The Fall Post-Season Recap

With a deep exhale and as we look forward to a new year, the DEM Community Engagement Team is taking a look back upon this energetic, dynamic, and FUN fall season of preparedness.

And without further ado, the DEM 2012 fall preparedness lineup!

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Notes from the Field: New York, Day 4

As the DEM team winds down its support to the Westchester County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), DEM Deputy Director, Rob Dudgeon, shares the  importance of always ‘leaning forward’ in our our personal preparedness.

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We’re transition to days, so we got the night off tonight. That’s good news for Westchester County as it means that they’re able to scale back night operations. It’s good news for us too! I’m happy to help any way I can, but I can’t lie and say that nights aren’t hard when you’re used to working days. I haven’t pulled nights on a regular basis since the 90’s when I was much younger and a riding the box (ambulance). My internal clock is set to days – and suits instead of 5.11’s – but that’s a whole other discussion.

DEM in the Plans Section.

Today was good for the team; gave us a chance to take a breather and put some of this into perspective. We talked through some of our observations and got a meal in a restaurant that wasn’t pasta (I have nothing against pasta! It’s just a mainstay food in operation’s centers and we are on day four…). I did a press call in to KGO and they asked what was the lesson for back home…in that instance it really came struck me just how important being prepared is for us. Think about it…they had warning! Days to prepare in advance of a huge storm – and it still knocked them on their butts. I’m not even talking about the people who ignored the warnings (although that didn’t help any), I’m talking about those who heeded the warnings…the utilities, the local governments, the state and even FEMA. They mobilized for this…they were “leaning forward” as we like to say and yet, well…they got slammed. Can you imagine how bad it would be if they hadn’t mobilized? What then? The stories of want and need; the losses and lives upturned; it would have been staggering. But as difficult as it’s been, those that did prepare are faring far better than those who didn’t.

So the take away is this: nature is fierce, and in our case you won’t get notice that you should stock up on supplies and put gas in your car, or even evacuate…you’ll know there was an earthquake when you out from under your desk or table and see the floor piled with the contents of your shelves. There it is folks…the reality is that there won’t be any ‘leaning forward’ to in advance of the earthquake. No ice ready to distribute, no utility teams staged, no strike teams moved forward….it will all happen after the disaster strikes. I’m really against the ‘scare tactic’ approach to preparedness, so don’t take this blog in that light…it’s meant to be a commentary on the realities of disasters.

There’s a ton of good news here as well…preparedness really isn’t that hard and truthfully you are farther along than you think. Look around the house, you probably have most of what you need already. There’s plenty of tips on line (72hours.org) and even fun ways to prepare (SF Heroes), it’s just a matter of recognizing your strengths and filling a few gaps. Get beyond the kit…think about what makes you comfortable (not MRE’s and foil blankets!) and stock up on those things.

You’ll sleep better at night knowing that when it gets difficult, you have already ‘leaned forward’ and can ride out the first few days in relative comfort while that big disaster relief machine gets fired up and starts moving people and supplies to set things right.

What am I going to add to my own stock? A crank cell phone charger. My crank charge emergency radio came with charging tip (in the late 90’s when I got it). If you are wondering when I realized it didn’t have a USB tip or slot too charge my smart phones? It was when I was packing my kit to head to the airport on deployment here. Even someone who does this for a living needs to think about their own preparedness from time to time.

Have a great day…I’m off to bed so I can get back to day watch in a couple of hours.

Notes from the Field – New York, Day 3

It is day 3 of the DEM team’s deployment to support the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services. In the wake of the nor’easter that hit last night, DEM Deputy Director, Rob Dudgeon, shares how this storm illuminated one of the fundamentals of preparedness: have your creature comforts with you at work so in the event you are stuck there overnight–which includes even an emergency operations center (EOC)–you can freshen-up for the next day.

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Well, this was my first nor’easter. Somehow my mind conjured up images of clipper ships fighting the ravages of the north Atlantic with the grim faced New England sailor steadfastly manning the helm. That’s not exactly what we saw.

It snowed, a lot, and the winds came up a bit but (as of 4 AM anyway) most of Westchester County is holding steady. There were a few incidents of power going back out, but the generators being used for Sandy relief efforts are still in place, so it was just a matter of firing them up. There were a couple of instances where power lines came down, but the ConEd rep in the EOC was quick to get crews dispatched. The biggest problem – no surprise here – were the roads and traffic. Lots of accidents and delays made the evening commute a disaster itself. The plows also got a late start as the storm brought a lot more snow than forecasted. The end result was a commute happening on worsening, snowy roads.

There’s a lesson in preparedness here. Many of the day shift folks (including our colleagues from Los Angeles) are sleeping on cots two floors above me right now because the roads were too bad for them to leave. Those who have go bags with them are far more comfortable than those who do not. Something as simple as a toothbrush and a change of clothes makes a world of difference in how comfortable you are. I really want them to be comfortable because I’m depending in them to relieve us in a couple of hours! We’ll be taking up this topic again with my team….just to make sure we all have our creature comforts accessible to us, should we have to spend the night (or multiple nights) at work due to an emergency.

Given that Westchester had few issues as a result of the storm, it’s likely that night ops will come to a close in the next day or so. When that happens we’ll either get moved to day watch, or released from this mission assignment and sent where we we are needed. It’s all a waiting game at this point. In the meantime we remain vigilant and observant; address any challenges what come our way; and wait for the moment we can go wake the sleeping beauties from Los Angeles.

DEM’er, Lucas Eckroad, taking in the night (nor’easter infused) air outside of the Westchester County EOC.

Notes from the Field: New York, Day 2

It is day 2 of the DEM team’s deployment to support the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services. In this em4SF Blog our Deputy Director, Rob Dudgeon, shares his sentiment about two of the guiding principles of emergency management: step in where needed and support each other; and always learn.

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On one hand, things are on the mend here in Westchester County, New York. On the other everyone is waiting for the next storm to hit before they relax.

Another night shift here in the Westchester County EOC. I’ve been asked several times what we’re doing…what’s the mission. It’s simple really, the locals have been going at 24 hours a day for a week or better so we’re here to give them a break. We’re doing basically the same job we do at home: writing operations plans, coordinating efforts, filling resource requests and generally helping to solve problems. It’s not always exciting, and the pace is pretty slow at night. But that’s not why we’re here. By being here we make it possible for locals to get some rest, do some laundry, see their kids, and maybe, just maybe clean up and repair their own storm damage.

A Westchester home being ‘freed’.

It’s pretty easy to forget that those in the middle of setting things right are also survivors of whatever calamity struck the community. All the people that have been working have the added stress of personal loss. In this job there’s a toll on your personal life, and we’re all pretty much OK with that. It’s not like we didn’t know this when we signed on, so don’t get me wrong, they are not complaining. In fact it makes me want to be here all the more because they would just keep going if nobody came in and said “just stop a minute and catch your breath, we got this for a bit.” In some cases it’s even worse; case in point: the Director of this department is obviously neck deep in the local incident, but her husband is a firefighter in FDNY– so he’s been mandated on extra shifts too. If the situation were reversed they’d do the same for us. I know that without question.

We’re also here to learn. The best way to really understand what it takes to get the power back on, get roads cleared, people sheltered, and work with FEMA is to just do it—at the same time (for 12 hours, on back to back shifts). Only then can one really get what the challenges are and be able to plan for them.

For example, generators are always in high demand after disasters. We know that and have done some planning for it…what we didn’t spend a lot of time studying was that there’s a large variety in generators, from the power output to the connections. Turns out, NY State Office of Emergency Management has a request form that asks all the right questions so we can make sure the right kind of generator gets requested for the situation. The form is coming home with us.

Now, about this nor’easter coming in tomorrow. The area is under a high wind warning with gusts in excess of 40 mph possible. Normally not a reason to staff an EOC, but on the heels of Sandy with so much of the infrastructure already damaged and fragile, it’s something to worry about. Sandy knocked down more than 500 power poles and 190K customers were left without power. While they’ve got power restored to all but 41K customers, repairs made at this pace almost always require some temporary fixes until there’s time for a more extensive repair. That leads to the obvious question: “will they hold?”Add to that the unknown number of damaged—but not fallen tree limbs—and the impact the wind (and fallen tree limbs) can have on restoration efforts.

In the meantime we watch the weather radar and talk to the locals – learning from their insights and building friendships that will last a lot longer than the wind tomorrow.

Notes from the field: New York Deployment, Day 1

This em4SF Blog comes to us by way of Westchester County, New York, where our Deputy Director Rob  Dudgeon and a team of fellow DEM’ers have been deployed to help the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services support its community’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy. In this Blog, Rob Dudgeon shares his thoughts and observations about team’s first day on the job.

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When Sandy hit the East Coast, San Francisco offered to send staff to help out, knowing all too well that within a couple of days local personnel would be exhausted and need relief in their operations centers.

The call came just as we wrapped up October, putting another Giants victory and celebration into the history books. By the time everything was officially planned, it was Saturday, November 3rd….and we were all juggling to arrange flights to New York on Sunday, the 4th. The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (DEM) staffed five of eight people assembled by California to form an Incident Management Assistance Team. The other three people are from the City of Los Angeles and the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA).

Westchester County Department of Emergency Services in Hawthorne, New York, just 30 miles north of New York City.

On Monday, November 5th we assembled in Hawthorne, New York for a seven day assignment in the Westchester County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Our team took the night shift, filling roles in Plans, Operations and Logistics. So as we begin to learn how things are done in New York (and get adapted to working nights), I thought it was a good chance to share some initial thoughts and observations.

Team DEM/Cal EMA kicking off their first night shift in the Westchester County EOC. Pictured left to right: Rob Dudgeon, DEM Deputy Director; Bob Butchart, Cal EMA Ports and Harbors Program;  PJ Redmond, DEM Department Liaison; Jill Raycroft, DEM Exercise Planner; and not pictured because she was taking the photo, Alicia Johnson, DEM Resilience and Recovery Manager.

On the surface, it doesn’t look too bad here in Westchester County. If you pay attention though, you see the signs of a community ravaged by a storm unrivaled by any in memory. First, we noticed that the airport was on generator power and tripod work lights line corridors – all plugged in to the ubiquitous red faced outlets. Second, there were no cars available – not that we expected any. With this many people deployed to the region from all sorts of agencies there’s not much hope of rental cars sitting idle. Luckily, the first members of our team struck gold and found one car prior to my arrival so we at least had transportation.

Finding a place to sleep was our first challenge. With the power out, staff from the main utility company, ConEd, are occupying almost all of the hotel rooms in the area – and a huge tent city in a local amusement park’s parking lot – but with a new storm due Wednesday, that’s a whole other issue. Logs finally found us billets at a local Catholic retreat center 20 minutes from the EOC. In a couple of hours, our little rooms will feel better than a suite at the Ritz-Carlton.

As you drive around you notice that most of the stop lights are out. Utility crews are everywhere. There’s still plenty of small debris scattered about, piles of sawdust from chain saws working, offer a hint of what it must have been like right after the storm. In some places there are large (VERY LARGE) trees uprooted.

And then there are the gasoline lines. Not too bad here – certainly not as bad as what we’ve seen on the news from New Jersey and Long Island. People here told me it’s been about a half hour wait, but that many stations are closed and deliveries delayed. When a station is open we see police assigned to the location – although not always – we’re told that it’s primarily for traffic control (the lines tend to snake a long way down the road) versus security around here. While the situation is generally improving, it’s now becoming a challenge to fill response vehicles (the county tanks are running out) and a DoD fuel tanker was brought in to service critical vehicles.

In our conversations with folks in the EOC a couple of things standout…

First: that our dependence on technology is a weak link. At one point during the storm the IT department had 400 alerts to failures – most of which require an eyes-on assessment to fix. SCADA systems, communications systems and outlying municipalities’ connections to the IT backbone failed. Hardware, in the basement of a sewage treatment plant, was ruined after the plant flooded out. They’re still off-line as of tonight.

The take away? Don’t take technology for granted, protect it and account for it in your planning. As a society we are way past inconvenience…if it fails critical services will cease until it’s fixed.

Second: that we can never underestimate the force of nature. When asked what the biggest surprise was, tonight’s Incident Commander told us that they were caught off guard by how far up the Hudson the storm surge pushed. The 5 foot surge pushed boats onto roads and railroad tracks, washed away beaches, and flooded beyond what the modeling predicted.

Hudson River Storm Surge

With that in mind, all attention turns to Wednesday when a Nor’Easter is expected to bring more wind, more rain, and maybe a little snow to this already beat up community.