What did we as emergency managers learn in 2010?

Here’s a look back at some of the biggest lessons of 2010 and how we can apply them toward making 2011 more constructive

By Jeff Rubin, PhD, CEM

Nothing says “festive holiday season” like bowl games, competitive shopping and year-in-review columns. I would hate to disappoint this column’s readers (note the optimistic use of the plural), so here’s a “prospective retrospective” on what I think is worth looking at from 2010.

The economy
Regardless of your opinion of Bill Clinton, his focus on the economy had merit. With the near-misses in Times Square, Portland and Baltimore, it’s easy to miss the biggest threat to preparedness and prevention: lack of resources.

State and local agencies have had to make substantial cuts to just about everything, and the “easy” cuts were achieved long ago. Add that to declining federal grant programs and you have fewer people trying to do more with less.

Some cuts have included special programs or staff with specialized skills, all of which adds up to decreased capability to go along with decreased capacity.

Looking ahead: At what point will economic recovery show itself in local and state budgets? If the federal government actually decides to trim the deficit, how will that manifest in important federally supported programs?

Shakeouts
January saw one of history’s worst natural disasters in Haiti, and February one of the biggest earthquakes in the past forty-plus years in Chile. The toll in Haiti bordered on incomprehensible, but Chile’s experience offered a rare opportunity to assess the impact of a great earthquake on a country with an active seismic history and modern building codes.

We came away with five important lessons:

1) Building to current seismic codes enormously benefits life safety.

2) It is necessary to exceed code in order to have operational, as opposed to “just” survivable, buildings.

3) The general public has little appreciation for the degrees of seismic protection. For them, current codes mean “earthquake-proof.”

4) Most seismic building standards are based on “California-style” seismicity (short-duration shaking) and may not be effective in subduction-zone quakes with extended shaking.

5) Drop, Cover and Hold On works. The cascade of non-structural debris from Chile’s quake likely would have caused far greater casualties had it occurred during business hours, but not if people had been able to take immediate protective action.

Looking ahead: Will the Pacific Northwest, at risk for the same type of earthquake that struck Chile (also the same type that generated the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004), take Chile’s lessons to heart? Will public and private entities take the necessary steps to enhance post-quake operability of critical facilities? See “the economy” re: constraints.

H1N1
The H1N1 pandemic officially ended in 2010, although its greatest impact in the Northern Hemisphere occurred in late 2009. The pandemic response demonstrated the ongoing, and already identified, limitations of the traditional, egg-based way of manufacturing vaccine and the gap between epidemiological and operational benchmarks for pandemic declaration and response, as well as the benefits of planning.

Looking ahead: Will the various domains involved in pandemic mitigation, preparedness and response act on the lessons? Will we finally see sustainable alternatives to vaccine manufacture? Will we update our plans, particularly our assumptions (remember the model of an H5N1 pandemic originating in Asia?), and will we continue to develop surge capacity and capability?

National Health Security Strategy
The US Department of Health and Human Services rolled out the first National Health Security Strategy at the beginning of 2010, with the first draft implementation plan coming out in the summer. For the first time, health preparedness and domestic preparedness were linked in a single strategy that was not exclusively focused on terrorism.

Looking ahead: What, if anything, will come of this? Creative strategies are not uncommon at the federal level, but this one and its implementation plan actually showed some serious thought. Will the political shift in Washington, D.C., and/or economic realities push the NHSS to the side? If so, will we (ever) see a functional link between DHS and DHHS preparedness programs?

Re-examining national preparedness
The summer’s National Dialogue on Preparedness offered anyone who was interested the opportunity to toss in their $0.02 on the subject, with the predictably broad range of content, quality, and practicality. The results were considered within a September report.

Seeking public input can be a constructive, validating exercise if that input is critically considered and incorporated as appropriate. The range of perspectives will provide ideas or directions that otherwise might not have been considered, but contributors may expect greater attention and action toward their input than is practical.

Looking ahead: What from the report will be adopted? Will DHS consider alternatives or augmentation to capabilities-based planning and the current system of “metrics” that seem to prioritize measurement over utility, require scenario-based planning, and generate training requirements that have enormous impacts on local and state agencies with questionable return on investment (e.g., near-universal ICS-300 and -400)? Will Citizen Corps receive a critical assessment from the top down? Will DHS’s emphasis on Type-3 All-Hazard Incident Management Teams evolve into a program that offers more to smaller jurisdictions (e.g., Type-4 level)? Will we see useful EOC-based training coming out of FEMA? Will the recent re-org in DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate yield the desired results?

Technology
The one constant we share is the ongoing advance of technology. Regardless of whether it is driven by homeland security needs (most of it isn’t), potential applications are relevant. Many advances come with potential drawbacks, including expense, accelerated obsolescence of existing systems and procedures, and vulnerability to intentional and unintentional disruptions.

Looking ahead: Will the numerous integrative products in development such as the Unified Incident Command and Decision Support and Virtual USA see useful application? Will advances in mobile communications continue to translate to better situational awareness among responders and the public? Will cloud computing offer greater flexibility and resiliency for homeland security?

And last but not least, what will we be looking back on a year from now?

About the author

Homeland1

Homeland1

Homeland1.com was the leading online resource for the homeland security community for more than five years. It's archive is now on EfficientGov.com under Emergency Management.

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