Last week a friend told me about a FEMA “think tank” website (thanks, Sam).
According to FEMA, the agency is
…reaching out to state, local, and tribal governments, and to all members of the public, including the private sector, the disability community, and volunteer community, to seek their input on how to improve the emergency management system.
No doubt you’ve heard that language before. But this effort looks like a significant improvement over initial DHS efforts (e.g., Quadrennial Homeland Security Review) to incorporate stakeholder ideas through wisdom-of-the-crowd-like social networking.
After you register for the FEMA think tank site, you can submit an idea, or comment and vote for or against other ideas. According to the website, “The best ideas bubble up to the top.” The voting (agree/disagree) option helps moderate entries from the good idea fairy.
It looks as if the site has been operating since mid-November. Starting last Thursday, FEMA hosts a monthly conference call, open to the public, to discuss some of the ideas and what to do about them.
IdeaScale claims it can use Think Tank ideas almost anyway it wants to.
For this and several other reasons, perhaps FEMA’s Think Tank can be criticised for not being perfect. Using IdeaScale’s off the shelf (or technically off the web) product is a public/private partnership for a cyber world. And there is a lot we have not discovered about those partnerships.
FEMA is taking a risk here. But increasingly the world’s complexity demands intelligent trial and error initiatives, like FEMA’s Think Tank. It seems like a good example of what David Snowden has written about as a safe fail probe.
Reading through the ideas and the comments, it looks like FEMA may be on to something with the Think Tank.
As of January 30th, there were over 1300 registered users, 296 ideas, 1371 comments, and 5515 votes helping ideas “bubble to the top.”
The ideas and comments were almost always thoughtful and improvement oriented. I did not see one “let’s flood the border with land mines” suggestion. The extended discussion about PPD 8 is especially worthwhile.
Here are the top 20 ideas — and partial descriptions taken from the website — discussed on the FEMA Think Tank (as of last night):
- U.S. National Grid as the Response Language of Location: Through NIMS and ICS, the leadership of DHS and FEMA have directed the phased introduction of numerous operational standards designed to promote and facilitate interoperability for the Emergency Services Sector. Yet, to date, they are without voice when it comes to the single most important element of response – the ability to communicate “where”…. Long ago, the U.S. Armed Forces realized that effective delivery of mission required every part of a “response force” in an operational realm (air, land, sea) had to use the same language of location…. It’s now long past due that the executive leadership of DHS and FEMA do the same thing through a national policy directive.
- Incorporate Preparedness in School Curriculums: Disaster preparedness should be taught as part of the school curriculum for children of all ages.
- EM [Emergency Management] Coffee Break Training: … The EM Coffee Break Training could provide this platform through weekly dessimination of one page lectures that would roughly take 5-10 minutes (long enough to finish a cup of coffee) to read. Each lesson could be reviewed individually or as a group and could provide supplemental information for further research or suggestions.
- School issues: In an emergency everyone turns to the schools, unfortunately most are not prepared, not trained, and emergency responders run up against rules that are frustrating at the least and life threatening at the worse. It would be nice if some how FEMA could offer the training because it won’t be done at the school level, not because it isn’t needed, but because of drastic budget cuts in education.
- Let the locals do the thinking: I have been involved with Emer. Mgt. for 20 years. I have managed 7 Presidential disasters and many more local emergencies. My biggest problem is FEMA/Homeland Security and the State. The federal and state government has placed a mountain of paperwork on my desk that restricts my ability to complete the real work within my community. A 10 minute piece of paperwork to report an exercise 20 years ago has escalated into the HSEEP monster with days of work and for what?…. I think if FEMA would really like to know what is best for the country and the local programs they first need to consider what would help the locals by asking for our input before they issued another mandate. We know what is best for our community because we live here.
- Mobile Apps For FEMA Employees And The Public Utilizing GPS: An app that utilizes GPS coordinates to aid in disaster response, send relevant emergency alerts to the user, and ability to locate loved ones by last known location.
- EAS [Emergency Alert System: The EAS should include all cell phones.
- "Be Prepared" campaign: One of the things I heard from the leaders of FEMA was: the citizens need to be ready to help themselves. Not just that, but specifically stated: the federal government is not going to be there for you right away. Unfortunately, I only heard this for about a week before it was abandoned. You can spend all you want on CERTs, exercises, equipment, etc, etc. You can spend fractions of that money on an information campaign and have the citizenry help themselves.
- Bring Back Project Impact: Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt created Project Impact in 1997 with the goal to create “disaster resilient communities”. Overall the program was considered a resounding success; not only did it help communities become more disaster resilient, but it also was a success at “bringing people from diverse sectors of the community together to address mitigation issues”.
- Utilize resources already in disaster zone: During Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart gave their employees approval days in advance to do "whatever they had to help the citizens". I think to help with disaster relief at any level, the government should partner up with larger community based retailers that are already in the areas.
- Utilizing 2-1-1 in Disasters: I work for an NGO in Columbus, Ohio. One of the greatest skills we can bring to a disaster is assistance in Emergency Public Informaiton via our 24/7/365 Information and Referral line, 2-1-1. 2-1-1 is an easy, three digit number for citizens to call to get assistance with rent, utilities, food, etc. (during normal operations).
- Corporate America Planning: As the Emergency Manager for a fortune 25 company with over 400 active facilities to manage. It's difficult to find any formal Emergency Management training that includes office buildings, clinics, data centers, etc.
- Community Mapping to implement the Whole Community Concept: In addition to mapping of risk and protective factors, [community mapping] makes the whole community more resilient by…Bringing the community together to collectively plan, which increases the sense of ownership and responsibility on the disaster response and recovery activities….
- Preparedness and Sustainability Linkage: Many sustainable practices pay dividends in a disaster. Bicycle transportation, gardening, water catchment, canning, solar power etc are all examples of activities which make communities better places to live AND make communities more self-relient when infrastructure and critical supplies are halted.
- Federal Disaster Management Externship program: … a large percentage of the existing Emergency Management leaders [will] be retiring beginning in the next 5 years. The question, we the students, no matter the level of education [asked] is “How are we to gain experience in the field in the next five years while we wait our turn at the few existing emergency management positions?”
- Preliminary Damage Assessments by Smartphone: FEMA should produce a smart phone application that allows the capture and upload of georeferenced text and photo’s during a disaster.
- 24/7 Field Triage Preparedness: The recognition & adoption of a standardized national illuminated color coded system for triaging MCI patients 24/7. Today different States & organizations use different triage cards and tapes for triaging patients.
- Alert Systems: Many cities have or belong to an Emergency Alert system. I did not see any alerts during your testing. … Nor did I see anything on facebook or twitter until the test was over and everyone was asking if it worked.
- ICS / NIMS Training: Whether by DHS or FEMA or the CDP, I think all involved need to re-think the limited training opportunities for ICS and NIMS training.
- Hazard Reporting – All-Hazards Feedback: USGS has a website for “Did you feel it” to allow people to report on earthquakes that were felt – http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/dyfi/. A similar type of approach from other hazard partners would be helpful (NWS, USGS, NOAA, etc).
TL; DR: FEMA is soliciting ideas online about how to improve emergency management. Some of the ideas are intriguing.