Improving your writing

A couple nights ago I was reading through a selection of articles and blogs by way of Zite, which is one of my favorite ways to get topical articles.  One of the posts that was selected for me was Improving Your Academic Writing: My top 10 tips, a blog post by Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD.  Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s post is filled with common sense but very important tips on writing.  While the title of his post specified academic writing, his principles really apply across the board to any writer and any type of writing – be it technical, fiction, blogging, etc.

Good writing skills are something I think are lacking more and more in the professional world.  Through my professional career I’ve found myself coaching college graduates on foundational professional writing technique.  Clearly I enjoy writing, otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging, writing emergency plans, and designing training courses and preparedness exercises.  I’ve found that blogging, even in the midst of those other writing projects, helps hone and improve my writing skills.

While I’ve listed his tips below, please be sure to visit Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s post for his full narrative.

1) Be disciplined and write every day.

2) Give yourself the best tools to write.

3) Write as you would speak.

4) Have other people read your pieces to provide you with feedback.

5) Read a lot, and across different disciplines.

6) Write for your audience.

7) Write without interruptions.

8) Take care of yourself.

9) Practice your writing – write a lot.

10) When stuck, write by hand.

New York Recovery By the Numbers: Hurricane Sandy

New York Recovery By the Numbers

Release date: February 22, 2013.

Release Number: NR-177.

NEW YORK — Disaster assistance to New York survivors of Hurricane Sandy:
•$2.4 billion in National Flood Insurance Program payments made to policy holders
•Nearly $909.9 million in FEMA grants approved for individuals and households•$788.5 million for housing assistance
•$121.4 million for other needs

•$1.07 billion in SBA disaster loans approved for homeowners, renters and businesses
•$669 million approved in FEMA Public Assistance grants to communities and some nonprofit organizations that serve the public
•5.3 million cubic yards of debris removed (95 percent)
•268,290 people contacted FEMA for help or information
•179,516 housing inspections completed
•160,131 visits to Disaster Recovery Centers
•More than 500 voluntary agencies involved in recovery
•25 languages used to communicate assistance information to survivors

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

This post is part of a 10-part series on Managing an Exercise Program. In this series I provide some of my own lessons learned in the program and project management aspects of managing, designing, conducting, and evaluating Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) exercises. Your feedback is appreciated!

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 10: Evaluation and Improvement Planning

As I forge ahead in this series on Managing an Exercise Program (thank you all for reading!!), I expect the revised Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) foundation document to be released soon from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Once that document is released, I’ll be sure to include a summary update in my blog.  Having been a reviewer of the draft document about a year ago, I don’t expect a lot of changes, but what does change will have some bits of significance on how we do business in the design, conduct, and evaluation of preparedness exercises.

This installment of Managing an Exercise Program gets us two steps away from actually conducting the exercise.  As you can see, putting an exercise together is no small feat.  I find that this particular step: Preparing Support, Personnel, and Logistical Requirements, is the one most often glossed over in documents and training.  As an example, HSEEP Volume I dedicates only one paragraph to exercise logistical support.  As Volume I states in its single paragraph, logistical elements ‘can make the difference between a smooth, seamless exercise and one that is confusing and ineffective.’  Let’s break down our considerations:

The location of the exercise is of significant concern.  Often times we are examining facilities, but some exercises are conducted outdoors with no use of facilities at all.  If outdoors, you still need to ensure the proper environment and support services, such as restrooms, being available.  If your exercise requires water for fire suppression, then proximity to hydrants is essential, unless you are looking to incorporate tanker operations into your exercise.  We’re looking for a location that is minimally disruptive to the surrounding area, including traffic and ensuring citizen safety.  Consider the need for public messaging, such as static displays, variable message signs (you can get these from your public works connections), and media releases to inform the public of the exercise.  Doing so will help satisfy their curiosity, will give you some positive media exposure, and will help you minimize disruption.  As an example, I’ll cite an urban search and rescue (USAR) component of the Vigilant Guard New York exercise which I led.

Working with local officials, our USAR specialist and a representative of the New York National Guard exercise team were able to select an appropriate cite for their activities.  Set up was extensive, involving multiple loads of building demolition debris and a few cars to be hauled in and specifically placed with the use of heavy equipment.  On one side of this lot were a number of three-story apartment buildings, which we sought to minimize impact to.  All hauling and set up operations took place during the day while exercise activities, which were 24 hour operations for several days, were minimized during the night.  USAR folks come with a lot of equipment… and I’m not just talking a few boxes of stuff, either.  Many have tractor trailers and cargo containers to transport their gear.  They set up tents where they can unload and unpack much of their gear and provide areas for briefing and down time for personnel.  This exercise brought in first responder and National Guard USAR assets from around the state, other states, and Canada.  An eating area needed to be on site as well as sanitation.  Obviously all these areas needed to be well out-of-the-way of operational areas of the exercise to ensure safety and allow room for the rescue activities.  Portable diesel-generated light towers were set up to support night-time operations.  A media time was scheduled to allow media to catch some of the action during the week as well.  Since some teams were only coming in to exercise for a day, a schedule needed to be established to ensure that they could be accommodated and a traffic plan had to be established to get them to the site.  The exercise, which included multiple venues, covered a period of time which included Election Day.  With caravans of first responder and National Guard equipment rolling through the area during this time period, we were sure to schedule movements off rush hour and I even had a conversation with the County Board of Elections.  In this conversation I briefed them on the locations and activity of the exercise to ensure that it didn’t interfere with their polling locations and provided them with my cell number which I told them to call if there was even the slightest hint of a problem or complaint.

Indoor exercises require the same measure of preparation.  You have to ensure that the spaces you use are safe and large enough to accommodate participants.  You may have a need for one or more break out rooms or meeting rooms, both for exercise management staff and for players.  Unless players are responsible for setting everything up themselves, ensure that power, internet, and telephonic communications are available for them… and can support their needs.  Back to Vigilant Guard, the EOC component of the exercise was significant.  Based on anticipated use, we actually brought in state emergency management capability for satellite digital communications to support the simcell with internet with phone so we wouldn’t draw on and degrade the in-house capability for players in the EOC.  Similar to an outdoor venue, you need to pay heed to needs for parking, restrooms, and food service.  It’s also a good media opportunity, so be sure to schedule that well in advance with the media and some VIPs.

In regard to personnel, we’ve touched upon the need for controllers, evaluators, and simulators in previous posts, mostly in regard to planning these needs and ensuring that they are covered with the necessary documents to help with their tasks, such as exercise evaluation guides (EEGs), controller/ evaluator plan, master scenario events list (MSEL), and Exercise Plan.  Identify the exercise leadership early – the exercise director, simcell and MSEL managers, and lead controller and evaluator.  These individuals, and the supporting staff for them, including simulators, controllers, and evaluators, are likely to come from your exercise planning team.  Some may have experience in these tasks, while others may not… something to keep in mind for development of the documents as well as the briefings you conduct for them just prior to the start of the exercise (that’ll be the next part of this series).  Don’t just assign folks randomly to positions, draw on their experience.  If someone has a strong EMS background, assign them to be controllers, simulators, or evaluators for that area of practice.  Be sure that your simulators also have some local experience as well if you are conducting this exercise for an area outside your own.  Local flavor brings realism and context to an exercise for the players.  Consider radios for controllers and evaluators, especially in large exercise areas.  This will allow the exercise director to speak with them and for them to interact with the simcell, letting them know if they need to speed up or slow down.  Also consider providing the exercise director with an assistant on large exercises.  Often times I’ve found the need for someone to aid me directly in resolving problems, gathering people, and handling miscellaneous tasks that are too much for any one person to handle.  It’s also a great learning experience for someone who wants to advance.

Overall, be sure to plan early for all logistical, support, and personnel needs.  Plan early for food contracts, ensure that all participants have the necessary supplies to conduct their jobs.  Plan ahead for safety as well, ensuring a safe work environment proactively and a good plan and personnel who can react to situations should they arise.  Be ready on-the-fly for changes and little or no-notice occurrences, as they almost always happen!  Make sure the players have everything they need for the exercise – if not, that lack of preparedness will be what they remember.

What experiences or ideas do you have with supporting an exercise?

Emergency Management and Considerations for Visiting Populations

Radar loop, Labor Day 1998 Upstate New York.  This storm impacted the New York State Fair.

Radar loop, Labor Day 1998 Upstate New York. This storm impacted the New York State Fair.

The inspiration for this blog was a paper posted to LLIS by Dr. Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University (Australia) and Lincoln University (New Zealand).  The paper is titled The Christchurch Earthquake and the Visitor Sector, which is also available from this link if you don’t have LLIS access.

Dr. Becken highlights the Christchurch earthquake of February 22, 2011, which killed 185 people from more than 20 nations, 80 of which were listed as visiting, rather than residing in, Christchurch.  She states that as a result of this M 7.1 earthquake infrastructure was badly damaged, accommodation capacity was reduced by half, and the number of international visitors dropped by almost 30 percent in the aftermath.  Dr. Becken identifies many of the challenges visitors had, including loss of travel documentation and other important items, and the value of the tourism industry in the area to assist response efforts (such as providing lodging for displaced citizens as well as responders from out of the area).

This paper brings to mind the vast amounts of visitors and transient populations that are found in many communities across the nation.  When visiting an attraction such as an amusement park, where tens of thousands of people congregate on any given summer day, take a look around.  Many of the amusement parks I know of are in fairly rural areas.  These towns are likely to have small volunteer fire departments and may not even have their own police services, instead relying on a county Sheriff’s Department or State Police.  How about a small city that has popular attractions at certain times of the year, such as horse tracks or other sporting events?  These events will also draw tens of thousands of people from near and far, staying in hotels, motels, and campgrounds.  Sure, these small cities might have a 24-hour staffed fire department, and probably even a small police force.  But how prepared are these types of areas for an incident that can cause mass casualties and fatalities?

Incidents such as this underscore the need for our preparedness to be through and needs-based.  As part of our Threat and Hazard Identification and Assessment (THIRA), which is the latest evolution of the traditional hazard analysis (see CPG-201), we must be sure to recognize visitors and transient populations and the events that bring them to our areas.  We should consider tourist attractions, field days, concerts and performances, large conventions, sporting events, and even college populations.  The potential impacts, in the event of a disaster, are certainly greater with these populations given that they are likely to be unfamiliar with the area, don’t reside locally and probably have no local contacts, and aren’t familiar with the threats.  Given the nature of the event they are attending, they may very well be consuming alcohol, as well.  All this makes for a rather fragile and dependent population in the event of disaster.

Planning on the macro (community) level should consider the specifics mentioned above.  With this information you can estimate the resources needed for certain scenarios (this is part of your THIRA), which will lead you determine gaps which you then plan to address.  Take some time to examine the demographics of the visiting populations.  These demographics will help determine their level of need in the event of a disaster and some areas of support you may need to provide.  Your local chamber of commerce and/or tourism authority can be an important planning partner for this information and other purposes.  Certainly consider the nature of the events and the age range of the attendees.  Are there language or cultural issues that should be prepared for?  Much of this specific information can be obtained event by event, looking at the micro (event-specific) level of planning for these events.  In New York State, a mass gathering permit is supposed to be issued for any event estimating attendance over a certain number.  The primary purpose of these permits is to ensure that officials are aware of the event and that potable water and sanitation is appropriately available, as well as other caveats.  Most states have a similar type of permitting requirement.  Become familiar with it and use it to your advantage.

In any of these events, how will you handle alert and notification in the event of a disaster?  You may have sirens in place, but would a visitor know what it means?  Given that such a high percentage of people have cell phones, use of area blast messaging may be an appropriate consideration.

A lesson learned from airline crashes can and should be brought into your planning: family assistance centers.  Family assistance centers were brought about in the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800, realizing the importance of providing support and information to the families and loved ones of victims.  This concept has been applied as a standard to other mass fatality incidents since then and has proven to be beneficial to all parties.

Be sure to conduct preparedness exercises on these plans, and include members of your local hospitality and tourism industry as they will certainly be involved in some aspect of the greater response should an incident occur.

Sometimes local communities view visiting populations as a hassle, particularly when they don’t have the care for the host community that the locals do.  These populations are usually important to the economy of the local area and, depending in the event, will be back year after year.  No matter what your take is on that argument, you must consider the safety of any visitors or tourists as if they were your own citizens.  Be prepared through regular planning, training, and exercising activities and be sure to include your local chamber of commerce, tourism and hospitality industry as they are not only stakeholders, but they have a great deal of support and information to provide.  Most importantly, remember that all good preparedness efforts begin with a solid needs assessment.  Conduct a THIRA for your community, you might be surprised with what you discover!

What experiences do you have with planning for visiting populations?

Lucien Canton Webinar Recording: Are Your Emergency Operations Plans Realistic?

Last week EM Forum hosted one of the better webinars I’ve attended recently.  The presenter was Lucien Canton, CEM, a fellow Emergency Management Consultant.  His topic was “Are your emergency operations plans realistic?  A group discussion on planning assumptions”.  This presentation was in obvious response to his excellent blog article, Paper Plans and Fantasy Documents, which I blogged about a few weeks ago.  In both his article and the webinar, Lu talks about the need to ensure that plans make sense and can actually be implemented, not just cover legal requirements.

For ease, I’ve pasted the EMForum follow up email here, which provides a link to the webinar recording in various formats.  Highly recommended if you didn’t catch the original airing!


The Webinar recording of the February 13th program, “Are Your Emergency Operations Plans Realistic? A Group Discussion on Planning Assumptions,” with emergency management consultant, Lucien G. Canton CEM®, is now available. This is a large file and requires Windows Media Player or Windows Media Components for QuickTime or a similar product to view. The recording is also available in MP4 format for mobile users. The TranscriptAudio Podcast, as well as Ratings and Comments are available from the Background Page. The Audio Podcast and MP4 recordings are also available from the iTunes Store.

Chinese Government Cyber Attacks

Homeland Security Today just linked to two related articles on Chinese government fueled hacker attacks.  The first article is ‘Report ties 100-Plus Cyberattacks on US Computers to Chinese Military’ and the second article is ‘China: Aiding Hacker Attacks on West’.

As mentioned in my most recent post on Cybersecurity, these attacks, intended to steal information, harm our infrastructure, and destabilize our economy need to be classified as acts of war.

How should we respond to these acts???