Monthly Archives: July 2011

Guiding Principles

Recently I had an interesting discussion with a new member of our team where he asked for some definition of parameters related to his new job. That got me to thinking – the best way I can provide that is by sharing those core beliefs that hold to when faced with decisions.So I did. We had an interesting conversation about the philosophy of leadership intent and guiding principles.

The whole idea behind leadership intent is simple, and ties back to the idea that one should hire the best people and let them do what they’re best at doing with minimal interference. In order for that to be effective it’s incumbent upon the leader to clearly indicate intent-  what we’re trying to accomplish. Then you let the experts you hired do their jobs. The guiding principles become the rules of engagement, if you will. So here are mine:

  • We’re an emergency management organization that writes plans when we’re not managing emergencies, not the other way around.
  • Community over kits, every time.
  • Use common sense and apply the test of reasonableness
  • Relationships are key to most everything
  • Integrity and character count
  • Listen, don’t just hear, but listen
  • Everybody matters

I’m still working on refining them, but it was an interesting experience to think through them and actually write down those things that really matter to me. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it.

What we do….

I get asked all the time about what, exactly, does DEM do. It’s a valid question since so much of what we do is behind the scenes; I thought I’d take a crack at explaining our role. I can only speak for us though, since we do things a little different here in the City (I know – shocking that SF is different right?).

I have to admit that coming into this business from the first responder world I had often wondered myself. Even after I took a job as a medical planner for the new OES/HS agency Mayor Newsom formed in 2004 I wasn’t entirely clear on the role of ‘emergency services.’ As a paramedic I didn’t get it – in my mind we (the first responders) were emergency services….really – we were the ones out there rolling to calls at 2AM, putting out the fires, catching the bad guy and saving lives right? What the hell does this “OES” group do anyway? They’re not in the mud or the blood. They don’t wear uniforms (mostly) and you don’t ever see them interface with the public. That’s the way I used to think.

So, what then do we actually do?

We are three things under one roof: emergency management (more on that in a minute), 911 dispatch, and the local EMS agency. In each of those roles we have expert staff and leadership with decades of experience – and in many ways the functions are quite different. That said – they all have one key common element: we help others be successful. We are the definition of a support agency. While we do have a public interface (911 calls for instance) most of our work involves identifying needs and making sure the appropriate entity is engaged –then supporting and coordinating efforts once engaged.

The biggest difference between the functions is scope and time. Our Division of Emergency Communications (911) coordinates resources to respond to events hundreds of times a day, most of which are of a relatively short duration. The Division of Emergency Services coordinates dozens of departments, government agencies and private entities for major emergencies and special events – however it’s far less frequent and generally of a much larger scope than a 911 call (and generally takes a lot longer to close out). Our EMS agency staff sets policies and coordinates medical response both daily and during emergencies – so they are the really long horizon focus and have huge scope in terms of licensure and certification, medical standards and systemic quality improvement.

When asked, one of my favorite ways to describe what we do is use an orchestra analogy. Using this example, DEM serves as the conductor – we don’t play the instruments or tell them how do perform their function, but we do try to make sure the whole group sounds good together by coordinating the individual efforts. The big difference is that we don’t do it alone (and we don’t wear tuxedos to work). DEM staff write & execute plans in concert (like that? Stuck with the whole orchestra thing) with those who provide the direct services. So when we activate the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) there’s a group of experts who represent all the disciplines engaged who collectively solve problems. It’s a brokerage of sorts – the people in the room exchange information and resources toward a common goal. And yes, at times, it’s as noisy and seemingly chaotic as the floor of the NYSE, but, like the exchange it really is controlled chaos and we get the job done.

What do we do when we’re not working in the EOC?

Our philosophy is that community comes first, so we spend a ton of time and resources working on community based resilience initiatives that has led to the Resilient SF program (wrote about that one earlier) and a host of others. We’re pretty advanced in the emergency management world in how we think about preparedness as an organic, holistic exercise in community improvement. Many are still stuck on the idea that a go bag is all you need. But that’s another soap box.

If there’s a major special event (like Fleet Week, for instance) we’re probably in the middle of it, helping plan the public safety aspects. For larger events we’ll activate the EOC and coordinate the activity from there.

We coordinate incident command and emergency management training for departments and stakeholders around the Bay Area. Over the years we’ve delivered dozens of ICS classes, put on special high level trainings for senior and elected officials, public preparedness sessions and done a huge number of outreach activities to engage and encourage people to take preparedness actions.

We are constantly developing, participating in, or delivering table top and functional exercises. It seems like every month we’re in the middle of an exercise – locally, regionally or nationally. San Francisco’s program is often sought out to participate in everything from earthquake to anthrax exercises. It can be a lot of work but it’s an invaluable opportunity to engage our peers and learn things that help us better our own programs.

And of course we plan. We look at what went right (and not so right) every time we activate. By studying what works and what doesn’t we’re able to refine processes and protocols so we’re better next time. The worst thing in the world is a plan that is finished – because once you stop working on it everything becomes stagnant and skills start to degrade. So we activate our people and our plans every time we get an opportunity. And then we learn from the experience, make adjustments and try it again. Each time it gets better and easier.

Just like an orchestra, we rehearse over and over again – because on opening night the last thing you want to do is be off key (or worse, playing from the wrong sheet of music!)

Every day is an adventure around here – I’ve yet to have a ‘slow’ day or one that I felt was boring. The list in this post is just the tip of the iceberg really – if I tried to write it all down it’d be an encyclopedia rather than a blog. I’m proud of the team here and the pace they keep – it’s demanding to say the least – but they do it, and they’re good at it. For that I have to say thanks to them – and to our constituents who engage with us to make San Francisco a better place to live, work and visit.

Closer Than You Think

Want to know how to guarantee somebody – anybody – will instantly tune out any message about disaster preparedness? Talk about disasters.

Think about it – it’s pretty easy to find a million other priorities when the topic is disasters. I mean, really – what are the odds that it’ll happen to me??

For most of us hearing that there’s going to be a major earthquake in California in the next 30 years means one thing: I’m good, I’ve got 29 years before I have to worry.  C’mon. You know I’m right. It’s human nature to put off things that we think of as complicated, difficult, expensive….I mean, there’s all these more pressing things right? Somebody has to get the kids, do the laundry, mow the lawn, retread the tires, replace the screens, sort the trash, sniff the milk…the list goes on and on and on.

But what if it wasn’t that hard? What if you were already half or more of the way there?

Most of us are.

If you have kids, do you have contingency plans in case you’re late getting out of work, one of them is sick, or when there’s just not enough of you to cover appointments and activities? Of course you do. Every parent does. You therefore have the beginnings of a family emergency plan. The gap is probably that it’s not written down and all the options and preferences are probably in one person’s head….so write them down and have a discussion.  Done.  Really. It doesn’t have to be any harder than that.

You need an out of area contact that everyone in the family knows to check in with in case of an emergency. Because of the way the phone system works it’s likely you can call out of state before you can call in the same area code. So that person becomes the hub that you can all pass messages through.  Got friends or family living in another area – out of state? Sacramento or LA will even work. Make sure everyone has the number in their cell phones or written down and carried with them. Identify the need, see what you already have, fill the gap. Really, this is easy stuff right?

How about supplies? Most people have at least a day or so worth of food in the house. It might not be exactly what you want, but dry cereal is better than nothing in a pinch. How about stuff in the freezer and fridge? Well, it’s not rotten instantly – so don’t write it off immediately. No, I’m not suggesting you eat unsafe food – just pointing out that in a crisis we need to be creative, and that means noting all the resources at hand and figuring out how best  to use them.

Do you have a BBQ? Gas or charcoal, it can provide outdoor cooking and heating.  Just need to make sure you have fuel – maybe that’s the gap, get another tank or keep a spare bag of charcoal. Of course you need to make sure it’s safe before firing up the ‘que – really, there will be a lot going on so use common sense and play it safe, don’t use it inside, etc…you know, all the warning label stuff.

OK – the big one….water. It’s also the easiest. Either buy some bottled water or figure out a creative way to store and rotate it that fits with your household. We do a lot of gardening around our house and that means we use a fair bit of water – which can get expensive, and then there’s the whole conservation thing. We’ve done rain barrels and such, but that doesn’t really carry us through the summer – our yard just isn’t big enough for a large tank farm.

A couple of years ago my wife was complaining about how long it takes for the water to get hot in our kitchen and how much we waste while it runs. So it occurred to her that if she kept a bunch of gallon jugs handy she would have all that water for gardening. The side benefit is that after a couple of years of this we probably have 50 gallons of water that are constantly rotated. I set up a couple of shelves outside and when a jug gets full it goes on the shelf, when we need to water we grab an older one. Done. Water stored and rotated. And the bill went down. Win, win, win.

My point here isn’t to tell you exactly what to do and give a list of instructions – there’s lots of websites and books on that – the point is to get everyone to start thinking outside the kit. Buying  a ready made kit from a retail chain will ensure one thing: you won’t have everything you need and you won’t have enough of the useful things that were actually in the kit. You can’t just buy a bag of stuff, throw it in the closet and color it done. Your cache of stuff needs to reflect your life… put some thought into it and have some fun with it.

Disasters NEVER follow rules or predictions. Too many variables involved. So one kit does not fit all. Learn to incorporate the basics into your everyday life and adapt. You do this every day – whether you miss your bus to work or run out of a key ingredient in the middle of making dinner, you adapt to changing circumstances and carry on.

With a little advance thinking and really simple changes you will go from sorta ready to resilient in no time, because the ability to adapt is the ability to survive.

So, now it’s your turn – what creative things are you doing that make you and your family more resilient?

And one more thing: Don’t forget an old fashioned can opener. The manual kind, not the avocado green 1970’s electric kind.