After the Los Angeles Decision, We All Need to be Better Planners

The field of emergency planning got a kick in the pants this past weekend with the court decision that found the City of Los Angeles discriminated against people with disabilities because their planning, especially around shelters, did not adequately account for their needs. Many in the know figured something like this would happen, but it’s still a shock when it actually happens.

With LA City suit decided, many in our field began to talk about citizen responsibility to preparedness. “Doesn’t the public have a responsibility to self-prepare,” they ask. This isn’t said snidely, but in the context of emergency managers who already have mandates and responsibilities far beyond their budgets and capabilities.

The thing is, both are right. The public should prepare themselves and the government should be ready to help those who did nothing (by choice or not). We should work harder.

No, scratch that, we should work smarter, not harder. Let me give you a relevant example.

Public emergency communication has proceeded in one direction for years. Broadcast, broadcast, broadcast. I would argue that best practices developed in the communications sciences (and on Madison Avenue) show us that doesn’t work. Even the research we do do shows us that our current route of communicating doesn’t work (evacuation orders before Hurricane Katrina, anyone?). But, that’s the way we’ve always done things.

And now we’re being told to do more. I say this calls for a fundamental review of how we do emergency communication: utilize researched and validated best practices, open up your planning process, talk with your community.

First, best practices. This isn’t something we do very well. And I don’t mean we don’t incorporate best practices, I mean we don’t develop and make available best practices. On my old blog, I used to complain about the glacial pace of academic research and how, in the absence of current research, many emergency planners wrote their own plans. (Be sure to note that this “ready, fire, aim” process was probably done at the behest of a funder.) That doesn’t really apply anymore, though. In public health we’ve got nearly ten years experience in what we do so even if nothing’s been academically vetted (which is increasingly unlikely), there are partners across the country with whom we can share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. The Department of Homeland Security’s Lessons Learned Information Sharing website tries to facilitate that sharing, but site is poorly organized and onerous to get into. As such, I think that it’s not much of a tool. But those personal relationships should exist. Every time I’ve reached out to folks in other cities and counties, the amount I learn is way more than I expected.

The next step is to open up your planning process. Of the three, I would argue that this will probably the most difficult to get approval to implement. And that’s because I’m going to tell you to take your wonderful, secret, FOUO plans and let others read them; make comments; identify gaps; identify solutions; propose partnerships. Start with your fellow response agencies (they’ve all seen your plans, right?), and move outward. Consider, in the case of the City of Los Angeles, sharing your plan with those advocates and agencies who brought suit; ask them to help you think outside of the box and find what’s unworkable. Take your communications plan and share it with members of the local media—not so they can write a story, but so they can be ready and know what to expect when your emergency happens. The better they know what you’ll do, the more quickly they’ll get your story out (and I think we can agree that both parties would like that). Open your planning process, let others help you write, refine, perfect your plans. I know your planners are the second best in the country (sorry, mine are the best), but they can’t think of everything.

Finally, talk with your community. This goes beyond the previous step, which really talked with the folks who would be on the front lines with you during your emergency. What I mean is, you should take your now very well vetted plan and teach the public about it. Teach them where your shelters are and where the evacuation routes to the shelters are, train them to listen to the radio station you’ll be announcing updates on, set up an emergency placeholder page on your website that tells people that this is where the latest updates will be posted.

Talk about what could be the worst day in their lives and tell them how you’ll help to get them through. If they know that you won’t be there for 72 hours because you told them that, they’ll stop assuming that calling 911 will fix everything. Engage the public in training exercises (a la The Great ShakeOut), so they see you in action and learn how they can take part. The enemy here is not fires, or explosions, or gas, or airplanes; it’s lack of information and coordination. We’re doing one thing and our public thinks we’re doing something else. One only needs to look at the recent earthquakes in Chile and ChristChurch, New Zealand to see how a well-prepared government and people can overcome a disaster.

Hopefully this recent court decision, and others that will surely follow, lights the right kind of fire under planning and response agencies. The kind of fire that makes us all safer.