Community Prepping

FEMA Administrator Brock Long: time to hit the reset button on resiliency

FEMA Administrator Brock Long has it right

FEMA Administrator Brock LongFEMA Administrator Brock Long testified before the House Appropriations Committee on November 30, 2017 and what he said was a game changer. Here are some key points he made:

  • “While each year the hurricane season comes to an end on November 30, the lessons from the response and recovery operations that we are performing this year, under incredibly difficult circumstances, will transform the field of emergency management forever.” (Written testimony)
  • “It is important to point out that an optimal response and recovery process should be federally supported, state managed and locally executed. Each level of government has a very critical role to play and we need to continue to define what the responsibilities are and what the target capabilities should be.” (Time: 21:17)
  • “In the case of Puerto Rico,they were hit by two major hurricanes in rapid succession which created a diminished capacity. Not only were their responders now disaster survivors, but also the ability to respond was also compromised. That puts FEMA as the primary responder and pretty much the first responder, which is never a good situation. When FEMA is the first and primary responder, and the only responder for many weeks, we are never going to move as fast as anybody would like.” (Time: 21:31)
  • “We have to do more pre-disater mitigation. Pre-disaster mitigation is the key to becoming more resilient and reducing disaster impact. We have to ensure that state and local governments – like Texas and Florida are the examples – have their own life sustainment commodities capabilities and the federal government is not shouldering the entire burden.” (Time 23:41)
  • “The key resiliency is held at the local level of government…it’s going to have to be a whole community effort on the pre-disaster side.” (Time: 1:01:27)
  • “Each citizen is responsible for their own individual preparedness. We do not have a true culture of preparedness in this country and we need to hit the reset button and look at how we partner with the Department of Education and give people critical skills…Many times citizens are the first true responder.” (Time: 1:36:49)
  • “Externally, for the entire country, I think that survivable communications is something we have to address with the private sector. We become more and more vulnerable every day as we go to digital networks. When you don’t have redundant systems or mitigated systems designed to handle all hazards, then it creates panic as we’ve seen…Internally, fix the NFIP. Do more pre-disaster mitigation.”  (Time 2:08.55)


“We do not have a true culture of preparedness in this country”

FEMA Administrator Brock Long summed it up with this simple statement. So what is the present culture?

  • Citizens: In my experience, most citizens do not think about emergency preparedness. They may run to the store before the storm hits and buy batteries and bottled water (if there is any left) but absent prior warning, most citizens have a nominal (at best) amount of food and preparedness supplies. In other words, they expect to be rescued.
  • Local governments: Many, if not most, local governments assume the availability of outside resources (state or federal) in a disaster. This is based on past disasters where outside resources have always been available. In other words, they expect to be rescued.

After watching current FEMA Administrator Brock Long’s testimony, I watched a recent presentation by former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.


Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate weighs in

In his presentation, Craig Fugate spoke about what he calls “the 7 deadly sins of emergency management.” (I recommend you watch his presentation, linked below, to get the full impact of his points.)

  1. We plan for what we are capable of responding to
  2. We plan for our communities by placing the hard to do in an annex (elderly, disabled, children, pets)
  3. We exercise to success
  4. We think our emergency response system can scale up from emergency response to disasters
  5. We build our emergency management team around government, leaving out volunteer organizations, the private sector, and the public.
  6. We treat the public as a liability
  7. We price risk too low to change behavior, as a result, we continue to grow risk


Taken together, clear messages emerge

Mr. Long made several comments that we need to focus more on pre-disaster mitigation and that resiliency is at the local level.  Most importantly “it’s going to have to be a whole community effort on the pre-disaster side.”

Some of Mr. Fugate’s “sins” also apply, particularly that “we build our emergency management team around government, leaving out volunteer organizations, the private sector, and the public” and that “we treat the public as a liability.”

Both are saying that resiliency takes a village.

Also, very worthy of note are two other of Mr. Fugate’s “sins”: “We plan for what we are capable of responding to” and “we exercise to success.” (See my GridEx post for an example of this.) This theme is echoed by Mr.Long’s comments about FEMA ending up as the first responder – which it was never meant to be.

The message is that at a local level, we need to re-boot some form of civil defense. In order to have more resilient and prepared communities, the local government cannot do it alone. developing a local non-profit civil defense organization is a resource multiplier.

Mr. Long says that the lessons from the response and recovery operations this year will transform the field of emergency management forever. The largest part of this transformation must be at the local community level.


Watch the Hearing (FEMA Administrator Brock Long’s testimony begins at 17 Minutes):

Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s fascinating and relevant presentation: The 7 Deadly Sins of Emergency Management:

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Resilient and Prepared Communities: Emergency Managers and Citizens Finding Common Ground

We all want resilient and prepared communities

This week, I was in touch with a group of citizens who started a non-profit civil defense organization, Civil Defense Virginia. They are approaching emergency managers in their area to talk about the benefits of a grassroots civil defense organization. I was also in touch with an emergency manager from a rural county in New England who would love to have a grassroots civil defense organization to work with and is trying to get one going.

It would seem that we all want the same thing: resilient and prepared communities.

Interestingly, both groups have the same challenges. The emergency manager said it best: “whereas you indicate in your book that local residents should band together in a CD organization and should convince the local emergency management authorities to work with the grassroots CD organization; I have the opposite challenge – I am a local emergency management authority who would love to have a local grassroots CD program develop in order to work with. I’m using ideas from your book/program to see if I can build a grassroots CD program.”

Resilient and prepared communities must think outside the two “boxes”

resilient and prepared communities

The challenge facing both emergency managers and citizens in working towards building more resilient and prepared communities is getting people to “think outside the box.” Here are a couple of common boxes:

  1. Many citizens are unprepared and think that in any scenario somebody will come and rescue them. After all, somebody always has in every blackout/disaster they may have experienced or heard about. Help was always on the way.
  2. Many emergency managers in their training and experience have not given enough thought to what would happen if their community was on its own for a long period of time – weeks or months. After all, in all past disasters they experienced or studied, outside resources from the state or federal government were always available. Help was always on the way.

The common theme here is that we need to get citizens and emergency managers to think about and plan for scenarios where help is not on the way for a long period of time. It is literally the same box – just different perspectives.

The question is the same: What if there was a national-scale disaster, such as the loss of the electric grid? In that scenario:

  • Citizens have only what is in their house.
  • Emergency managers only have the resources in their jurisdiction.

How would we fare? What would our challenges be initially? After 1 week? After a month? In six months?

Here is a table-top exercise scenario you can adapt as a starting point. What if you have a meeting with your major partners from within your jurisdiction and get the conversation going? If you have a CERT team, invite some member to participate. If not, find a few interested citizens.

Some responses we need to overcome

In talking with many citizens over the years, I am constantly shocked at how few people realize the vulnerabilities of the critical infrastructures and the effects a prolonged loss of the electric grid could have. I have heard people say: “well, I don’t think ‘they’ would ever let that happen.” (I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, but I have less confidence that ‘they’ have the ability to prevent a national-scale disaster from happening!)

I also talk with emergency managers. I was talking with an emergency manager a while back about such a worst case scenario (national scale grid outage) and I was very surprised by his response: “there is no way to prepare for something like that.” The impression I got in the context of the conversation is that he felt it was not worth planning for something so patently horrible – better to hope it just doesn’t happen.

Both of these “boxes” are dangerous – and untrue.

resilient and prepared communitiesWe need to educate citizens that it is possible that what they have may be all they have for weeks or months. They need to be informed of the very real threats facing the country such as a cyber-attack, solar flare, EMP, natural disaster or man-made attack on the electric grid. And citizens need to know that, in such an event, nobody is coming to rescue them.

We also need emergency managers to think outside of the traditional EM structure above their level and plan for scenarios where no outside resources are available. And emergency managers need to know that, in such an event, nobody is coming to rescue their town – they own the mess.

If you are an emergency manager wondering where to find such citizens who might be interested in helping to get a civil defense organization off the ground, look to a few sources: a CERT team if you have one (citizens who have already sipped the emergency preparedness Kool Aid). Also do not discount “preppers.” They know a lot about survival subjects. Many are very willing to share the knowledge and get involved. Many may know others in the area that have the same interests. Let’s dispel a few common myths.

  • Preppers don’t all wear tin-foil hats.
  • Many of us are regular folks, working regular jobs.
  • Many of us are already involved in the police department, fire department, EMS and government.

What is a prepper? If you have a generator and more than 72 hours-worth of food and worry about a black-out, you are a prepper. If you worry that nobody might come and save you in an emergency, you are a prepper.

So, honestly, many emergency managers are “preppers” but just don’t realize it. If we could get a group together of emergency management professionals and citizens who have a great interest and vast knowledge in individual and family preparedness, imagine what we could achieve on a  local level.

There is a great deal that we can do ahead of time to build resilient and prepared communities. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No. Planning now can greatly mitigate the loss of life. But it takes a village.

A non-profit civil defense organization in your community is a resource multiplier. This is the message I am trying to get out to emergency managers, communities and anyone who will listen.

A conversation about resilient and prepared communities is great – but we need action

Resilient and Prepared CommunitiesIt is great to see a national conversation on civil defense starting. I have heard from citizens as well as emergency managers and it seems we all want the same thing: resilient and prepared communities. As the old concept of “civil defense” morphed over the years into “emergency management” it seems we lost a vital component: organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival – and to be a resource multiplier for emergency managers.

I applaud Civil Defense Virginia and any citizens and emergency managers who are working towards this goal.

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What is Civil Defense and why don’t we have it?

Civil defense gradually morphed into emergency management.

There are several good documents that give us the history of civil defense in the United States. Here is one from FEMA and here is an interesting manual (FEMA 107) from 1986. (Thank you to the Civil Defense Museum for making this available to us!)

Civil Defense: Why We Need a Congressional ResolutionIt can be hard to parse out the many reasons and policy shifts that gradually moved us from “civil defense” to “emergency management” but today the term “civil defense” has fallen into disuse. Is there a difference? Strictly speaking, perhaps not as the definition and principles of emergency management cover many of the elements of making a community resilient (e.g., civil defense). According to FEMA, the vision is that “emergency management seeks to promote safer, less vulnerable communities with the capacity to cope with hazards and disasters.” The mission is that “Emergency Management protects communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.”

Civil defense is defined variously as the organization and training of civilians for the protection of lives and property during and after an attack, sabotage or natural disaster. (See Merriam-Webster, and Collins English Dictionary.)

Arguably, everything in the definition of civil defense can be extrapolated deep within in the mission and vision of emergency management – but are we doing it? Specifically, are we organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival?

The fatal flaw of our emergency management system.

The strength of our emergency management system is its ability to call in outside resources. When an incident – be it a structure fire, accident or tornado – overwhelms the local resources, we call in surrounding towns. For a larger regional disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake, we can call in state and federal resources.

We can argue the efficiency of the state or federal responses in particular historical disasters, but generally the system works as advertised in local and regional disasters. This makes incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria actually “best case scenarios” – best case meaning that outside resources were immediately available to deploy into the disaster area.

However, our emergency management system has one fatal flaw: it always assumes that outside resources will soon be available.

What if the “disaster area” was the United States?

But what happens in a national scale disaster where outside resources are not available and may not be available for a long period of time (like weeks or months)? In this scenario – let’s say a nationwide blackout from a GMD or cyberattack – your town is on its own. All you have is what you have now, and you face immediate life-threatening problems. After one week, there you sit in the EOC, powered by a generator that will soon run out of gas.

  • The power is completely out for the foreseeable future.
  • Your local ham radio operator reports that the entire country is in turmoil.
  • People are panicking – the stores and pharmacies have been looted.
  • The police don’t have the resources to maintain order.
  • Water and sewer service is out. Well pumps don’t work without electricity.
  • People will soon run out of whatever food they have.
  • There are reports of numerous fires – the fire department can’t respond.
  • The medical facilities are overwhelmed, have no power and limited supplies.
  • People are at risk of exposure to the elements and disease.
  • There is no help coming – your town is on its own.

This worst nightmare has become even worse – everybody is looking to you, the emergency manager, for answers. Whether you like it or not, you own this mess.

This worst case scenario could happen. The federal government over the last two decades has studied this issue and held multiple hearings on the existential threat to the U.S. that the loss of the power grid poses. However, no action has been taken to harden the grid from these threats. The only meaningful legislation that has passed, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (section 1913 of the NDAA, December 23, 2016) only requires more federal studies and that the Department of Homeland Security “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.” While this is a positive step, it will take years to have an impact.

Q: What are we missing? A: Civil Defense

Take the emergency management vision and mission statements and eliminate any outside resources – just focus on your town or jurisdiction and its inherent capabilities and assets. Your vision becomes the need to promote [a] safer, less vulnerable community with the [internal] capacity to cope with hazards and disasters. Your mission becomes to protect [your] community by coordinating and integrating all [internal] activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.

Civil Defense LogoWhat we are missing is the “civil defense” component of organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival. This is not a new concept. In August of 2012, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced House Resolution 762. The resolution never saw a vote and died with the 112th Congress.

The proposed resolution:

(1) encourages every community to develop its own “civil defense program” working with citizens, leaders, and institutions, ranging from local fire halls, schools, and faith-based organizations, to create sustainable local infrastructure and planning capacity, so that it might mitigate high-impact scenarios and be better prepared to survive and recover from these worst-case disaster scenarios and be better able to affordably and sustainably meet the needs of the community in times of peace and tranquility;

(2) encourages every citizen to develop an individual emergency plan to prepare for the absence of government assistance for extended periods;

(3) encourages each local community to foster the capability of providing at least 20 percent of its own critical needs, such as local power generation, food, and water, while protecting local infrastructure whenever possible from the threats that threaten centralized infrastructure; and to do so with the urgency and importance inherent in an all-of-nation civil defense program developed by citizens and their local communities; and

(4) encourages state governments and federal agencies to support the ability of local communities to become stronger, self-reliant, and better able to assist neighboring communities in times of great need.

I think this resolution speaks for itself, and it is unfortunate that it didn’t pass. However, a good idea does not need to pass Congress to be a good idea.

Your community needs a civil defense plan now

There is an existential threat to your community. We can no longer sit passively while Congress sits passively. If you don’t want to own the worst case scenario, you need to take action. Your community needs a civil defense plan. You can build it from scratch or start with these recommendations.

The basic concept is simple:

  • A civil defense organization in your town can be organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
  • Focus the organization on planning and education for the basics of survival:
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Security
  • Integrate the civil defense organization into all aspects of your emergency management efforts.

The problems that would threaten your community’s survival have solutions, but only if you act ahead of time. After the power goes out, an army of emergency managers in logo embossed golf shirts and cargo pants can’t help you.

It takes a village. Your village.

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