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If you were to ask, I would never have said that my family has any sort of military tradition. Our family history doesn’t include any great heroes or participants in major battles or campaigns. However, on doing some personal reflection yesterday for Veterans Day I realized that at least three generations of my family have served.
Mind you, I am stretching a point with my father. The sum total of his military experience was a brief stint in the home guard in Belize during World War II. In the unlikely event that the Axis powers invaded the mangrove swamps of Belize, my father and his friends were prepared to defend their homeland. I only know about his service from a funny story he used to tell. It seems that while they were drilling in an aircraft hangar my father accidentally discharged his rifle. The resulting scramble for cover by his fellow soldiers did not bode well for the future performance of the home guard in battle.
My own service was considerably different. After completing college on an Army scholarship, I spent seven years in Germany at the height of the Cold War. It was a serious time – Vietnam was just winding down, there was war in the Mideast that threatened to spill over into a nuclear conflict, and the Warsaw Pact forces were becoming aggressive. As so often happens after a war, we had to deal with outdated equipment, personnel shortages, and limited training budgets. Drug and alcohol abuse was common as the Army tried to redefine itself after the debacle of Vietnam. But I learned more about life in one year there than I had in four at college.
If my war was cold, my son’s was considerably warmer. Following September 11, my son felt the need to do something and enlisted in the Army Reserve. Shortly after completing his training, his transportation unit was deployed to Kuwait for a year to provide support for the combat in Iraq. He still doesn’t talk much about his experiences there.
I left active duty to complete my Master’s degree and enter a career in public service, though I did continue to serve in the Reserves until retirement. My son completed his service and is currently enrolled in a police academy. We do not consider ourselves a “military” family. Nor do we consider ourselves “heroes” for having served. I did meet a number of true heroes during my service and I think that title truly belongs to them, not to me. The rest of us were just getting on with the job we had chosen.
Yet our experiences in the military changed us in subtle ways. The lessons I learned about leading groups of people from disparate backgrounds have influenced and continues to influence me. My son returned from Kuwait a confident, mature man. We are proud of our service and of the bond we share with other men and women who have served. But we are well aware that neither the military nor everyone who serves in it is perfect. So please don’t call us heroes; we’re just ordinary people who chose to do a particularly nasty job.
Did I miss something? Judging from the lack of news coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Ebola crisis has been solved. My morning paper didn’t carry a single article on Ebola and even the respected Facebook site Ebola Virus Info has not had an entry since November 4. What few stories I have been able to find have had little substance. Instead, the news is all about the recent elections.
This, of course, is not unusual. We’ve conditioned the public to have a short attention span. Problem surfaces, public concern is elevated, the government overreacts, a new story emerges – problem solved. Unfortunately, problems don’t go away; they’re still there even though our attention has moved on to something else. As I have noted in a previous blog, one would expect that our experiences with SARS and H1N1 would’ve made it clear that pandemics are a very real risk and that we need to maintain the capacity to deal with them. Yet judging from our reaction to the Ebola “crisis” we still lack the capacity to deal with a biological threat, no matter the cause.
This myopia does not pertain to just biological threats. We see the same lack of judgment when we rebuild on barrier islands, in floodplains, and below levies following a disaster. We seem to have an inherent belief that if we ignore risk it doesn’t exist.
All the more reason than for those who work in emergency management to remain focused on incrementally building capacity to deal with actual risk. During the run up to Y2K, the public’s attention was fully engaged in dealing with vague predictions of catastrophic, world ending computer failures. But in addition to addressing these public concerns, emergency planners around the country were quietly developing a metropolitan medical response systems and task forces to respond to a potential terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. When September 11 occurred, that capacity was already in place and we were beginning to focus on pandemic planning.
The real trick is to remain focused on actual rather than perceived risk. When everyone around you is running around screaming about the sky falling, it’s tough to be the one saying, “No, the real problem is that the river is rising.” You won’t be thanked and you won’t be appreciated but, in the long run, you will make a difference.
Had enough of zombies yet? Goodness knows I have. But it is that time of year and I suppose it’s to be expected that someone would come up with yet another way of using zombies as a metaphor. This time it’s the faculty at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, California. The University is hosting a zombie health symposium today. The idea is to blend fantasy with real science and use zombies as a springboard for discussing larger health issues while at the same time engaging students with a bit of whimsy. If you’re truly interested, you can read more on the University’s website.
Full marks to the faculty at Samuel Merritt for coming up with a way to have productive scientific discussions with their students. However, the curmudgeon in me has to ask why we feel this need to go to such extraordinary lengths to engage audiences. I’m all in favor in making learning fun and trying to avoid mere boring recitation of facts. But sometimes the message can get lost in the medium. When we use metaphors such a zombies and vampires there’s always a risk that audience will be having so much fun with the fantasy we’ve created that they miss the point of the exercise. I’ve written before about how such scenarios can be taken out of context and generate negative publicity. For this reason, we need to be very careful how we use such methods, particularly if we are a public agency.
That being said, I think the approach that the faculty at Samuel Merritt is using sounds like great fun. If I’d known about it sooner I might even have dropped by. You never know when a bit of knowledge will come in handy…
One of the things I constantly battle against as an emergency manager is the "flavor of the month" approach to emergency management. This is our tendency to only focus on preparing for an event when it's about to smack us in the face.
A good example is the current scare over Ebola. I mean, it's not like we've ever had to deal with such a deadly disease, is it. Remember how we panicked when H1N1 reared it's head a few years ago? And before that, SARS scared us silly. We also have the example of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed around 50 million people. Yet are we prepared for a pandemic? Doesn't look like it, judging from the way things have been handled so far. So we're jumping through hoops to craft strategies that could have been put in place years ago.
And recent news here in California will come as a surprise to many: there's a serious risk of a major earthquake in the Bay Area! A recent paper in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America found the following:
From mean accumulation rates, we infer that four urban faults appear to have accumulated enough seismic moment to produce major earthquakes: the northern Calaveras (M 6.8), Hayward (M 6.8), Rodgers Creek (M 7.1), and Green Valley (M 7.1). The latter three faults are nearing or past their mean recurrence interval.
Suddenly everyone is talking about earthquake preparedness. as if we've never even considered such a thing before, even though we had a 6.0 earthquake in Napa less than two months ago.
Wake up people! The world is not a safe place. If you live in the Bay Area, earthquakes are a fact of life. Just because some scientists published a paper reinforcing what we've know all along doesn't mean that the risk of an earthquake in the Bay Area has changed from yesterday. It has been and still is high, just as it is for Seattle and Los Angeles. And Ebola has been around for years - we've actually dealt with an outbreak in the US before (read Richard Preston's 1994 book, The Hot Zone if you want some sleepless nights). We just haven't bothered to do anything about Ebola because it wasn't "in our face".
So stop living in fear every time Fox News needs to raise its ratings. If you're really worried about the end of the world as we know it, get off your dead butt and do something about your personal preparedness. And sleep soundly - I guarantee the world will not end tonight.
One of the risks that we accept in any emergency operation is that of liability exposure. We live in a litigious society where lawsuits are common, particularly in the aftermath of disaster. But can we allow the threat of a potential future lawsuit to stop us from doing the right thing? I like to think that most of us would say no. The city of Petaluma would not agree.
In 2010, a CERT volunteer driving home from training severely injured a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The attorney for the pedestrian named the city in the lawsuit on the basis that the driver was carrying city issued radio equipment used in the training. As is usual in many cases of liability, the city attorney opted to settle the case rather than risk a larger judgment in a trial. The case was settled in excess of $1 million.
As a result of this lawsuit, the city of Petaluma has withdrawn sponsorship from the CERT program. The program has been in existence since 2006 and has been funded entirely by grants to the Petaluma Fire Department. According to the program coordinator, withdrawal of sponsorship affects FEMA certification of the graduates and registration as State Disaster Service Workers, a designation which provides Workers Compensation coverage during disaster operations.
Legal experts familiar with the case believe that the city made an error in not litigating the lawsuit. There is existing legal precedent that does not hold an employer liable for accidents that occur while an employee is traveling to or from work, suggesting that the city could have prevailed had the case gone to trial. Even if this is not the case, the decision to withdraw sponsorship for the CERT program to prevent future lawsuits is hard to justify.
The real issue here is the mistaken belief that volunteers create a liability exposure that exceeds their value to the community. This excuse has been used on occasion to prevent the startup of programs such as CERT. The simple fact is that trained volunteers are infinitely more valuable to a community at the time of crisis than emergent volunteers with no training.
Do volunteers create a liability exposure? Of course they do, in the same way that any employee does. However, that exposure can be reduced through a well-documented program and a clear definition of what constitutes a volunteer’s job. This is merely good project management and there are ample tools to guide the development of such a program.
So don’t let the threat of liability exposure stop you from starting volunteer programs. Assess and mitigate the risks as much as possible but stop using them as an excuse for inaction.