We discovered through the National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE), which focused on the New Madrid seismic event, that there would absolutely be a shortage of federal urban search and rescue teams in that event. So we can’t simply rely on the federal government for resources. There is a need for states and regions around the country to develop these specialized capabilities that can be brought to bear in very large-scale disasters. Now, does every state need the same exact specialized response capability? No. But if you don’t need that capability on a day-to-day basis, where can you go and get it? Can regions come together to plan? One state may have a fantastic sheltering capability that they can pack up as a turnkey operation to deploy to another state. For example, Oklahoma has developed a shelter in a box. And they already have agreements in place with Shreveport, Louisiana, that can help when New Orleans needs to evacuate and send people to Shreveport.
The problem in Louisiana has been that they don’t have the number of personnel to staff those shelters. Therefore, they’ve had to evacuate their citizens to other states. Wouldn’t it be much better for those citizens to be within their own state borders and closer to home? With Oklahoma’s turnkey operation, they will load up all of the supplies, equipment, and staff needed for a shelter and drive to Shreveport, Louisiana. They have already exercised it. They have already identified where the shelter will be. They actually did a full-scale exercise of this last summer. They have their personnel designated and trained. Those are the types of things that we’re trying to promote. It’s not that every state needs to have the same capability, but we need it strategically located around the country so those who need it will have quick access to it.
Nationwide, what are the greatest emergency preparedness vulnerabilities you see that need fixing?
We don’t spend a lot of time as a nation looking at and talking about the interdependencies of our system, particularly with our critical infrastructure. If the power grid goes down in New England, who else will that affect? Again through the NLE exercise in 2011, it was determined that if the power grid goes down in the New Madrid region, it’s likely that the whole East Coast will lose power, and probably for days. If you’re looking to receive mutual-aid assistance from the East Coast, and they don’t have power for days, that’s a planning scenario that people need to pay attention to. It’s those types of things that we don’t give enough attention to. And quite frankly the homeland security grant program and other programs, which are very well intentioned, don’t really allow us to look strategically at interdependencies and apply funding in ways that allow mitigation against an event that might occur in one state but affect another state.
Why dosen’t homeland security grant funding allow you to do that?
The programs are fairly fragmented and siloed. They’re programmatic as opposed to strategic. Let’s say you have a port that is absolutely critical to commerce in your state, and you want to be able to protect it. There’s a port homeland security grant program that will allow you to harden the port, but you can’t use that money to protect the rail system that may be coming into the port or protect the roads and bridges and transportation routes leading up to the port. That would require a separate grant program.
What technological innovations excite you and should translate into lives saved in the near future?
Emergency management has historically been behind the curve in terms of adopting technology, mainly because of the cost of acquiring and maintaining that technology. The use of social media, though, has exploded. That’s something that everyone is looking to integrate into their systems because it helps get information from the public about what they’re seeing on the ground. You see so many times in recent disasters, citizens tweeting about what they’re seeing: what road is open, what road is closed. And the information is in real time and much quicker than government can get it out. The challenge we face is how do you harness that, and how do you take advantage of that, and use it from a disaster-response perspective.