An Evolution in Preparedness
© 2007 FrontLine Security (Vol 2, No 1)

Many FrontLine readers are directly responsible for emergency preparedness within their community, region, or nation. We recognize that our preparations for catastrophe are based on our education and research, our best thinking about specific areas, and how best to use our (always limited) resources. We also know that, when chaos finally strikes, the drills and inventories and manuals that gave us a reasonable degree of confidence will prove inadequate in some fashion. We are aware that our populations may someday suffer in ways that, in retrospect, might have been partially avoidable. This understanding of the challenges we face stimulates us in our tasks and makes us more diligent – but there is an evolution in disaster preparedness that may alter our methods for preparation, perhaps enhancing our eventual effectiveness in a real-world disaster.

Exercises, usually the capstone event in disaster preparedness, are frequently rigid, with pre-defined metrics and milestones to ensure that the team is covering responsibilities in the “real-world.” The implication is that if the team can do X in an exercise, they’ll be reasonably sure of doing it during an actual event, a reflection of the military dictum “train as you’ll fight, then fight as you trained.”

Strong Angel III demonstrated that using multi-media technology to collect and push information to the outside world improves the team's capability to solve problems. (Photo: John Crowley)

There are minor flaws in that supposition. It presumes that the entire team will be present and functioning at peak; that resources will flow as designed; that the real-world problem will look like the exercise scenario you’ve chosen; and that the non-actors in your exercise (the media, your neighbors, your national government, local private industry, roads, waterways, civilian communications, civilian food and water logistics, and the weather, for example…) will also be non-actors in a real event. There are now models for how several of these can be incorporated into a disaster response demonstration (quite different from an exercise) in a manner that forces flexibility, adaptability, and the co-development of resilience within both the responders and the communities at risk.

Policy and Procedures
Policies and procedures are a critical ­component of our disaster preparation, ensuring we’ve thought carefully about a range of possible eventualities and done what we could, physically and procedurally, to prepare for them. Those guidelines, however, rarely offer the flexibility to simply adapt to what’s working in the real world when the event occurs.

Acquisition methods are often slow, and sometimes driven by a single individual’s familiarity with current research in the field – this can lead to missed opportunities for making important connections with new capabilities outside of our exercise space. We all have regulatory and management structures, but we also need to communicate frequently and effectively with each other and with an affected population. Today’s methods are rapidly evolving, and bear serious review.

In our view, policies and procedures often restrict creativity-toward-success in favor of a more centralized and hierarchical security. First responders acknowledge that such restrictions can impede life-­sustaining responses, and that a careful hybrid of policy-and-procedure, coupled with well-trained independence, is often closer to ideal.

Comms, Lift, and Power
There are a few core issues during the first phases of a disaster where most responders would expect shortfalls. For many of us, those would start with communications, transportation logistics, and electrical power. Without those three, comms, lift, and power, very little can be effectively designed or implemented as a disaster unfolds. “Layering” is a term sometimes used to define a process for preparing as many methods for the delivery of each of these critical resources as can be devised.

Strong Angel
Over the past seven years there have been three international disaster response demonstrations called Strong Angel – and each has demonstrated the consequences of shortfalls in comms, lift, and power.

Daily briefings are key to the success of any exercise. We briefed three times a day during Strong Angel. (Photo: John Crowley)

The first, in 2000, was a displaced-population problem addressing civil-­military co-management in the field. The second, in 2004, was driven by problems identified in Afghanistan and Iraq, and looked at communications, cultural education, and core public health resource management in a post-event reconstruction. The third, in 2006, looked at community resilience in the face of a natural disaster (including an epidemic), where all outside resources were lost for an extended period. Strong Angel III involved roughly 800 ­participants from nine nations, including more than 70 national and international corporations, and several academic institutions.

From that very large, week-long effort, in an isolated and challenging environment (a cold, dark, hazardous building abandoned for fifteen years), came a set of lessons and pragmatic tools that have altered disaster preparedness discussions at the highest levels of several governments, and are worth reviewing.

• Collaborative Layering
On the list of early considerations is the concept of layering (used in the same sense as when the weather cannot quite be predicted). It implies designing for resilience and a graceful degradation mode, even when the most unexpected events occur.

For most of us, some sections of our plans have assumptions that seem so ­fundamental that we simply accept them, but is that wise? At Strong Angel we worked carefully to remove some of those assumptions. We eliminated, at odd intervals, power, light, radio waves, transportation, wireless clouds, staff, hierarchical structures, and expectations.

This intermittent and unpredictable loss of fundamental resources led to a responsive and highly collaborative effort that, in turn, led to some very creative synthesis and a degree of success that surprised virtually every participant. It was also a superb team-building demonstration – it led to very high morale and a genuine sense of earned self-confidence. We had, for example, Bell Canada and Sprint Nextel sitting at the same table writing configura­tions together to make their systems work seamlessly because neither could meet a new and urgent task independently and (in the scenario) lives were at stake.

In any Strong Angel demonstration, failure is an occasional and accepted outcome – though not encouraged. However, failures become fewer and the creative initiatives more admirable over time. It is important to note that the more often a broad-based team faces unexpected challenges that push toward collaboration-across-boundaries, the more readily they reach for interesting solutions. Each begins to look at other agencies, organizations, and interests as a common pool from which to draw life-sustaining support when resource silos and stovepipes collapse.

Medical teams learned how to interoperate with other groups and technologies. (Photo: John Crowley)

• Leadership
In Strong Angel, the initial conditions were set with no hierarchy and no one in charge. Mid-way through the first day, several hours into the response, a CDC physician, coincidentally in the newly-isolated city for a conference, was appointed Scene Commander by the US President, completely bypassing all standard protocols. In the scenario, the Commander  knew nothing of the Incident Command System and asked no organizational development questions of the assembled team. He simply determined what he, a genuine expert in the circumstances but who knew nothing of the community, needed from the crowd. He then demanded those things to be accurately determined on a scheduled basis – no matter how the information was derived as long as it was trustworthy and accurate to a sensible degree. The information was then built into further requirements for assessment and action and the development of a plan. That plan, in turn, was implemented throughout a large geographic area with only ad hoc communications that yet needed close coordination. Tough problems.

It became readily apparent to participants that a system of flows was needed – information, decision, and action. Some rough starts over 24 hours led to the development of a fairly complete Incident Command System, on the current model. The reasons for such a system were clear to the large number of non-Emergency Response participants and it seemed well-designed for a domestic response.

• Redundant, Diverse, Resilient, and Open-source
Questions asked by the Scene Com­mander were both basic and complex. The answers required rapid assessment of critical information from many sources, and collection, analysis, and reporting tool development soon took on a life of its own. The Scene Commander was very clear about the accuracy and reporting requirements – the teams on the ground had specific guidance on what and when, but not how! They were left to their own devices for solving problems, using any tools at hand.

The teams soon realized that a working directory of who was doing what, where and with what resources was a critical component of effective and timely work. A “Dynamic Directory” was born, and several individuals were given responsibility for maintaining it – dedicating valuable staff resources in the middle of an emergency because they determined that capability was absolutely necessary.

The participants also found that ­proprietary tools were… unhelpful. Tools built on open-standards that interoperate gracefully saved time and irritation during a period of crisis, and our initial choices of software and radios provided reassuring ­evidence of a pre-conceived willingness to cooperate with partners.

We also noted repeatedly that personal, face-to-face communications saved time and improved efficiency. Personal relationships also help reduce the risk of small errors becoming inflated, distracting issues. In our view, using every conceivable opportunity to meet, chat, share a cup of coffee, work through practical and strategic issues over dinners, and arranging tabletop exercises that gave good reason for everyone to participate collaboratively, all helped to cement a coherently smooth emergency response.

Equipment has to operate and be useable 24/7. Teams learns how to operate in extreme environments. Temperatures here were regularly over 30ºCelsius. (Photo: John Crowley)

We were careful to include all of the actors who might potentially affect those in the field, not just EMS – power, water, light, schools, airport authorities, city councils, vets, mosques, churches, synagogues and more were all on our invitation list.

One tool proved exceptionally effective. The use of internet-based chat and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) through tools like Skype cost very little, are commonly used by a very large number of people, are dependent only upon internet connectivity of any kind, and can call any phone on the planet. We also found that off-the-shelf resources like Skype continually improve through market pressures and all we needed to do was download the most recent version (at no charge) periodically.

Social Interoperability Networking (SIN) events, one term for such designed and metrics-based mashups of people and technologies, like Strong Angel, are useful for many tasks, not just disaster responses. Capabilities like Skype (or Groove, or Jot, or MySpace, or wikis, or blogs, or…) are most beneficial when used frequently. It’s sensible for any Emergency Manager to ensure his staff has the tools (and reasons) for frequently reaching out to other responder agencies, offering ­relevant assistance and keeping the multilateral flow of information smooth.

Frequent communication over non-standard and ad hoc methods keeps everyone aware that, when bad things happen, policies and procedures should be known and used where they fit, but there should be little hesitation in empowering far-forward personnel to make independent judgments that get the job done intelligently.

Media Complications
One frequently overlooked training requirement in disaster response is media management. There will be more media and more politics than preferred – and the consequences of a poor interaction in either can be ­disastrous, even if the actual response is performed reasonably and well.

It is not always possible for your staff to avoid the media, despite perhaps careful instructions to do so, therefore, preparing them for that interaction is a fair and sensible part of their training. We use a three-day course at Strong Angel, called the Media Crucible, and the role-playing there, under multiple scenarios and increasing pressures, has reportedly been most useful later for its participants in a number of real-world events.

Resources Improve
Strong Angel III started with roughly 50 disaster-response tasks to perform, and most were completed successfully. Some were simple, some complex, some trivial, and some impossible. Each was designed to meet a real-world problem experienced by one of the eleven Executive Com­mittee members. Each ­proposed scenario was evaluated on the ­likelihood that such a problem would re-appear again in the future. If we agreed it would, we included it as a task for which we’d pursue solutions. In doing so, we found that the ad hoc resources available to an emergency responder in 2007 are more useful than most realize, and the tools in the community, both technical and social, are becoming paradoxically more sophisticated and simple all the time.

Further information, and the results of the 50 or so demonstration tasks pursued in Strong Angel III, can all be found at

U.S. Navy Commander Dr. Eric Rasmussen is Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the U.S. Navy Medical Center outside Seattle, Washington. He is also Director of the Strong Angel series of humanitarian support demonstrations, and is currently deployed to Afghanistan working on medical reconstruction.

Doug Hanchard is Director and Architect,  Solution Management Practice at Bell Canada. He was an Executive Committee member, Technical Communications Advisor and civilian leader for United States Marine Corp MCI-West RSS unit at Strong Angel III. In addition he serves as Technical Communications Advisor for World Wide Consortium for the Grid ( – U.S. Northcom.
© FrontLine Security 2007