Are We Prepared for the Next Disaster?

I found and listened to this NPR radio story titled, “Is the U.S. Prepared for the Next Disaster?”.  Even though this interview was conducted a year ago, I think the message is still valid and important.

I think the interviewee, Craig Fugate, does a good job in identifying a problem with past disasters being a failure to engage the proper level of support through a formal request for assistance.  Although Mr. Fugate doesn’t use this term, I like to label these the “triggers to engage”.  One of the biggest problems with the response to Hurricane Katrina was that Federal authorities assumed the trigger to engage was a call from the local authorities, whereas the local authorities thought the trigger to engage was the event itself.  While Federal agencies were waiting to be asked for help, local agencies were sitting and waiting for the help to arrive.  Meanwhile, crucial time was slipping by and the losses and damages were escalating.

I was glad to learn that FEMA now self-engages not only when an incident occurs but also when the threat of incident rises.

I think this is an important lesson to learn and address in our own plans.  I think it is important to identify and practice those “triggers” for engaging certain components in our Emergency Response, Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Programs.  What are the “triggers” for: putting vendors on alert; communicating with employees; mobilizing resources; alerting customers and other stakeholders; declaring a disaster; etc.?

Also, Mr. Fugate notes that having a single entity in charge introduces a single-point-of-failure in the response process.  Whereas, I understand his point, I also think it is important to mention that when you have lots of links in your communication and control “chain” you have lots of opportunity for the chain to break.  If the mayor engages the governor who engages the president – well, there are lots of mis-engagements that can occur.  And, if one link in the chain breaks, all the links that follow are missed.

I agree with Mr. Fugate that we are better prepared today than what we were in the past, but saying you are in better shape today than you were when you were grossly out of shape, does not mean you are in good shape.  Unfortunately, I also believe that the further removed you are from the last significant event, the more likely you are to get back out of shape.  We are never more prepared to respond to a disaster than we are immediately after a disaster occurs.  Lessons learned are fresh in the mind, implementation guidelines and procedures are reviewed, refreshed and rehearsed.  But, as time goes by, we start to, once again get complacent and once again start to slip back into our bad habits.  And, as soon as we start to believe we are in good shape, I start to get more worried.

In conclusion, I think this is a terrific interview with important messages that are worth listening to again.  I encourage you to think about and rehearse the “triggers” in your program and to identify potential weak links in your communications and engagement chains.  And, never allow yourself to believe we are prepared for the next disaster … continue to work on improving your level of preparedness.  After all … how do you think people would have responded to the question, “Is the U.S. Prepared for the Next Disaster?” on September 10, 2001?

Thank you for your input.