Category — Monday Matters

2011 – The Costliest Year for Emergencies?

This past year was unusual both in terms of frequency of disasters and each event’s high cost. In recent years, typically one or two large to catastrophic events have dominated the news — like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Whether 2011 with its multiple billion-dollar disasters is a trend is hard to tell, but professional emergency planners and managers should be prepared for that possibility.

The National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration compiled data, including total loss data, on the 12 billion-dollar disasters of 2011. The following information illustrates the historic nature of those disasters:

The Groundhog Day blizzard of Jan. 29 to Feb. 3 dumped one to two feet of snow across the Northeastern, mid-Atlantic, eastern and central states, resulting in 36 deaths. Total losses were more than $1.8 billion.

During the Midwestern/Southeastern tornadoes of April 4-5, 46 tornadoes affecting 10 states caused nine deaths, more than $2 billion in insured losses and exceeded $2.8 billion in total losses.

The Southeastern/Midwestern tornadoes of April 8-11 included an estimated 59 tornadoes across nine states that were responsible for numerous injuries but no deaths, and more than $2.2 billion in total losses.

On April 14-16, about 177 tornadoes across 10 states in the Midwest/Southeast resulted in 38 deaths. While few of those tornadoes were considered intense, they caused total losses greater than $2 billion.

The Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes of April 25-30 were responsible for more loss of life than any of the preceding tornadoes of 2011. An estimated 343 tornadoes across 13 states caused 321 deaths. Several major metropolitan areas, including Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., were directly affected by several strong tornadoes, which were responsible for $7.3 billion in insured losses and more than $10 billion in total losses.

The Midwestern/Southeastern tornadoes of May 22-27 resulted in total losses greater than $9.1 billion, more than $6.5 billion of which were in insured losses. More than 180 tornadoes caused at least 177 deaths; 160 of those deaths were in Joplin, Mo., in what was the single deadliest tornado to strike in the U.S. since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950.

An estimated 81 tornadoes and severe weather struck the Midwest and Southeast on June 18-22; losses exceeded $1.3 billion.

Spring through fall, drought, heat wave conditions and wildfires in the Southern Plains and Southwest affected Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, southern Kansas, and western Louisiana and Arkansas. Direct losses to agriculture, cattle and structures totaled more than $9 billion.

Mississippi River flooding during the spring and summer resulted from persistent rainfall (nearly 300 percent of normal precipitation) combined with melting snowpack. Economic losses were estimated at $3 billion to $4 billion.

Upper Midwest flooding in the summer resulted in five deaths and estimated losses in excess of $2 billion. These floods were caused by the melting of an above-average snowpack across the northern Rocky Mountains combined with above-average precipitation.

Hurricane Irene made landfall on Aug. 20 as a Category 1 hurricane over North Carolina. Over the next nine days, it moved north along the coast, bringing torrential rainfall and strong winds while causing flooding across the Northeast. Losses were more than $7 billion; at least 45 deaths resulted from the storm.

Wildfires impacted Texas, New Mexico and Arizona during spring through fall, losses from which exceeded $1 billion.

The estimated economic damages from these events exceed $45 billion as of press time, making it likely that 2011 will be the costliest year for insured losses since records have been kept. Given that 2011 was the first year of the 21st century’s second decade, it’s clear that those responsible for emergency management and disaster planning must anticipate the future in a bolder, more proactive way than they have in the past. The historic events of last year demonstrated some unusually destructive characteristics, attracted significant media attention, and laid bare numerous deficiencies in the plans, systems and processes used in all phases of emergency management.

When talking about disasters, 2011 has been a significant year on its own — and the events of the year appear to be keeping with the noticeable upswing in the number of declared disasters in recent decades. Although it is too early to establish a firm trend line or pattern, as a nation we need to consider the following:

  • Are large-scale disasters and catastrophes, events whose costs are measured in the billions of dollars, the new normal in the foreseeable future?
  • If so, how should the emergency management community plan and prepare for such mega-disasters?
  • Do we need to make changes, major or minor, to our policies, programs and response/recovery systems?
  • Should the threshold for a presidential disaster declaration be changed? (A staffer from the U.S. DHS Office of Inspector General recently noted that the formula hasn’t changed since 1999.)
  • Should the preparation of a national risk assessment be given a higher priority?
  • Should the DHS’ education and training programs give more attention to risk management for catastrophic natural disaster events?
  • Will the Whole Community concept being promoted by the current administration at FEMA be essential? Is it adequate as now articulated?

The emergency management community seems to be entering new territory with respect to the scale, number, frequency and cost of disasters in the United States. It is essential that we’re prepared for the worst as we head into a new year.

Facta non Verba

Article republished with permission from Emergency Management.

February 28, 2012   No Comments

Social Media Just Won’t Go Away

While there are some folks in public safety who embrace the idea, many others are still on the fence or down-right resistant to the whole concept. If you are on the fence or holding social media at arm’s length, Brett Hicks is out to change your mind.

Brett has authored A Guide to Incorporating Social Media into Public Safety Communications. This 38 page “How-To” booklet will help you understand what social media can do for your agency and how to get started. The main reasons Brett sees for using social media in public safety are:

  1. It’s free. Tools like Facebook and Twitter are available at no charge.
  2. There are real world examples of how social media benefits public safety agencies (he describes some in the guide)
  3. It is not technically complicated.

One of the big benefits of social media is the ability to communicate more effectively with the population you serve. For example, The Los Angeles Fire Department used Twitter to update the public about the Chatsworth train derailment in September 2008 and uses it on a daily basis to update the public structure fires and other incidents. Facebook has set up Amber Alerts pages for all 50 states including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another great way to use social media is for day-to-day basis is alerts for snow days and road closures.

Private companies make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook. They see the value in this form of communication. Ever so slowly the public sector is coming to recognize it as well. Part of this, according to Brett, is a cultural issue, some of it is generational , and some of it is just fear. But Brett reassures that “it is not as scary as some people think”. The top three things to keep in mind are:

  1. Get to know it and start slow.
  2. Choose your applications wisely and align the social media effort with your overall communications strategy.
  3. Monitor and manage the content from both directions (what you send out and what comes back).

Brett sees a number of areas where social media can help you including:

  1. To educate and inform the public during emergencies
  2. To educate the public before emergencies happen
  3. Fundraising
  4. Day-to-day alerts and messages

A key component is to develop a social media strategy which means you will need to

  1. Identify Your Audience
  2. Determine Objectives
  3. Identify and Understand Social Media Applications
  4. Agree on Investment of Resources (time and effort)

To give you even more fuel for fire, Brett also discusses Crisis Informatics, Social Convergence, and Social Dynamics which all add to the reasons to look at social media. Brett’s guide is an easy and practical read. It will help you understand what social media can do for you and how to get started. It is well worth the time.

About Brett Hicks

Brett is an Assistant Professor as several universities across many programs of study.  He has been involved with the delivery of education for more than 15 years in multiple learning management platforms and educational modalities.

Brett possesses an extensive international background in curriculum development, social media implementation, and educational leadership.  In addition, his professional accomplishments in health care administration, emergency management, global health, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief brought him individualized and team recognition during over 19 years and practiced in countries such as the Philippines, Australia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Pakistan and Iraq.

Contact Brett at

Brett’s book, A Guide to Incorporating Social Media into Public Safety Communications, can be purchased at

For those looking for even more information, Brett has also developed an undergraduate class at American Public University – EDMG321 Social Media Application to Emergency and Disaster Management.  More at

Article republished with permission from Emergency Management.

February 13, 2012   No Comments

A Culture of Planning: How to Know if the Shoe Fits

We have all heard how important an organization’s culture is and yet the essence of the culture of any given organization often defies accurate description. Charles W. L. Hill and Gareth R. Jones have defined the concept as: “The specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.”

An organization’s culture is always at work, always in force — pulling, influencing and shaping attitudes and actions. The culture can be likened to gravity, constantly tugging us back to the reality of earth.

A culture of planning has many facets. One of those facets is how the organization views and executes the task of planning. There are many types of planning, and all may not be equally valued or performed in all organizations. For example, an organization that fully embraces and values strategic planning may fail to commit the same level of collective effort to continuity planning. For the purposes of this writing/audience, I refer to the genre of emergency or continuity planning.

There’s a qualitative difference between an organization that usually, frequently or occasionally plans, and one that has planning endemic to its culture. How does one know if one’s organization has its affiliation in the former or the latter? I propose 10 characteristics of a culture of planning (CoP) and a brief description of each that can help with the distinction.

1. A CoP emphasizes resilience and understands the difference between it and recovery.The differences can best be understood if one realizes that resilience is an adjective, and recovery is usually a verb or noun in the emergency management context. Resilience is a quality applied to materials when they have the ability to resume their normal shape after being stressed. It is an innate quality rather than an after-the-fact campaign. Both may be necessary, but resilience is qualitatively better because it implies that the ability to recover is woven into the fabric of the organization.

2. Values planning and understands the appropriate level of detail — strategic, operational and tactical. It is common to over-plan or under-plan, each caused by a different organizational trait/characteristic. Under-valuing planning reveals the deeper problem of apathy; over-planning (in terms of detail) runs the risk of assembling a collection of manuals that gather dust on the shelf but are of little practical value. The major value of the planning exercise is that it teaches us how to think about the problem; then, and only then, can we know what to do about it.

3. Has the ability to psychologically embrace the possibility of bad things happening. Some organizations, like some people, think that if they ignore a potential issue or incident, it will either go away or never manifest. A mature organization — a CoP organization — seeks out and engages the environmental hazards before they occur for planning purposes. While engaged in the battle is not the best time to be thinking about how to fight for the first time.

4. They compile an extensive experience bank by a multiplicity of methods.
 In his book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions author Gary Klein discusses a model for understanding the human decision process. He reports that experienced decision-makers improve their skills by:

  • engaging in deliberate practice;
  • compiling an extensive experience bank;
  • obtaining accurate, timely and diagnostic feedback; and
  • reviewing experiences to derive new insights and learning.

5. Anticipates and mitigates “hidden variables;” prevents “ignorant variables.” There are consequences to events and actions that occur despite our best efforts at due diligence. The threat of these “hidden variables” may be lessened by a disciplined approach and systematic analysis, but seldom can they be completely eradicated. There is no shame in being bitten by a hidden variable; the same cannot be said about its ignorant cousin.

An ignorant variable is one that could and should have been foreseen had the evaluator had the requisite knowledge, applied the disciplined approach, and done the systematic analysis. Unfortunately the culture that gives rise to opportunity for ignorant variables seldom recognizes them as such. They are, therefore, prone to repeat their mistake — if not in the same venue, in another.

6. Has a high tolerance of ambiguity. The root word of ambiguity is, of course, ambiguous, meaning unclear, indistinct or obscure. Where there is ambiguity, there is always uncertainty. Uncertainty implies a degree of a lack of control, and incremental lack of control is one pervasive characteristic of an emergency or disaster. There are those that assert that control of one’s environment is an illusion at best. Yet, illusion or not, anxiety and apprehension in ambiguous circumstances are not characteristics of a CoP.

One trait of a CoP is that the organization has the collective ability to preside over its circumstances even in the absence of clarity. This calmness of organizational spirit has a traceable cause; it is rooted in the preparation for action that comes with planning, with learning to how think about problems, not just the nuts and bolts of solving them. Once the process is mastered, problem solving becomes the application of a variable-yet-iterative process.

7. Embraces testing, training and exercising. Who in the brother and sisterhood of emergency managers has not had the experience of difficulty getting organizational executives to training and exercise sessions? A CoP has inculcated the value of dress rehearsal for the “big one” from top to bottom.

8. Constantly scans the environment and has a conversational/technical knowledge of threats. A CoP doesn’t exercise the same tired old hurricane scenario over and over, but gives attention to the perhaps more exotic-but-deadly threats on the horizon.

A conversational technical/knowledge of threats means that the emergency manager not only knows what is “out there” to put the organization at risk, but also knows enough about the threat to understand why the threat is real. For example, knowing the chemistry and gene sequence of the H5N1 virus is not necessary; knowing that an outbreak of the same would likely result in a 50 percent mortality rate is essential.

9. Does not confuse the distinction between “frequency” and “probability.” According to Liisa Valikangas, professor of innovation management at the Helsinki School of Economics, one of the human cognitive factors that complicates our ability to take resilient action is, “confusion between frequencies and probabilities.” Valikangas goes on to say, “direct experience is a poor guide” because of the human tendency to (because the lack of actually having an experience) discount the probability of a catastrophe from happening, hence reducing preparation measures. Our experiences (or lack thereof) make us poor interpreters of future probabilities where those probabilities fall outside of a mainstream of cultural history.

10. Resists the “urgent” in deference to the “important.” The point of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is that organizations tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time devoted to trivial issues. That is, the more time and attention spent on important matters, the less time that is required to attend to urgent matters. Though the work indisputably expands to fill the time available for its completion, the nature of the work in which we engage is entirely under our control.

Reprinted with permission from Emergency Management.

Facta non Verba

February 6, 2012   No Comments