A Few Words On Hurricane Harvey, and How You Can Help

Readers who have been with me for a while know that I generally refrain from providing commentary on active incidents.  There is already enough chatter out there, with a variety of experts (real and otherwise) providing their opinions.  As with any ongoing incident, there is plenty of information and assumptions, right and wrong.  This disaster is already generating a lot of discussion on the decision by Houston and other jurisdictions to not issue evacuation orders.  Once the flood waters recede and life safety matters are addressed, perhaps I’ll jump into that discussion.  For now, let’s stay focused on the lives that are at risk.

Several people have asked me how they can support the Hurricane Harvey response and relief efforts.  There are many reputable charities out there providing great assistance.  A few tips…

  • Most of these organizations want and need money, not things, so unless they are asking for donations of certain goods or commodities, don’t send them things. The management of unwanted donated goods is an absolute nightmare and a distraction when all resources need to be focused on the disaster at hand.
  • Find a charity/organization that aligns with your own interests and beliefs. If you are most concerned about animal welfare, the ASPCA is a great organization doing incredible work during this and other disasters.  The American Red Cross is a long-standing go-to humanitarian aid organization.  There are also a variety of faith-based organizations, such as the Salvation Army, Adventist Community Services, Catholic Charities, Islamic Relief, and others which are dedicated to supporting communities in need.
  • If you are sending a check (you can even drop off a check at your local offices of any of these organizations), be sure to write ‘Hurricane Harvey’ in the memo of the check. That should direct those funds to this disaster effort.
  • Keep records and request a receipt (if they don’t provide one) for tax purposes.
  • For those of you who want a specific recommendation, I suggest Team Rubicon.  Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams that provide direct life-safety response efforts as well as short-term recovery work, such as mucking out people’s homes.  They are an outstanding organization that not only provides disaster assistance, but also directly supports our veterans.

These organizations absolutely need your support.  The costs of deploying personnel, even volunteers, are high.  Every dollar makes a difference.


This isn’t my Red Cross

The National Red Cross announced last month another restructuring effort taking place across the country.  It seems every few years the Red Cross attempts to streamline their operations through a similar effort.  What is missing with every restructuring activity is a local perspective, which I think hurts them greatly.  Consider that the Red Cross’ service delivery is mostly local.  Their volunteer base is local.  Their fundraising requests are local.  Yet with each reorganization they draw back further and further from those local roots.

I heard a rather compelling example just this past week of how the Red Cross’ organization has changed in the state of Vermont.  From what I was told, Vermont used to be covered by three chapters.  Reorganization several years ago consolidated those three chapters to one.  This current reorganization effort is now consolidating the Red Cross into one chapter which has responsibility for both Vermont and New Hampshire!  Additionally, they have sold their mobile canteens and have contracted to a restaurant food provider to handle emergency food services.  While this contract does provide for a more sustainable and large scale operation, all these efforts continue to draw the Red Cross out of the community.

I first heard of this most recent reorganization through the blog Disaster Gestalt, written by Joseph Martin who has a long history serving as a Red Cross volunteer.  I shared some of my insights in his blog as I reacted initially to the news he brought me.  Upon hearing more and more about this reorganization and its impacts across the country, I’m really left wondering what happened to my Red Cross.

My involvement with the Red Cross started in high school where our government class required some measure of civic service.  My best friend had gotten some info on the Red Cross and they took us in as volunteer Health and Safety Instructors.  They trained us to teach courses in First Aid and CPR to the community.  We both took to it quickly, finding quite a passion for teaching.  In many ways it began both our careers as instructors and in emergency services.  With this passion, we continued volunteering for our local chapter well beyond our high school requirement.

The staff at the chapter was wonderful and not only helped us grow, but encouraged us to further our involvement.  While we continued to do mostly volunteer work, we also became paid instructors, helping the chapter serve corporate clients and eventually instructor trainers conducting train-the-trainer courses.  I attended community college locally after high school so was able to continue my work for the chapter while also working nearly full time, taking classes full time, and receiving my initial training as a firefighter, EMT, and diver.  I honestly have no idea where that energy came from!

When I left the area to complete my bachelor’s degree and subsequently moved around a bit, I continued teaching for Red Cross chapters around the northeast.  My experience with each of those chapters was very similar to that of my home chapter.  They were all welcoming and thrilled to have help.  Eventually, once I settled into my career I became a board member.  Despite the three hour round trip drive, I served on the board of my home town, where my Red Cross service started.  It was a rewarding experience.  My work and family obligations eventually pulled me away, but I continued to donate and always had a place in my heart for the Red Cross.

In the years since my board service there have been several reorganizations nationally.  Each of these reorganizations worked to centralize chapter activities to regional offices, resulting in layoffs at the chapter level.  While I understand that consolidation can be a cost savings, it decreases the local reach of the chapter.  Additionally, the responsibilities of the chapter executive continued to decrease.  With true management and direction coming from regional offices, there is little left to manage at the chapter level.  Job postings for chapter executives seem to stress fund development more than anything else.  The footprints of chapters continue to expand as chapter consolidations occur.  No longer are chapters community-based as their territories cover many jurisdictions.  It’s all rather impersonal.

In researching this article I was not able to find anything that discussed the national picture of this reorganization.  I found quite a number of stories from local media talking about the impacts of the reorganization on their local chapters, though.  Nearly every article mentioned expanded territory and staff layoffs.  Many also, interestingly enough, mentioned new chapter executives coming on board.  I reached out to the Red Cross to find out more about their current reorganization effort and sent an email through their Public Inquiry function on their website.  I did receive a response back within a few hours.  What they wrote back provided some high level goals but little data on the impacts of the reorganization, which I did request.  Here are some snippets:

The American Red Cross is transforming its operations to meet the growing demand for our services while making the best use of donor dollars.


  • In the past few years, the demand for our services has grown. To meet this demand, we continue to look for ways to touch more lives while keeping our costs low.


  • We have outlined a three year plan to lower the cost of operations by finding more efficient ways to do our work and expanding volunteers in every community.


  • Our goal is to help more people at less cost. We will be even better stewards of our donor dollars because we are an even more cost-conscious organization.

 Guided by recommendations from representatives of local paid and volunteer leadership, we are consolidating Red Cross chapters and putting these savings into serving more people in need.


  • With a consolidated regional structure, we can provide more robust and consistent services across a wider geography. These consolidations enable us to shift donor dollars from costs associated with delivering service to the actual services themselves, enabling us to serve more clients with more direct assistance.


  • We aim to increase both the number of clients served and the resources made available to them – not through the addition of more paid staff – but by adding more volunteer leaders and involving them in more ways.


  • Volunteers have always been and continue to be the backbone of the Red Cross. Their importance will increase as we look to deliver services in more communities across the country. We want to make Red Cross the best place in America to work and volunteer.

 The public can continue to count on the Red Cross to be there to serve the needs of their communities.

 Our goal is to:

  • Increase the number of home fires we respond to. Home fires impact more people across the county each year than all other natural disasters combined.
  • Increase by 10 percent the financial support we give to individual disaster clients. The average amount we give to families affected by home fires has not changed in 10 years.
  • Develop a local structure that allows us to deliver services more efficiently and be in even more local communities. Currently, Red Cross is present in more than 2,000 U.S. communities and military facilities worldwide.

I am still left with many questions about their implementation.  It doesn’t seem to make much sense to expect higher donations and increased service delivery when their physical presence in communities has decreased.  They want to do more with less by increasing chapter territories but decreasing staff.  They say they can fill the gap cost effectively through volunteers.  While the Red Cross has a long history of service delivery through volunteers, the foundation of that is staff who manages and coordinates the activities of volunteers.  While volunteer leaders can certainly help meet needs, paid staff are still the ones ultimately accountable.  Volunteers also like to have connections to paid staff and with the decrease in paid staff and the larger territories it feels more and more impersonal.  Given the operations of the Red Cross, while volunteers are important and certainly critical to the success of the organization, the important role of paid staff and a physical presence in the communities they serve is extremely important.

I’m sure that many folks at national headquarters work very hard on trying to determine how to maximize their funding and the services they provide.  Nearly every organization, be it non-profit, for profit, or government, strives to strike the right balance.  In my opinion, however, this continued trend of regionalization will only continue to hurt the Red Cross.  Their community presence decreases more and more.  When community members don’t see and feel that presence they are less compelled to donate much less volunteer.

To be clear, I still support the mission of the Red Cross.  I am very much a proponent of the Red Cross and the services they provide.  They provide important services to communities and are a critical partner in preparedness and emergency management.  While there is always room for improvement, however, their serial reorganization efforts through the last 15 years or so have achieved a level that is sadly comical.  There must be a better way.  The organization has become so impersonal I no longer feel that they are my Red Cross.

I’m very interested in the opinions of others on this matter.  Do you feel the Red Cross is improving through these reorganization efforts?  If so, how?  Do you feel more or less compelled to donate or volunteer?  Am I missing something?

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker

Taking Philanthropy (and more) Beyond the Days of Disaster

Timothy RieckerThe latest edition of Homeland Security Today has an article titled ‘Taking Philanthropy Beyond the Days of Disaster’ , which talks about the need that non-profit organizations who provide disaster services have before and well after a disaster.  Their programs help bring preparedness and other critical services into neighborhoods and to fragile and disadvantaged populations.  The article tells the story of someone who saw this need and formed the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a foundation centered on helping organizations fund disaster-oriented projects throughout the year.  You also have the choice of giving directly to organizations in your community.  Organizations like the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and others – that are in every community – provide services year-round and could greatly benefit from your continued help.  Being a philanthropist doesn’t require you to be a millionaire – even contributing ten or twenty dollars during a fund-raiser or dropping a few dollars or some spare change into a kettle makes a huge difference.

Beyond philanthropy, you should also consider volunteering in your community.  Every organization needs more people – and not just during disasters – to meet the needs of those they help – and ANYONE can volunteer, it’s just a matter of finding the right organization and the right role for you.  Jobs can be as diverse as office assistance to disaster response.  Some positions require training, which the organization will provide.  Every organization will help find the position that is right for you.  Organizations are even happy to have entire families volunteer!  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – January 21st – has also been designated as National Volunteer Day.  Through their website you can find volunteer opportunities (also check volunteermatch.org) as well as volunteer fairs that will be held around the nation on January 21st.  If you have interest in a particular organization, just give them a call and let them know you would like to volunteer.

Whether of yourself or of your wallet, please consider giving – it makes a world of difference.

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

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


Exercises can be very resource intensive, have no doubt about that.  Generally speaking, the more you invest in them, though, the more you get out of them.  Certainly discussion-based exercises are usually not as expensive as operations-based exercises.  For all exercise types, however, the largest costs are in the design (staff or consultant time, as well as meeting time), and conduct (again, staff or consultant time, plus the time of the participants).  What resources do you need for your exercise program as a whole?  How do you get them?

First of all, let’s discuss human resources.  In Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1, I discussed the importance of having an exercise program manager and what some of the qualifications should be for that person.  A program manager is probably the most important human resource you could have for exercises, but certainly this person can’t do it alone.  A good exercise program is able to leverage the experience, support, and ideas of others – both within and outside.  The exercise program manager needs to be a great networker, able to draw people from various agencies into a mutually beneficial partnership.  Some of these agencies will come and go, but some will be strong, permanent partners.  Each partner agency, including your own, should be contributing to the efforts of the group – not only with ideas, but with people to serve as controllers, evaluators, planning team members, etc., physical resources suitable for whatever types of exercises you conduct, and perhaps even funding.

In March of 2008, I founded and co-chaired the New York State Exercise Coordination Committee, composed of several state agencies, departments, authorities, and the Red Cross.  Meeting regularly and communicating often, we were able to pool our resources not only for each individual exercise, but for exercise program management as a whole throughout New York State.  We formulated consistent policies and practices, allocated Homeland Security funds state-wide for exercises and corrective actions, and developed and delivered exercise-related workshops and training courses.  We became the core group for the Training & Exercise Planning Workshop (more on this in the next part) and applied for and coordinated funding requests to FEMA for the Regional Exercise Support Program (RESP), which provided contractor resources to state and local exercise initiatives.  We were not only able to help each other, but we were able to benefit the state as a whole.  This model can be applied to other states; county and local governments; and consortia of public, private, and not for profit groups.

Keep in mind that the HSEEP cycle is just that, a cycle.  You will constantly be revisiting each of these steps – sometimes out-of-order – including determining needs and sourcing of resources.



What resources do you think you will need to manage your program?

Be on the lookout for Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conducting an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Hurricane Sandy – Be Prepared and Stay Safe!

I’m finishing my preparations for a quick trip to California to help evaluate an earthquake exercise.  All the while, I’m watching Hurricane Sandy come up the coast after creating some havoc in the Caribbean.  According to the latest National Hurricane Center advisory, Sandy will make landfall in southern New Jersey, and progress inland to central Pennsylvania before turning north and heading through New York State, the track taking it through the Finger Lakes area.  From there, the current advisory predicts that the storm will turn to the northeast, saturating New England.  It’s going to be a very wet, rainy week as Sandy slows soon after making landfall.  Of particular concern here in New York is the western portion of the state which has received a fair amount of rainfall over the last couple of days from the cold front that has progressed here from the mid west.


Thus far, there seems to be an appropriate amount of concern over this storm.  While I’ve heard some folks say that people are overly concerned, I don’t think officials are crying wolf with this.  First, as I’m sure you’ve read in the media, many factors of this storm are unprecedented or rarely seen, particularly the collision with the cold front – resulting in many of the hurricane advisories including snow in their forecast – SNOW for a HURRICANE!  Who would have ever thought that would happen?  Second, the storm is maintaining hurricane strength right up to landfall, bringing significant winds and storm surge with it.  New York City is taking actions which to my recollection are fully in compliance with their hurricane plans, such as low elevation evacuations, closing of mass transit and tunnels ahead of the storm, and other protective actions.  States of emergency have been declared all along the northeast states, with the President declaring an emergency in Maryland, which will be the first to feel the full effects of the category 1 storm with sustained winds of 75 miles per hour.  I expect the President will make similar declarations ahead of the storm reaching subsequent states.  States along the projected impact path all have activated their emergency operations centers (EOCs), pulling together local, state, and federal agencies, as well as some not for profits such as the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army, to coordinate efforts and situational information.

I’ve received storm preparedness information from several sources already, including Ready.gov, the Small Business Administration, Time Warner Cable, and National Grid.  I’m certain utility companies in other area are doing the same outreach to their customers.  Locally, the Erie Canal is being closed and water levels dropped to help mitigate against flooding, which has devastated communities along the waterway in the past.  Local governments are putting out preparedness public service announcements to citizens to help ensure they are prepared.  You’ve heard me comment before about the complacency of much of our population when it comes to emergency preparedness.  Please pay heed to what is being suggested and spread the word that preparedness for this storm is serious.  Be sure to have a few days of water, food, medications, and batteries for flashlights.  Keep your cell phone charged and pay attention to weather information and emergency alerts.  If you are a New Yorker, now is a great time to subscribe to NY-ALERT to be certain to receive emergency information.  If you are outside of New York, many states now have similar alerting systems.  Even clearing away leaves and debris, which is plentiful this time of year, from storm sewers and culverts will be a big help.  If you manage or own a business, be sure to pull out your emergency and continuity plans (you have these, right?) and be sure to keep your employees and other stakeholders informed of what’s going on.

I’m sure that when I return I’ll be helping with some disaster response and recovery activities in the area.  The better you prepare and the smarter you are, the less responders have to risk their lives and valuable resources, so be smart, be prepared, and stay safe!

Red Cross ReadyRating Program

I recently sat through a webinar on the Red Cross ReadyRating Program.  Admittedly, I’ve perused their site before, and even recommended their services – which I certainly understood – but I never realized how in-depth their program goes.  The webinar was hosted by Agility Recovery, who regularly puts on brief and informative programs of good quality. 

The ReadyRating program is a web-based service, absolutely free of charge, that provides businesses, organizations, and schools with a free disaster readiness assessment tool.  The tool seems to be useful to entities large and small, even allowing larger businesses or organizations with multiple locations to conduct an assessment for each location folded in under the same account.  The user answers questions and the tool quantifies the entity’s measure of preparedness and provides customized reports showing various data in a variety of formats (charts, report card, etc).  ReadyRating apparently even grades the amount of community participation the entity has relative to preparedness efforts (see my previous post re: Public-Private Partnerships).  The tool also enables creation of a customized emergency response plan – something I’m a little cautious of (generally speaking, I’m not in favor of ‘fill in the blank’ planning) – but I’ve not actually used the tool, so I can’t speak from direct experience on it.

ReadyRating refers to their users as ‘members’ – and they have a fairly impressive membership, both in numbers (2,689 businesses and organizations, 570 schools) as well as in names (they list the likes of Anheuser Busch, Grainger, Monsanto, and others).  Feedback from members is very favorable, and the tool provides for the ability to do re-assessments and showing progress to the user – that’s great encouragement to them!  They even show comparisons with other members (anonymously) (comparisons are provided nationally, state-wide, number of employees, and by industry).

ReadyRating is quite an impressive tool – and it’s free!  I have it listed on the links page of my company’s website – Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC along with other resources.  Check it out!

Emergency Preparedness for Persons with Disabilities

My post is in reference to an article in Emergency Management Magazine (found here:http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/Emergency-Planning-Disabled-Uphill-Battle.html).  The author’s article brings up several pertinent points around preparedness planning for persons with disabilities.  This, like darn near everything in emergency management, requires a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary approach.  We also need to be very certain to not lump all persons with disabilities into one category.  There are various levels of function that people may have.  Many people live with disabilities every day and are highly functioning, requiring little or no help.  Others may require daily or constant assistance from family, friends, or other care takers, including medical professionals.  Some folks are dependent upon medications or medical equipment (insulin dependant diabetics, those requiring dialysis, or home oxygen), while some have mobility impairments.  Some may have cognitive disabilities such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, or a traumatic brain injury.  Some persons may have several disabilities which need to be considered.  A community’s planning efforts must incorporate the full spectrum of needs.

Following our emergency planning steps, we can easily pull together the people and information we need.  First, form a planning group.  Emergency management, local health department, and local organizations that advocate for persons with disabilities, such as the Arc, associations for the blind and hearing impaired, diabetes association, MDA, UCP, etc.  These are all important stakeholders as they serve and advocate for our disabled populations on a daily basis.  You should probably know your community’s hazards, but we should analyze how they can impact persons with disabilities.  We have to define what needs exist that we need to address.  We can even consider mitigation measures, such as obtaining strobe light alerting for those with hearing impairments.

Help your community keep its finger on the pulse of the needs of persons with disabilities by forming a special needs registry.  Those utilized now are web-based and help first responders and emergency management identify, plan for, and address the changing needs in the community.  Having current information such as names, addresses, and type and severity of disability are extremely important.  Planning for notification, evacuation, transportation, and sheltering are often times the most challenging.  Expand your planning group when these challenges come up.  Include utility companies (who will prioritize power restoration to those who are dependent for medical reasons), local and regional transportation authorities, and those agencies and resources who will staff special needs shelters.

Remember, most persons with disabilities are not an idol portion of our population.  They are highly functioning and can help, needing only the right accommodations to do so.  Also, be sure to promote special needs preparedness.  FEMA, the American Red Cross, and others have excellent resources for this.  Your local association for the blind and visually impaired can help you obtain materials in large print or braille.  The National Organization on Disability is also a great resource (nod.org).  Don’t leave anyone behind!