The only difference between adventure and disaster is preparedness.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lessons Learned

This is a great article from our colleague, Gerald Baron of Emergency Management Magazine.  To read more from Emergency Management Magazine click here.

"I admit, I should have been at my computer working when the earth shook this morning. Instead, I was out on my lawn trying to hone my inconsistent driver swing when this morning's Southern California earthquake hit a little before 10 am. Being about 15 miles from the epicenter of a 4.7 magnitude (some still say 5.2) earthquake is not an every day experience, even for someone from the earthquake prone Pacific Northwest.

As I look back at that experience, now just a few hours old, it reinforces some of the things about emergency communications that we keep talking about here. It took a few seconds for my mind to register what was going on. I was only about ten feet from the back patio of our winter home in Palm Desert. I thought I heard a loud truck going by behind me on the main road in our development. So when I suddenly saw the windows start to shake and the pillars in the patio moving I first thought, that truck is really causing some vibration. Then I realized it couldn't be (and the truck sound might have been the sound of the earthquake as my neighbor said). I watched the windows in amazement, first being oh so grateful not to be in the house as I thought it might start crumbling. I looked to the six foot high hedge just to my right and it was shaking as if one of those strong winds was blowing. But there was no wind.

Where's my wife? was my first thought. She ran into town to the grocery store. I need to call her. Lesson 1: first thing is needing to communicate to find out if loved ones are OK. For many, this panic to see if everyone is ok extends to pets. Emergency planners are realizing more and more that considering pets is a key to people's behavior.

But I couldn't call or text her. I left my phone on my desk. And I didn't want to go inside thinking that there was more and worse to come. Turns out there were four or more earthquakes near here this morning, foreshocks including one located a couple miles to the east in LaQuinta.

Then I thought, dang, without my phone I can't check Twitter to see what this is all about. Lesson 2: like many today my first thought was not to turn on the TV or radio, not even to go to a news channel on my smartphone. My first thought was to check Twitter because I knew if others were affected, there was going to be chatter.

It wasn't long before my desperation to contact my wife and get additional information overcame my fear of more shaking and I went in to get my phone. I got out of the house as quickly as I got it (I was still shaking and not sure I could tell if it was the floor or me.) The relief of having that little device in my hands is hard to describe. My lifeline.

I called my wife. She was fine, if shaken. She was in the wine section of Vons and the rattling of the bottles was amazing. She and most others left their carts and headed for the exits. Remarkably, she said the checkers stayed right where they were. Lesson 3: Even in this earthquake-prone area (we are after all, just a few miles from the San Andreas fault which is clearly visible in the nearby hills), I doubt that most people and companies are adequately prepared. What guidance is provided to employees to take action and protect customers? There was no PA announcement. Everyone did what instincts led them to do.

With my main question answered, I hit Twitter on the phone. Yes, there were tweets from all over southern california. Lesson 4: it's amazing how crude and disgusting some people can be even in these kinds of circumstances. But, it gave me helpful information to get some idea of the scope.

By the time I connected to Twitter and started seeing the tweets from those experiencing the quake, the news channels in the area were reporting breaking news on Twitter. The hashtag #BREAKING was actively used for these stories. Lesson 5: the news channels are very very fast with stories like this, and particularly on social media. I was staying outside and really had no thought of checking the local news channels on TV. Why should I risk going back inside? I had everything I needed now that I had my phone with me.

I quickly went to USGS to check their site. There I found out about the other quakes and as much info as I needed about the quake itself. Lesson 6: those hungry for info will go quickly to the source, or the most reliable and authoritative voice. This raises the question--how fast will you be? If USGS had not had real time info I would remember that, I would never ever even think of giving them a second chance in future events for fast, accurate information. It amazes me as I reflect on this now that with this reality so many organizations, and especially emergency management agencies, are so ill-equipped to be authoritative sources of information. They do not get it that today you are either fast, or you are completely out of the game.

After satisfying my intense hunger for information, my next thought was the others in my family. I got an AP Mobile breaking news alert about that time (a little slow I thought) and since there are usually only a few of these a week, I figured this quake was pretty big news around the country. My family would worry about us and if they didn't hear, they would really worry. I sent a group email to my kids and their spouses, then called my mom and dad. They hadn't heard but it was nice chatting anyway. Lesson 7: when you've been through an emotional experience, you want to share it. With your loved ones first, then just about anyone else who might have the slightest interest (like you, for example). And that puts more of a burden on the communication networks like cellular networks, which in most major events will likely buckle under the burden.

I suspect my experience is not unique. Experience is still absolutely the best teacher, but only if there are those willing to learn from it. I hope sharing this is helpful for you."

Just today we heard a comment that "it is not the business of government to have a social media presence." Emergency managers tend to think a little more proactively and much less bureaucratically than that.  Our consumers need emergency information as fast as possible.  Many of our consumers participate in some form of social media.  The use of social media is fast, effective, cheap and simple.  Therefore....we, as an agency, use social media as a means to get out information and engage with our community.  Simple as that.

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