The paradigm is shifting in emergency response and emergency managers must incorporate this shift in their plans and operational procedures. I call this change the Survivor Directed Response. In a speech last April I heard Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator, counsel us to stop treating the public as a liability and start relying on them as an asset. I think the public will go beyond the asset/liability category to actually directing the actions that we will take during the response.
How can this be? In previous disasters media reports have forced emergency managers to take actions they had not planned or anticipated. As an emergency manager, we know that we are in big trouble when our disaster is the lead story on all the cable networks. Our problems intensify when our disaster is not only the lead story on television, but occupies most of the airtime. The final confirmation of the catastrophic nature of our calamity is the report that Anderson Cooper or Katie Couric has arrived in the impact area to tell the nation and the world how well our response is progressing.
Anderson Cooper: Well, Sir, can you tell me how things have been going here at Ground Zero of the disaster?
Member of the Public: Things are going terribly. I don't know who's directing this response, but they should all be taken out and shot.
Anderson Cooper: There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Things don't sound quite as good out here in the disaster area as they try to make it seem in the far off Capital City.
The power of social media means that the public doesn't need Anderson Cooper to help them voice their concerns. In the Snow-calypse of 2010 the Mayor of Newark was directing his Public Works response based on input from his Twitter feed. Essentially, the individuals in the jurisdiction most affected by the disaster were directing the response. Hopefully, His Honor wasn't issuing orders directly to snow plow drivers.
In catastrophic planning there is nothing with a greater potential for a survivor directed response than mass care, the provision of food and shelter. FEMA's new State Mass Care Coordinator's Course (coming soon to a venue near you) and the draft Mass Care and Emergency Assistance Capability Level Guidance begin to address this issue.
In 2007 and 2008 Florida incorporated elements of a survivor directed response into our catastrophic mass care plan, although I didn't call it that at the time. The whole state was involved in catastrophic planning under a FEMA sponsored project called Hurricane Ono. The scenario used to develop the plan was suitably horrible: a category 5 hurricane striking Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Facing the grim realities of 6.5 million people packed at the end of a peninsula between a swamp and an ocean, we offered the survivors three choices for shelter. The first choice was to take a tent, cook stove, food and water and camp on the survivor's property with the reptiles and the insects. The second choice was to stay at the overcrowded, noisy, smelly public shelters in the impact area. The third choice was to board a waiting bus and travel to the land of air conditioning and flush toilets.
A lot of people, including Craig, who was the State Director at the time, fought me on providing resources for the third choice. The message of New Orleans was fresh in every one's mind, that if the people left, then they would never come back. My argument was that we couldn't feed and shelter that many people under those conditions. Some of them had to leave.
"You can't force them to leave," many shouted back at me.
"I'm not forcing anyone to do anything," I replied. "They're going to be demanding to leave."
Anderson Cooper will be right there, amplifying their demands. The survivors will be telling us on Facebook and Twitter that they are ready to go, and where to come to pick them up. I just hope that when the time comes, that we are listening.
Craig Fugate also advised us to "plan for what is hard." The hard part in all this is figuring out what the survivors will do before they even know it themselves. How many will take the tent and the cook stove? How many will stay in the shelter? How many will get on the bus?
I need to figure this out several days in advance because I need to know how many buses to order so that they will arrive when they are needed. When the people decide that they are ready to leave they will expect the buses to be there. After all, they are directing the response.