a good thing he wrote a book I could buy instead, because when it comes to understanding human behavior, he’s pretty much a genius.  After my gut-punch, knife in the heart experience and determining I needed to develop some creative ways to motivate my co-workers to become better prepared, I pulled his book off the shelf at home and flipped to the chapter, “The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control.”

I’ll spare you the details and cut to the punchline: procrastination is the result of sacrificing our long-term goals for immediate gratification (page 111, 1st ed, 2008), even though it may not be a conscious decision.  And as the second part of the chapter’s title indicates, that decision is principally a reflection of our individual level of self-control.

Dan, being a social scientist, wanted to experiment with different strategies for overcoming procrastination, and his students at the time became the guinea pigs…er…test subjects.  He had three classes, and assigned three papers to each class during the quarter.  For class one, he told them they could turn their papers in at any time during the quarter, but they had to pick their own deadlines for each paper.  These deadlines could be spread out, or all at the same time, such as the end of the quarter.  However, once they picked a deadline, they couldn’t change it, and late papers would be penalized a percentage for each day late.  For the second class, he assigned the same three papers, but with no deadline stipulation; they could turn their papers in early (before the end of the quarter), but there would be no grade advantage in doing so.  For the third class, however, he assigned strict deadlines for each paper at the 4th, 8th and 12th weeks; the students had no choice in the matter.

So which class do you think had the best relative set of grades (collectively)?  If you were one of the students, which option would have motivated you to do your best work in regards to writing three papers in a single quarter?  If you were in class one, and could pick your own deadlines – but then had to stick to them, would you have spaced them out throughout the quarter as a self-determined motivator to get them done; or would you have hedged your bets and set all three deadlines for the end of the quarter?  What if you were in class two, and could set whatever arbitrary deadlines you wanted – even though not meeting them (except at the very end of the quarter) had no repercussions?  Or what about class three?  Would you prefer three firmly established deadlines, about which you had no input.

To find out what Dan Ariely’s experiment indicated, as well as how I plan to incorporate his findings into my own efforts, check back for my next post in a few days.

Until then…if you knew a disaster was going to happen tomorrow, what’s the one thing you’d do today to prepare for it?  So go do it! [here’s a great site to get some ideas]


“If a disaster happened today…

…would you be ready?”

Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and ask this question?  Chances are, you don’t.  Or if you do, it probably sounds something more like, “if a disaster happened in two weeks, would I be ready?”  Because that way, you’ll always have two weeks, right?

As an emergency manager, I ask people this question pretty frequently.  Usually it’s when I’m conducting a “how to get prepared for a disaster” type seminar, or sometimes when I’m teaching a class at the local university.  I’d occasionally do it when I was a guest at a neighborhood bar-b-que or holiday party.  But when I realized I wasn’t being invited to those anymore because the question (and subsequent conversation) made people uncomfortable, I stopped.  “No one likes a pessimist,” or at least that’s what one acquaintance once told me.

I’ve never felt that thinking about disasters and wanting to be prepared for them makes me a pessimist; quite the opposite.  In fact, I believe I’m a tremendous optimist.  I fully expect to survive the next disaster, in whatever form it may take.  In that regard, I’m just like everyone else.  I know this because that’s the second question I always ask: “When you envision experiencing a disaster, tell me what happens.  What does that look like.”

Of the scores, maybe hundreds of responses I’ve heard, not a single person has ever wrapped up their answer with, “…and then I die.”

It’s simply not in our nature to predict our own demise as the result of a calamity.  Sure, we know it’s possible, and eventually, unavoidable – calamity or not.  But when we go to the trouble of actually visualizing how we ourselves might fare or respond to the kinds of emergency and disaster incidents we read or hear about virtually everyday, we are by nature, optimists.  We always see ourselves surviving the situation.  And generally speaking, the statistics support that perception.  Disasters result in death, to be sure; but they result in vastly far greater numbers of survivors.  But in all the discussion about disaster preparedness (and there’s a lot of it), there still isn’t enough delineation between surviving a disaster, and recovering from one.

The difference between simply surviving a disaster and recovering from one quickly and efficiently is called resilience.  But resilience doesn’t happen by itself – it takes some effort, most of the time a little effort here or there (like adding a few extra cans of food to the pantry), and occasionally a big effort once in a while (like retrofitting your house so it’s bolted to the foundation).

Most importantly, however, becoming resilient to disasters requires that you decide, every day, to be resilient.

If that’s your goal, then try this: look at yourself in the mirror every morning and ask, “if a disaster happened today, would I be ready.  And if I knew a disaster were going to happen tomorrow, what’s the one thing I’d do today to prepare for it?”

Is doing one thing every day to become better prepared feasible?  For some, maybe.  For others, maybe not.  But even if you only act on one thing a week – that’s 52 decisive steps towards greater resilience in a year.  Mostly easy steps.  Probably a couple of harder ones.  But each step gets you, your family, your business, and your community, a little closer towards being truly disaster resilient.  And one day, when you ask yourself that question, “if it happens today, am I ready,” you won’t have to guess – you’ll know.