Subject: Office of Emergency Services (OES) Study
To: City Council, for Study Session of 2011-April-10
From: Douglas Moran

Assessment of this report

I was one of those interviewed by the consultant, and my comments and observations are well reflected in the report, but I am afraid that what is there may be too terse to be readily appreciated by those not immersed in the situation. I am concerned that the report does not strongly identify the policy decisions and choices that Council needs to make to avoid repeating past and current problems in OES.

To me, the critical issues are OES staffing choices and providing funding for meaningful exercises. Describing the desired staff as having "professional experience" falls far short: In disaster after disaster, professionals with a bureaucratic mindset have doubly failed: They restricted their planning to what they expected to control, and they grossly overestimated how much control they would actually have because their plans substantially underestimated the extent of the disruptions. What we need is staff that embraces the inevitable chaos of a disaster, thinking in terms of how to better leverage resources across the community and how to facilitate making groups more effective, both individually and in being able to work together.

The vast majority of disaster responders will be from independent organizations, including many with established histories of inflexibility and not working well with others. The OES staff needs to know of these proclivities, and how much they can be worked with and how to work around them.

I would strongly urge to Council to establish a clearer vision of what is needed so that the appropriate people can be hired.

The proper role of planning, the proper mix of planning and action

A common mistake in disaster preparedness is an over-reliance on plans: When a disaster strikes, organizations have discovered that they cannot execute on their plans, because of key omissions, inadequate resources, invalid assumptions, lack of training, ... Often these immense planning efforts have little more value that if the organization had done just enough to be "paperwork compliant". The military does immense amounts of planning, but has a strong awareness of the uses and limitations of those plans:

Meaningful exercises are a key component of the planning process. A good exercise is a combination of training, testing, and experimentation. Creating these exercises involves not just effort and funding, not just experience and skills, but an aptitude and passion for these activities. People who are good planners are rarely good at designing meaningful exercises, partly because they are too close to the specific plans, and partly because they need to believe in the efficacy of plans rather than having the healthy skepticism of plans that is needed to test them.

Policy issue: Staffing of the OES function is not simply a matter of work hours funded, but ensuring that you provide for the range of a range of aptitudes that typically require different people.

Integrate with everyday activities and skills

The plans that work best are those based upon using obvious variations on everyday activities and skills. Special activities rarely work, often because people fail to remember them in the rush of events, but also because they don't have enough practice to adequately execute the plan, or because they don't have confidence in their ability to even attempt to execute.

Example: During the 8-hour power outage following the plane (2011-Feb-17) there were multiple missed opportunities to utilize and practice activities that would be needed during a disaster. Most notably, the alerting system failed to provide useful information until belatedly and most people who went to the City's web site could not find any relevant information—communications to the residents continues to be at most an afterthought in City operations. This incident was also an opportunity to practice manual traffic control (by volunteers) that would be necessary in the aftermath of any disaster that caused a similar outage.

Policy issue: OES needs to have both a top-down and bottom-up approach to the City's silos. It needs someone who will have credibility and contact with front-line City workers, especially in Police, Fire and Utilities, to figure out and encourage this integration, and it needs someone with enough clout higher up to ensure that such efforts are not blocked by insular attitudes.

Challenge: Bunker mentality (retreating into silos)

Hearing presentations about various organizations' disaster response plans, I am constantly struck by the bunker mentality. Their plans start with the assumption that they should simply prioritize among the activities that they normally perform. What I rarely hear are any consideration whether there are activities outside that organization's silo where its resources—people, skills, equipment, supplies—might better be utilized. Similarly, I rarely hear of any plans for quickly recruiting and training people to help.

In presentation on Hurricane Katrina, I saw pictures of the medical facility at the basketball arena with long corridors filled with the sick and injured but nary an attendant in sight. The presenter stated that the numbers were too great for the medical unit's nursing staff, and patients likely died because of this. I asked whether they had tried to recruit help from people at the Superdome which was only a few hundred yards away, saying that I expected that there were probably hundreds of experienced low-level health care workers there who could have handled what they were describing. I was told that this wasn't attempted because the medical unit's plan had no provision for this.

The disaster plan developed under the previous City Manager has a classic example of an organization stuck within its silo: The City libraries were to be staffed so that residents could return books. When I thought about how librarians might best be used, my first thought was the problem of keeping children supervised and distracted. Libraries not only have materials for children but host events (such as story time) that would provide a web of contacts that could be used to help organize and coordinate some of these activities.

Policy issue: While OES would take the lead in breaking down silos within the City government, what is to be its role in dealing with silos of the independent disaster responders? Is it to be one of leadership, first-among-equals, or ...?
The reorganized OES should have people that push the various departments to plan how to scale-up their activities to meet the needs, rather than the current approach of planning to scale-back their coverage (a practice that is too common among "disaster professionals").

We are not a bunch of YOYOs!

YOYO—You're On Your Own— has been the dominant paradigm of disaster planning for as long as I can remember, and is a natural outgrowth of the bunker mentality.

Observation: We seem to be long past the point of diminishing returns on preaching individual/family preparedness. Realistic planning needs to accept this situation, both in its expectations of individuals and in its allocations of resources.

Policy recommendation: The OES staff should strongly reject the YOYO philosophy. One of their major tasks should be developing methods for better using the residents:

  1. Neighbor helping neighbor
  2. Training aids for residents to quickly acquire skills useful in the community's scaling up needed capabilities

Police and Fire are not first responders—residents are

In the Loma Prieta quake, the nearby residents were the first responders to the Cypress Structure collapse and had a significant rescue operation underway before police and fire arrived. Across disasters, this is consistently the situation. And in their planning documents, Police and Fire acknowledge that they will be able to respond to only a small fraction of the requests for help.

Planning that designates Police and Fire as the first responders rather than the first official/governmental responders undermines the effectiveness of what the actual response will be.

In the period immediately after a disaster strikes, things need to "just happen" and the decisions and actions of the people on the scene have outsized impact on the effectiveness of the response. It is only later that the command structure comes online and has enough information about the situation that it can start to have real influence on the outcome.

Policy recommendation: The charter/tasking for the reorganized OES should explicitly establish supporting activities during this initial phase.

City Staff hostility to citizen efforts

My experience with City staff is that they are largely uncooperative, often hostile, to citizen efforts beyond those activities that directly support Staff and that are tightly controlled by them (virtual interns). This extends to even the most trivial of situations. For example, I have been at multiple meeting where a staff member stated that s/he had been at a meeting about a disaster (Kobe, Katrina, Haiti, ...) where they learned a lot. When I asked about what the relevant lessons were, they invariably refused to share.

Sharing such information should not be viewed as an imposition or extra work, but as a critical part of the learning process. Many disciplines have a training paradigm similar to Watch one, do one, teach one, and a common observation is I didn't really understand what I was actually doing until I had to teach/explain it.

Policy recommendation: The reorganized OES should have a strong public outreach component:

CERT Program and the Block Preparedness Coordinator (BPC) Program

The report alludes to conflicts between the CERT and BPC program, echoing a common confusion. In fact, these are two very different programs. In a disaster, the CERTs are expected to report to their local fire station, and then will be dispatched to where their help is most needed. In contrast, the BPCs are expected to stay on their block and report up any needs for help, reports that are then used by the City to determine where the CERTs and others are most needed.

OES cannot stay in the Fire Department

Leaving OES in the Fire Department is a virtual guarantee of failure. Although some of the low-level skills of the FD—such as search, triage, first aid—are also highly relevant to various emergency responders, the overall culture, attitudes and experience of the FD is contrary to what is needed in a disaster: The FD is composed of small, cohesive, highly trained teams that operate within a relatively small, hierarchical command structure.


Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Albert Einstein)

Winning organizations: An observation from an NFL player after moving from a mediocre team to one that consistently won: Where his old team merely practiced, his new teammates were always considering "How will this help us win?"


My background

Examples of rejected suggestions to OES/FD

Starting in 1997, I have made the below suggestion to a succession of people at OES and they have been dismissed.