Monthly Archives: June 2011

Resilient SF

Earlier this week Mayor Lee announced the launch of – a web portal that becomes the doorway to a program we’ve had in “soft launch” for almost a year. Finally we’ve got almost all of the pieces together and we can take this from concept to reality.

What is it you ask? Well, that’s a long story that’s evolved over several years of learning, but here’s the shorthand version.

To start, here’s my  guiding principles for this (I say “my” because other partners may have some that are different…which is OK):

  • people are more prepared than they think,
  • strong communities before a disaster will be strong after a disaster,
  • relationships are the key to everything, and
  • the only people that can drive change are people themselves.

We started looking at all the transactions that take place every day in San Francisco and started to see how those seemingly disparate interactions related to overall community resiliency. Most, if not all neighborhood or community based programs have a common goal: improve living conditions in some fashion or another. Be it removing graffiti, picking up trash, building a playground or implementing a neighborhood watch they all serve that common purpose of making things better. What happens, if we look at core behaviors, is community problem solving and relationship building.

After a disaster there are a whole bunch of problems to solve that will require the community to come together and speak as one. There will be enough problems at the macro level that will cause delays in recovery, so it’s critical that people be able to work out the micro level on their own.  Seemed like a no brainer to get on board and support any and all programs that get people out of their houses and talking to each other. If we ‘professionals’ all agree that the worst time to exchange business cards is during a crises, doesn’t that hold true for when to meet your neighbors?

So why not just pull together neighborhood parties around disaster preparedness? Well, you could if that’s what people wanted to talk about. But, truth is, most people don’t want to talk about disasters. They do want to talk about crime, graffiti, community beautification projects and the like.

Government will continue to hit a wall so long as we keep trying to drive the conversation. We need to listen. We need to open our minds to the possibility that by becoming a trusted partner in things the community cares about the end result will be a stronger community and a better relationship between the community and government. That will go a long way during a disaster. A lot longer than some freeze dried food.

So what about stuff? Government is supposed to direct people to get stuff? People will need water, food, flashlights, duct tape (hey it’s useful! not just for sealing doors!)….this doesn’t change any of that.  It just changes how and when we bring it up.

My basic philosophy is that people are more prepared than they think. Most people have stuff, the basics of a plan, and an idea of what to do. The trick is getting them to see that and fill the gap. For that, you need the relationships.  Resilient SF does two things in this regard; it builds a platform where we can have those conversations and it multiplies the number of avenues to deliver the message. By partnering with the Department of the Environment (for instance) we not only support their goals, but they have the opportunity to inject core preparedness behaviors into the interactions they have with the community.

If neighbors know each other and have a common bond, they’ll take care of each other. We see this happening in small towns all the time. We need to bring that mindset back to the urban environment. One neighborhood at a time.

By scrapping the traditional view of preparedness and eliminating a reliance on kits and plans we begin to see the strength in a community lies in the community itself. If we listen to the community and partner with them to accomplish their goals we open the door to encourage behaviors and actions that meet our goals. And when you stop and think about it, at the elemental level they are pretty much the same: strong communities who look out for each other.

Harsh Lessons

If anybody wonders why we activate the City’s emergency systems all the time (special events, exercises, small emergencies) just read this article about Japan’s nuclear plant after the earthquake:

Every time we activate we learn – we find weaknesses, we refine processes, we build relationships.

What it comes down to is that nobody at the plant practiced “for real” – if they had physically tried to complete the tasks they would have realized that they didn’t have a manual, equipment was in the wrong spot….all the details that will kill you (literally) in a crisis. I’m sure they did drills – but made assumptions and probably rarely actually donned the gear or walked through the steps. And if they did, somebody most likely faked it or didn’t want to mention or learn from the failures.

The other lesson here is thinking beyond your box – the engineers probably didn’t think about debris management (somebody else!) and what they found was that if stuff is in the way, nobody can get to you…which means you get NO help. Plans and systems are interdependent.

Think about your own life – if the car is broken you can’t get to work, so your income suffers. Kids can’t get to school, so they fall behind. So we all have alternatives – bus, friends, etc…

It’s the same for emergency plans – If you’re responsible contingency plans, think about failure points outside your control. And then make a friend so you can address the potential fail point.

Details matter, so don’t gloss over them. Your life could depend on it.


I’m sitting in the Emergency Operations Center as we wind down the activation in support of the Fallen Heroes Memorial today. Since the deaths of our two firefighters I’ve been wrestling with what to write – so much is in my head and heart, but finding the words has been difficult. Now, reflecting on the week and the collective grief, the tension, the planning… culminating with a fine tribute to the fallen, it all starts to make sense. A little bit. Well, not so much makes sense as I’m starting to understand the dynamics and interconnectedness of it all. It’s safe to say the vast majority at the funeral today didn’t know the deceased, but what’s more important is that they are part of the same community of servants, a community of people that have dedicated their lives to helping others on their worst day. It’s a unique blend of skills and people that form a community dedicated to bringing order from chaos. With such a tragedy as this, the ripple through that community is profound – wrenching free deep feelings and pushing them to the surface in a community known for being emotionally stalwart.

People don’t call 911 when they’re happy. Indeed it’s usually when they are experiencing one of the worst days of their lives, emotions are high (to say the least), and everyone wants answers and actions. Its way more than just doing some procedures, chasing a bad guy or dragging a hose. There’s a huge human element that comes from both the victims and those around them. Sometimes they just need advice. Sometimes they need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes they want the impossible and that frustration gets directed at us. Dealing with all of that is really what makes the difference between good and great – and by all accounts Tony and Vince were great. Listening to the stories today I could relate to the predicaments and situations they found themselves in. I laughed, I cried, I nodded my head and said to myself, “yep, I’ve been there…” But I’m not going to even attempt to do their memories justice, people who were close to them paid a far greater tribute than I ever could.

We use words like honor and hero to describe the fallen. I only knew Tony in passing and Vincent not at all (that’s not to say I never ran a call with him, I probably did) but the one thing I can pretty much guarantee is that they didn’t see themselves as heroes. They would shy away from such a label. They were two guys doing what they loved to do. They were part of this community that is drawn to the center of chaos. They did their jobs, they did them well, and they were happy. And that’s what really makes them heroes.

They will be missed. As the ripple passes and the community at large begins to heal we will remember and support our sisters and brothers at the SFFD who bear the brunt of the loss. Our hearts broke with them last week, we stood by them this week and we will be with them in the weeks and months to come as they begin to heal. The very community that suffered the loss came together and waded into the center of the chaos to try and right things. It’s just how’s things are done in this community. They stood by SFFD this time, and I can guarantee that when someone is in need the City and especially the SFFD will be at the front of the line.

Thank you to all who participated and helped us today, particularly those who worked behind the scenes to ensure things went off without a hitch. It’s easy to forget those behind the curtain, pulling levers and spinning the wheels – but without them none of today would be possible, so they are due a huge debt of gratitude. And I absolutely have to say a special thank you to Boudin Bakery – when we put our order in to feed everyone at the operations center than was there to support the memorial, they graciously donated the entire order. Thank you. The gesture does not go unnoticed and was greatly appreciated.

In the line of duty

Suffice it to say that public safety is an inherently dangerous line of work.  Nobody dwells on it. These people do their jobs and accept risk for what it is – part of the package. They train for it, they plan for it, and they make things as safe as possible.

And sometimes tragedy strikes.

A firefighter was killed and a two injured fighting a fire in San Francisco yesterday.

As the City family navigates the difficult days ahead we will all remember the sacrifice of those in service and stand with them as they continue to do their jobs even as they grieve the loss of one of their own.

Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with the families of the fallen and our colleagues at the SFFD.