Different Perspectives on Disaster Recovery

It seems a lot of the things we have been dealing with relative to the Coronavirus pandemic have brought us a different perspective, or at least have revealed a perspective that public health and emergency management have been concerned about for a while.  The pandemic given us a more accurate perspective on the impacts of a truly major public health event and the things we need to do to manage it.  We also find ourselves looking ahead to recovery and needing to view that through a different lens as well. 

Most disaster recovery, and in fact the way the Stafford Act is written, reflects physical damage from disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes.  We are dealing with debris, damaged infrastructure, displaced masses, and the like.  The pandemic is something completely different.  While we may see shades of some more traditional recovery activity, recovery from the pandemic is giving us a very different way of seeing things. 

Before we get into the details, one of the biggest factors in all this is trying to determine where recovery fits in.  It’s long been a conundrum for people who want to make emergency management an exact science to be able to stick a pin in the exact spot where response ends and recovery begins.  Not only does the lack of that delineation persist for the pandemic, it’s exacerbated.  But that’s not all.  While some recovery activity has already started (more about that in a bit), the big push may not be able to start until society can at least begin to intermingle (though likely with some continued precautions).  Further, true recovery arguably can’t take place until we have a vaccine.  Until we reach that point, recovery efforts are likely to have a stutter, as we start, then have to stop or at least slow down when infection rates increase again, then resume once they subside.  This is simply not a formula we are used to working by. 

I suppose the best way to examine this is to look at it through the Recovery Mission Area Core Capabilities:

  • Planning
  • Operational Coordination
  • Public Information and Warning
  • Infrastructure Systems
  • Economic Recovery
  • Health and Social Services
  • Housing
  • Natural and Cultural Resources

Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning – I’m initially lumping these three together as they are the ‘common’ Core Capabilities and we generally see these in recovery having eventually transitioned over from the response focus.  The challenge with the pandemic is that we see the overlap of response and recovery, in some circumstances, more than we are used to compared to other disasters.  Also, a lot of the recovery we currently see is coming in the form of direct services from the Federal government, with little to no connection to state or local governments.  This is heavily emphasized in matters of Economic Recovery (more on this later).  The overall sense I’m getting is that the fundamentals of these three common Core Capabilities haven’t substantially changed (obviously some of the tasks have), though the experience different jurisdictions are having varies.  Consider that most jurisdictions aren’t used to dealing with prolonged incidents such as this.  In fact, many jurisdictions have decided to no longer operate EOCs (hopefully these were virtual!) as the impacts within their jurisdictions have been minimal and what problems do exist are largely being addressed by an emergency manager supported by a multi-agency coordination group.  Other jurisdictions, obviously, are being hit much harder and their management of this incident has continued to grow as they address the myriad issues that rise up and prepare for what they expect to see next.  There are some of the differences in Operational Coordination. 

Looking a little closer at Planning, this should still be taking place regardless of the volume of work your jurisdiction is experiencing, and even if your jurisdiction doesn’t have a public health department.  There is a lot of planning that still needs to take place to account for recovery, continuity of operations, and contingencies.  This one really permeates the other Core Capabilities the most. 

Lastly within this group, Public Information and Warning.  Absent jurisdictions that are used to dealing with more prolonged responses and recovery, most haven’t had to address a need for persistent public messaging.  While a lot of it is echoing guidance coming from certain authorities like the CDC or state health departments, more localized matters still need to be addressed in terms of what local services are or are not available (or how they now need to be accessed), providing information on planned events, and addressing rumors and mis-information. 

Infrastructure Systems – Restoration of infrastructure is often a big emphasis in most disasters.  Roads, bridges, water and waste water systems, electricity, and other systems are often damaged or destroyed as the result of the disaster of the day.  In the matter of the pandemic, generally the most impact we see in these systems is delays in maintenance because of some decreased capacity among those that are responsible for them.  Perhaps the one significant exception, through from a very different perspective, is internet services.  While internet services weren’t damaged by the pandemic, they were heavily impacted with many organizations directing staff to work from home.  College students are now engaged in classes from home instead of the campus.  Families and friends are connecting more often via video calling. Even on-line gaming has seen a surge with people spending more time at home.  All this changed the dynamic of internet use.  Most businesses are provided with dedicated lines by internet service providers, designed to handle the concentrated surge of internet use demanded by a facility or collection of facilities.  Much of that use has dwindled, shifting to a drastic increase on residential services.  We also see increased demands on either end of this, with attention being drawn to entire areas that have no internet service as well as the need for increased server capacity of companies that host video calling and gaming platforms.  Even organizations and their employees have had to scramble to ensure that employees (and students) have internet access at home, the hardware required to access the internet, and the ability to connect to the organization’s servers and services. 

Another interesting perspective on infrastructure, however, comes from the emphasis on essential services and essential employees that we hear of every day.  While definitions of this have existed for some time, in this disaster alone we have seen that definition change a few times as we realize the connectivity between certain services and organizations.  Some important lessons to be documented and applied to future planning efforts. 

Economic Recovery – For as much as Infrastructure Systems (largely) haven’t been impacted, Economic Recovery has needed to be significantly re-imagined.  With businesses being forced to close and employees being furloughed or laid off, the global economy has taken a significant hit.  This is certainly a prime example, perhaps our first, of how deep a disaster of a global scale can cut us.  As a result, many nations around the planet have been pushing out some sort of economic stimulus, helping those that are unemployed as well as those businesses that are still open yet struggling with decreases in revenue.  The economic hit from the pandemic will take years to recover from and will require some very different ways of solving the problem.  Governments have only so much money to give.  Many jurisdictions are also examining the association between infrastructure and economic recovery in a different light, especially as thought is being put into when and how to re-open our communities and economies. 

As a related side note, we were recently awarded a contract to provide guidance on the reopening of transportation and transit in major cities.  Continued preventative measures as well as human behaviors are going to apply some interesting demands on urban planning, prompting cities to respond appropriately to these changes if they want to see businesses rebound, or even thrive as we move further into recovery. 

Health and Social Services – Rarely does public health lead the way through a major disaster.  Though we realize that just with other disasters where we might like to think that people are in charge, the disaster itself still remains in the driver’s seat and we are really just along for the ride, trying to address problems the best we can. Our health system is stretched, yet we see an interesting irony of hospitals laying off staff, as elective surgeries and other non-emergency services are presently suspended.   Obviously public health will continue to lead the way through our recovery.  Even with others seemingly in charge of other recovery functions, it is public health markers which will become the decision points that dictate our overall recovery.  On the social services side of this Core Capability, we also see a change in dynamics.  While the pandemic doesn’t have the physical impacts of a more traditional disaster, we are also seeing fewer people being displaced overall due to emergency legal protections being put in place to prevent evictions and utility service disconnections from lack of payment.  That said, we are still seeing traditional social service issues related to food, medicine, and mental health exacerbated due to the pandemic, the economic impact from the pandemic, and the mental stresses imposed by the pandemic as a whole, as well as social distancing, deaths, and other factors.  While many social services have traditionally been very hands-on and face-to-face, many of these services have moved to remote models, though others, by necessity, are still physically operating.  Social services recovery, linked to economic recovery as well as psychological matters like PTSD, will persist long after the pandemic.  Recovery plans must be re-imagined to address this.  Public health recovery, similarly, will last long after the pandemic as we need to take an honest look at the gaps in our system and work to address them. 

Housing – As mentioned earlier, there are few displacements (that should be) happening as a result of the pandemic.  Houses haven’t been destroyed as a direct result of the pandemic. Though how long will landlords be able to reasonably wait for back rents to be paid to them?  While those that own large apartment complexes may be able to absorb these losses, landlords with small properties will not.  They are small businesses, with bills to pay and mouths to feed.  While it’s great for tenants to get a reprieve, this also has impacts.  Local economies will likely need to figure out how to address this. 

Natural and Cultural Resources – Similar to infrastructure and housing, our natural resources have seen, overall, limited impact from the pandemic.  In fact, by many reports, many of our natural resources have seen marked and measurable improvement due to decreases in pollution and other impacts of ‘normal’ human activity.  Many cultural resources, on the other hand, have been impacted. I speak not of historical sites, which are often considered in the reconstruction activities associated with disaster recovery, but of museums and performance centers.  Museums, as with any other organization, rely on income to survive.  Many are non-profits, and generally put revenue into improving the facility and its collections, leaving not much of a ‘rainy day’ fund.  Similarly, collections haven’t been damaged, as they might have in another disaster, so there is no insurance claim to cover losses.  Similarly, performance centers, such as the 1930s era theater where I perform improv, haven’t seen revenue in weeks.  Here, we blur the lines between a different perspective on cultural preservation with economic recovery.  Another challenge local economies will have. 

So where does this leave us?  Clearly we are seeing different perspectives of each of these Core Capabilities, requiring us to approach them in ways different than we have in the past.  While the easy solution to many of them is money, an economy globally impacted has little funding to adequately do so.  We also see the interconnectivity of these Core Capabilities.  For many, there is reliance on others to make progress before another can see tangible improvement.  That said, planning is still the crux of it all. We must make deliberate planning efforts to address each of these.  Sure, we can reference current plans, but I argue that most current plans are inadequate, as the problems and the resultant solutions were not anticipated to look like this.  Planning also needs to occur at all levels, and there absolutely must be an emphasis on the first step of the CPG 101 planning process… Form a Team.  Our recovery from a global, national, and community level requires people working together.  We see now, more than ever, how interconnected things are.  This is no time to be insular.  We must consider all stakeholders, including citizens, organizations, and businesses, as part of our planning teams.  And by the way, we’re already behind. 

A couple more items before I close this rather long post.  First of all, consideration should be given to Continuity being added to the Core Capabilities.  Perhaps as a common Core Capability, but at least as one that is included in more than one mission area.  It’s a specific effort that, yes, does include planning (as should any other Core Capability), but has a very specific function and implementations. 

Second (and lastly), you absolutely must be capturing and documenting lessons learned (strengths and areas for improvement).  In fact, don’t wait to hotwash.  If you haven’t already, do one now.  You will do another later.  And likely one or more after that.  The duration of this disaster, and the different focal points and phases of it will constantly shift our attention and cause people to forget what they have learned.  Lessons learned must be captured in phases, allowing us to focus on sets of activities.  Be sure to document your lessons learned, share them far and wide, and set a timeline for implementing improvements.  There is so much to learn from this disaster, but it’s a waste if we ignore it or expect someone else to tell us what to do.   

I hope I delivered in this piece, highlighting the different perspectives of disaster recovery we are dealing with.  Are all disaster recovery activities fully turned on their heads?  Of course not.  We are still able to apply the standards we have been for decades, though some of them do need to be looked at and approached from a different perspective.  I’m very interested in feedback and thoughts. 

Stay safe. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Speculation on the Upcoming Role of Local Governments in Pandemic Recovery

Last night I remotely facilitated a session with the senior leadership of a mid-sized city discussing multi-agency coordination, incident management, and other concepts, mostly within the context of the coronavirus pandemic.  We spoke at great lengths about the role of local government in this, especially when they do not have their own health department, and what expectations there might be of them in the future.  In this discussion I had the realization of a potential scenario that seems to hold a fair amount of probability, and it’s one that is grounded in prior practice.

A bit of a disclaimer up front.  My regular readers know that I usually avoid speculation.  In the wrong context, speculation can cause undue stress or unnecessary effort.  Obviously, that is not my goal.  My goal is, as is typical of most of my articles, to promote thought and discussion on preparedness activities which are grounded in reality.  As I’ve said to people many times over the past several weeks, it’s not too late to prepare.  There are still plenty of things that we need to be preparing for in the midst of our response, including contingency plans for other potential hazards, and obviously continued operational needs.  The best emergency managers think ahead.  What I’m writing is not a call to action, but rather a call to thought. 

When it comes to vaccination (once a vaccine is developed), it’s apparent that everyone will need to be vaccinated.  While there are some factors which will force us to deploy vaccines in phases, including the supply of vaccine and the need to provide for fragile and critical populations first, there will eventually come a time when the population at-large will need to be vaccinated.  Obviously, our public health system is not equipped to administer inoculations for everyone in every jurisdiction in a timely fashion.  As such, there will be considerable reliance on local governments and advanced EMS providers, among others, to make this happen. 

First off, addressing the use of advanced EMS providers – this is not without precedent.  Advanced EMTs and paramedics have been used for a while now to support public health in mass inoculation needs, which have included H1N1, Hepatitis A outbreaks, and other viruses.  I expect that we will see these personnel used again to support the eventual vaccination of the global population against Coronavirus.  Because of the sheer volume needed, it is probable that we will see other medical practitioners likewise engaged.  When the time comes, state health departments and state EMS agencies will need to develop or update (if they have them already) protocols and just-in-time training for personnel on the proper administration of the vaccine.  Agreements in regard to paid third-party EMS service providers will also need to be addressed.  Overall, EMS will be a significant and necessary augmentation of our public health system in this regard. 

So what’s the role of local government that I expect?  Most public health outbreaks we deal with are fairly localized, allowing public health officials to establish and manage vaccination points of distribution where they are needed.  In a ‘typical’ outbreak, they can mobilize the resources needed, supported by state health departments and mutual aid from other public health offices.  The activities for these points of distribution include the development of protocol and record keeping standards and mechanism, identifying the population, securing suitable facilities, equipping those facilities (tables, chairs, internet, privacy screens, etc.), notifying the public, coordinating with local officials for control of traffic and movement of people, delivery and administration of the vaccine, securing of sharps and biological waste, and clean up; among other things.  In the scope of the coronavirus outbreak our public health offices doesn’t have the resources to do all this for every jurisdiction.  I suspect that along with providing the serum and supplies to administer it, public health will only be able to establish standards and provide guidance, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that jurisdictions will be asked to provide significant support in the non-clinical aspects of setting up and managing these points of distribution. 

What does this mean for local governments?  As I’m not a government official nor do I have an ability to definitively see the future, I certainly would not advise local governments to engage in any detailed efforts now to prepare for this scenario unless they have been advised by a public health entity to do so.  That said, it may be wise to pull together some stakeholders and at least outline a framework for how this can be done.  I’m confident that at least some of what is identified will be of use in the future of this pandemic.  Some jurisdictions may have already developed plans for points of distribution, which will be a good reference, but will likely be found to have inadequacies given current information on planning assumptions, the increased role of local governments I predict, and sheer numbers to be vaccinated. 

Who else has considered this future need?  I’m interested in hearing from others about their thoughts on these possibilities. 

Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and make a difference. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

8 Predicted Changes to Emergency Management Post-Pandemic

In public safety we learn from every incident we deal with.  Some incidents bring about more change than others.  This change comes not just from lessons learned, but an effort to apply change based upon those lessons. In recent history, we’ve seen significant changes in emergency management practice come from disasters like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, with many of the changes so significant that they are actually codified and have led to new doctrine and new practices at the highest levels.  What changes can we expect from the Coronavirus pandemic?

Of course, it’s difficult to predict the future.  We’re also still in the middle of this, so my thoughts may change a month or two into the future.  Any speculation will begin with idealism, but this must be balanced with pragmatism.  Given that, the items I discuss here are perhaps more along the lines of changes I would like to see which I think have a decent chance of actually happening. 

  1. Legislation.  Similar to the aforementioned major disasters, this too will spawn legislation from which doctrine and programs will be derived.  We are always hopeful that it’s not politicians who pen the actual legislation, but subject matter experts and visionaries with no political agendas other than advancing public health preparedness and related matters. 
  2. More public health resources. This one, I think, is pretty obvious.  We need more resources to support public health preparedness, prevention, and detection efforts.  Of course, this begins with funding which will typically be spawned from the legislation mentioned previous.  Public health preparedness is an investment, though like most preparedness efforts, it’s an investment that will dwindle over time if it’s not properly maintained and advanced to address emerging threats and best practices.  Funding must address needs, programs to address those needs, and the resources to implement those programs. 
  3. Further integration of public health into emergency management.  Emergency management is a team sport.  Regardless of the hazard or the primary agencies involved, disasters impact everyone and many organizations and practices are stakeholders in its resolution and can contribute resources to support the resolution of primary impacts and cascading effects.  Despite some gains following 9/11, public health preparedness has still been treated like an acquaintance from another neighborhood. The legislation, doctrine, programs, and resources that we see MUST support an integrated and comprehensive response.  No longer can we allow public health to be such an unfamiliar entity to the rest of the emergency management community (to be clear – the fault to date lies with everyone). 
  4. Improved emergency management preparedness.  Pulling back to look at emergency management as a whole, we have certainly identified gaps in preparedness comprehensively.  Plans that were lacking or didn’t exist at all.  Equipment and systems that were lacking or didn’t exist at all.  People who didn’t know what to do.  Organizations that weren’t flexible or responsible enough.  Processes that took too long.  Poor assumptions on what impacts would be. We can and must do better.
  5. An increase in operational continuity preparedness.  We’ve been preaching continuity of operations/government for decades, yet so few have listened. The Coronavirus pandemic has shown us so many organizations jumping through their asses as they figure it all out for the first time.  By necessity they have figured it out, some better than others.  My hope here is that they learned from their experience and will embrace the concepts of operational continuity and identify a need to leverage what they have learned and use that as a basis for planning, training, exercises, and other preparedness efforts to support future continuity events. 
  6. Further expansion of understanding of community lifelines and interdependencies of critical infrastructure.  This pandemic gave us real world demonstrations of how connected we are, how vulnerable some of our critical infrastructure is, and what metrics (essential elements of information) we should be monitoring when a disaster strikes.  I expect we will see some updated documents from DHS and FEMA addressing much of this. 
  7. More/better public-private partnerships.  The private sector stepped up in this disaster more than they previously ever had. Sure, some mistakes were made, but the private sector has been incredibly responsive and they continue to do so.  They have supported their communities, customers, and governments to address needs they identified independently as well as responding to requests from government.  They changed production.  Increased capacity.  Distributed crisis messages.  Changed operations to address safety matters.  Some were stretched to capacity, despite having to change their business models.  Many companies have also been providing free or discounted products to organizations, professionals, and the public.  We need to continue seeing this kind of awareness and responsiveness.  I also don’t want to dismiss those businesses, and their employees, that took a severe financial hit.  Economic stabilization will be a big issue to address in recovery from this disaster, and I’m hopeful that our collective efforts can help mitigate this in the future. 
  8. An improved preparedness mindset for individuals and families.  Despite the panic buying we saw, much of the public has finally seemed to grasp the preparedness messaging we have been pushing out for decades.  These are lessons I hope they don’t forget. Emergency management, collectively, absolutely must capitalize on the shared experience of the public to encourage (proper) preparedness efforts moving forward and to keep it regularly in their minds. 

In all, we want to see lasting changes – a new normal, not just knee-jerk reactions or short-lived programs, that will see us eventually sliding backwards.  I’m sure I’ll add more to this list as time goes on, but these are the big items that I am confident can and (hopefully) will happen.  I’m interested in your take on these and what you might add to the list.

Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Funeral Services in the Midst of a Pandemic

Despite Coronavirus and COVID19, there are things that must continue. Public safety, health and hospitals, grocers, shipping and distribution, banking and finance all carry on.  Unfortunately, be it related to COVID19 or otherwise, people die.  Based on social norms, religious practice, and family tradition, we mourn our dead, typically coming together to see them off to the afterlife.  Obviously, we need not risk our own lives to mourn the dead. 

With the recommendation for gatherings being no more than ten people, we should understand that this will likely mean only immediate family, or just a few select family members to be physically present for services.  There has been some great guidance going out from the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA) for funeral home directors and other related practitioners based upon information from and consultation with the CDC and other public health experts.  The CDC’s COVID19 site also has an FAQ for funerals (and other topics).  The NFDA recommends that funeral home directors and religious facilities provide live streams of services for loved ones who may not be able to attend services. 

Public safety agencies, emergency management offices, and other government officials may be getting inquiries about the conduct of funeral services.  It’s important that we know where to go for this information. 

Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC