Friday, October 30, 2009

International Association of Emergency Managers

On Monday I will be attending and speaking at the International Association of Emergency Managers 57th Annual Conference, held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. I will be presenting with a friend from the Salvation Army, Jeff Jellets. The title of the program is "Introducing the New Road Map for mass feeding operations."

Sound exciting? It is. What has happened is almost a revolutionary change in the area of emergency management that I work in, and I am proud to have played a part in making it happen.

One would think that the responsibility for feeding and sheltering (mass care) the survivors of a disaster would be a top priority for emergency managers. It isn't. At the local level, the city and county government level, this task is handed over to voluntary agencies like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. At the state level, little emphasis is given is given to mass care coordination.

And as long as the disasters aren't big, this way of doing business doesn't cause any obvious problems. Not knowing anything different, no one complains. But when the disaster gets big, this way of doing business breaks down, and the problems float into public view, like something old and rotten dislodged from the bottom of the lake.

The best example of this was Katrina. Yes, I know, the media have continually told us that it was all Bush's fault. Multiple volumes have been published detailing the mistakes that were made. I know, I read them all. But an important systemic problem that was revealed by Katrina, but one that was little discussed in the aftermath, was the lack of adequate coordination at the state level between the government and the mass care voluntary agencies.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army deal with hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny disasters nationwide every day. Unless you were affected by the disaster, you don't notice that these agencies are even there. Untill your apartment complex catches on fire, and you find yourself standing in the parking lot in your pajamas, a blanket around your shivering shoulders. If you have family to call to help you out you're okay. If you don't, you must rely on the Red Cross, who arrive with hot coffee, some toiletries, a change of clothes, and a voucher for a hotel.

In a flood, a tornado, or even a wildfire, things get more complicated, but the voluntary agencies have the organizational skills and experience (you should talk to some of these people; you would be amazed at what they can do) to pull in resources from out-of-state or across the country. But what happens if the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptists and the Adventists send everything they have and it's still not enough? Then you have what happened in Katrina. And the Red Cross got blamed because they didn't send enough, even though it wasn't their fault.

Who's fault was it? I happen to believe that not everything that happens in this world is some body's "fault." What bothers me is that I saw this mass care coordination problem before Katrina, I saw it from the inside of the disaster during Katrina, and I am distressed to say that the problem still has not been totally resolved nationwide since Katrina.

On Monday, Jeff Jellets and I will explain to whoever wants to listen a first big, and important step that has been made to resolving this coordination problem. Hopefully, somebody will be there to listen.

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