Today is the 20th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Fire that destroyed over 3000 private dwellings and claimed the lives of 25 people. This particular disaster has always had a special meaning for me as I was part of the FEMA team sent to provide relief to the survivors. The smoke was so thick in the sky above my home in western San Francisco that we thought that the fire had to have been in our neighborhood. My children followed the disaster on television and for the first time started to understand what I did when I left them for those long "business" trips. I still remember the fire whenever I pass through the Caldecott tunnel.
As usually happens after these things, there was a lot of rhetoric and grand plans for mitigation so that something like this would never happen again. I wish it was so. While there have been improvements (the fire hydrants have been standardized, for example) and the California Standardized Emergency Management System was developed to address coordination problems, the area is still at high risk. The homes have been rebuilt bigger and cover more area, eliminating what little defensible space was there. But at least the wood shingles have been replaced by fire-resistant materials. Roads are still narrow and illegal parking is tolerated, making it difficult or impossible for fire apparatus to respond to major fire.
So have we really come all that far in 20 years? Sadly, more could have been done. I think the emergency services have done their best to address the tactical issues and certainly SEMS changed for the better how we do respond in the state. But these efforts have been frustrated by the desire of residents to rebuild bigger and better and their focus on personal satisfaction without consideration of the larger issue of regional safety. Or do we blame the governments who didn't push more for mitigation?
But when the fires start and people are dying, does it really matter whose fault it was?
The recent decision by the State of Israel to release over a thousand prisoners in exchange for a kidnapped soldier raises some interesting issues that may well have implications for future policy.
The decision raises questions about the generally-accepted policy about negotiating with terrorists. The official line from most governments has always been that there would be no such negotiations because it encouraged future acts. The problem is that historically governments have negotiated with terrorists and many groups that were considered terrorists during a political struggle were later reinvented as freedom fighters. We've seen this in places like India, Kenya, Ireland, and even in Israel itself. At some point you have to address root causes. Terrorism is a tactic, a means to an end. Simply killing terrorists does nothing to eliminate the cause of the struggle.
There is a moral dimension here as well and it relates to the age-old question, "What is the value of a single life?" In this case you're trading one life, and that of a soldier who by definition could be expected to sacrifice his life for the state, in exchange for a thousand, many of whom will no doubt rejoin the struggle against Israel and potentially take more Israeli lives. Is one life worth the risk of multiple deaths in the future? Would your answer be different if it was your son being held or if there were more than one hostage? Would the life of one hostage justify going to war?
These are profound questions with no real answer. I think the answers really depend on where you stand. A major tenet of the Jewish faith is that to save one person is to save the world. While the decision to make the exchange took considerable moral courage on the part of the Israeli government, it was consistent with deeply held Jewish beliefs. It's obvious that the citizens of Israel feel the same: some 80% support the government's decision in a recent poll.
And this raises yet a third question. What does a decision like this say about a nation and the character of its people? To willing accept a high risk to save a single citizen speaks volumes.
It's a lesson we would do well to consider.
Online gaming is a phenomena that is a bit hard to understand at times. People will spend hours doing repetitive tasks to garner an "achievement" that offers nothing more than bragging rights with other gamers. But there's no denying the attraction. With the advent of social media and smart phones, smartphone gaming has exploded into a $8 billion a year business. Angry Birds has been downloaded something like 140 million times making it the best selling app of to date.
The folks at the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management are seeking to harness this energy with a new app called SF Heroes that makes a game out of emergency preparedness. According to an article in the San Francisco Examiner, the game, just released for the iPhone, rewards players for achieving preparedness milestones and let's them crow about it to their friends via Twitter and Facebook. The app also gives players
access to real-life emergency maps and let's them create emergency contacts and resource lists that are accessible even in the absence of net connectivity.
This is absolutely brilliant. Not only does the app encourage individuals to prepare but it creates a milling effect within the player's social media network that could encourage others to prepare. I don't know if releasing the app on the same day the new iPhone was released was deliberate but it's a bit of shrewd marketing.
Kudos to my colleagues at SFDEM - you really hit one out of the park with this one!
The Android version is due out in the spring and I can't wait to try it!
As I mentioned in a recent blog, six seismologists and a government official are on trail for manslaughter in Italy for failing to provide warning about an earthquake that killed several hundred people in the village of L'Aquila.
An article in today's New York Times offers an interesting commentary on how crisis communications can go wrong. According to the article, public concern was high because of a swarm of small earthquakes a local man's predictions a big earthquake based on his observations of radon gas release. Because of this high level of concern, the government called a meeting to discuss the earthquake risk. At this meeting the scientists did their job and provided accurate information: 1) it was possible but unlikely that the swarm of earthquakes they were concerned about might be precursors to a major quake and 2) given the history of seismic activity in L'Aquila, there is always a risk of an earthquake. However, when the government official provided this information at a press conference, he changed the message to, "There will be no earthquake."
The lesson here is deference to expertise. If you step outside your area of expertise, you risk miscommunicating the message. The media and the public can tell when you're talking about something about which you know very little and your credibility suffers. Instead, let your expert give the technical briefing and then follow-up as necessary with what you are doing about the situation. If you expert can also handle the issue (e.g. a public health director briefs on a problem and says what the public health department is doing about it), keep your mouth shut - it's about providing information from a trusted source, not your ego.