Disaster Preparedness - Palo Alto Neighborhoods - Intro 2006-06-22

by Douglas Moran

These are the prepared comments for the 2006 June 22 meeting of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) committee on Emergency/Disaster Preparedness. Minor enhancements have been made based upon comments from that presentation.

This is the fourth meeting of this group. Since some of you are new, and others may have missed a meeting, I have been asked to review the charge for this group.

This group was created as committee of Palo Alto Neighborhoods, the umbrella organization for neighborhood associations.

Consequently, the focus of this group is on the role of neighborhoods in emergencies and disasters. Neighborhoods are geographically defined, with attendant social relationships, organizations, and communication networks. Activities this group adopts should be able to leverage some aspect of being a neighborhood.

We do not want to take on activities that could just as well be done by any other miscellaneous group of volunteers.

Annette put one of my favorite sayings on the agenda. In discussing the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower said

"Plans are useless, but planning is essential."
By this he meant that process of producing the plan meant that they had the resources and understanding to adapt and improvise when the official plan broke down, as it did in the first few minutes of the invasion.

I would like us to not talk about how to become prepared, but rather how to become more prepared. The former is a limitless task, the latter encourages us to focus on the low-hanging fruit.

Emergency preparedness is littered with activities that have failed to produce significant benefits. While their goals may be meritorious, these activities are ones that we should avoid. The exception would be if we were confident both that we knew why previous efforts had failed and that we had the resources to succeed.

Remember, Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Alternatively, think of the myth of Sisyphus. Every day, he had to roll a boulder to the top of the mountain, only to have it roll back to the bottom. This was a punishment from the gods, not a volunteer activity.

A number of the potential activities identified on the agenda focus on making it easier for people to be more prepared, in essence recognizing that many of the thresholds for involvement have proven to be too high.

One of the place where I believe there may be a lot of low-hanging fruit is in what we have called "standard practices." Much of the e-prep literature I read is not user-friendly. Part of the problem is it is written from a view point of requirements instead of process: that is what needs to be done rather than how to do it.

An episode of the TV show MASH had a nice example of this difference: A bomb had fallen in the compound and failed to explode. Two of the heroes were trying to disarm it while a third read them instructions from a manual. The critical point came with something like this

Now carefully remove the pin
after making sure you have secured ...
While most failures to consider how directions are actually used as not as potentially disastrous as this, they can raise the difficulty of using the instructions above the threshold that the target audience is willing to tolerate.

Another example. In discussion of pandemic flu, the category of "infectious people" is largely meaningless in any practical sense because people don't display symptoms for several days.

I shake my head at documents that tell me to develop "a plan" but give me no advice on the factors I should consider or difficulties I should be prepared for.

Too many of the documents I see display little thought about how they will be use, or they try to cover too many incompatible things.

However, simply reworking such documents is likely a waste of effort. We also need to be able to assess when the improvements are "good-enough" and we need to be able to effectively distribute those documents at appropriate times.

Similarly for block captains - it is more than just recruiting and organizing people. The "care and feeding" of such a network is a major undertaking. I became involved in my neighborhood association just as the police department's neighborhood watch block captain network was falling apart from neglect. The neighborhood association put a lot of effort into trying to sustain that network, but only managed to slightly defer the inevitable.

Many of the people here are PANDAs - Palo Alto Neighborhood Disaster Activity. A frequent question at our previous meetings has been How does this group related to PANDAs? And shouldn't this be part of the PANDA program?

The answer is that this is a separate activity, although they may be considerable room for coordination, especially through people who participate in both.

For example, consider what we want from block captains. These are people who interact with their neighbors, passing out and collecting information. For such people, PANDA training and refreshers may be a barrier - they don't have the time or the interest in much of what is covered.

Overlapping the two functions can also be harmful - during a disaster, the block captains would be an invaluable repository of information, so we need them to be readily accessible. In contrast, PANDAs are likely to be shifted to where the need is the greatest.

What we are trying to accomplish tonight is to pick activities that are likely to be SUCCESSES. Remember, success breeds success.

We need to avoid activities that are good for someone else to do. We need to determine which activities have a critical mass of support and enthusiasm to carry them through to completion.

I hope that you all understand that those of us who ask hard questions are not trying to kill your enthusiasm. We often are trying to gauge whether that enthusiasm is deep enough to carry the task to completion.

Transition to next speaker

MASH episode cited: "The Army Navy Game" Season 1, Episode Number 20, First Aired on Sunday February 25, 1973
Actual quote (below) was revised to be more realistic/less exaggerated
And carefully cut the wires to the fuse at the head.
But first remove the fuse.

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