The changing landscape of disaster management

Jun 5, 2019

From severe storms, to wildfires, to public health crises, the emergency management community is facing significant challenges. How can this community learn from past disasters, and find new ways to continually improve response and recovery efforts?

Our disaster management practice leaders, Andrew LaVanway and Marko Bourne, discuss the changing landscape of disaster management in this podcast. They explore opportunities for using data and analytics to prepare for and respond to disasters, and the ways that state and local governments, federal government, private sector, and non-government organizations can coordinate, share data, and work together more seamlessly to address present and future disasters—both natural and manmade.

See the full transcript below:

Andrew: Hi everyone, and welcome to The Spark podcast, where we discuss the work that ignites real and lasting change. I'm Andrew LaVanway, and I lead the disaster management division here at ICF. And today I'm sitting down with Marko Bourne, who's joining our team following a distinguished career in both the public and private sector. From Hurricane Katrina to Superstorm Sandy to the storms of 2017, he's seen it all.

Andrew: We've traveled, if not a lot of the same ground, at least a lot of ground that has been pretty close. So, if you start way back at the Pennsylvania Fire Services Institute and you carry forward to today, what's changed? What are the things that really stand out as having changed to you?

Marko: I think one of the biggest things is the awareness across the country of the risks, whether it's natural hazards or other hazards, has really increased. The focus on the first responder community, the emergency management community, but more importantly survivors of disasters. They used to be called victims, and really it's about survivors. And having them have the tools they need to recover more quickly, that's been a huge change. The national focus on this has gotten much more intense.

Andrew: But coming from the FEMA world, having been one of the top two or three folks at FEMA, and we look now at how they're responding to the increasing numbers and increasingly costly disasters, what can we do more to support them?

Marko: Really in many respects, it's understanding what FEMA's role is versus the role that the state and local governments have to play. More and more state and local governments are being asked to take on a broader responsibility. FEMA is there to support them and provide financial assistance and equipment and things like that when the states need it, but they're also starting to ask the states to really manage their own disasters using the federal money. And that's something that is a big change because what a lot of folks don't understand is that FEMA is not a first responder, never has been. They're thought of in the media as being a first responder, but the notion really is that the state and locals are where 80 percent to 90 percent of all the work gets done. That's who manages everything from the local emergency response to the long-term disaster relief.

How we and the industry and the emergency management community can assist them in building their own capabilities so that they have the ability to manage what are quite frankly much larger disasters, must more costly disasters, is really important. And that's where they need help and that's where they're looking for assistance. They're looking for the best practices. FEMA will always be in a very awkward role, and they recognize the fact that they have to help the states build capacity, and so that's really where they're headed. And I think it's actually healthy because it returns us more to a model that used to exist many years ago where the federal government is providing assistance, not direction.

Andrew: So you walked the ground at Katrina and you walked the ground at Sandy, right? What was the biggest difference between the two?

Marko: Really it came down to two things. First of all, the infrastructure of the New York, New Jersey metropolitan area is far more advanced, robust, more established. Population center is, of course, much larger. The challenge with Louisiana was a little bit different. While there were a tremendous number of people affected, the governmental infrastructure basically collapsed around it. You didn't see that in the Northeast during Sandy. So there had to be a two-part disaster recovery: recover government's essential functions and then respond to the actual event and help the people. And that's been the biggest difference between the two because that created most of the challenges up front.

What has happened in the Northeast… the recovery has been about how do we rebuild smarter. In the Gulf Coast, it's been how do we rebuild, but how do we encourage folks to return who left? Because there were a quarter of a million people who left both New Orleans and the immediate parishes and who have not come back.

Andrew: And so how do we take those lessons and apply them to Maria and Harvey?

Marko: It's really about how quickly infrastructure can get reestablished, government services can get reestablished, how quickly housing can be made available. Whether it's repair of existing facilities and existing homes or whether it's alternative measures, how do you get people to some sense of normalcy in their life? Now it's not the normal they had before, but it's the normal that they're comfortable enough staying in and building from. That's the key to it. That stops economic flight. It stops the flight of people leaving communities, and it allows those communities to be sustainable long-term.

Andrew: If you think about the amount of time you spend in government, in the private sector, what's the thing that brings you to ICF? What is the thing that you think you can do here?

Marko: Well, for years, supporting both the federal government side of this, and of course, I was in state and local government, so I have that perspective. One of the things about ICF that intrigues me has always been I think one of the biggest strong points about the company is it supports state and local, not just the federal government, not just commercial, but everyone who's a player, a stakeholder, in this entire world.

I miss the state and local part of it. I spent far too many years supporting the federal side of the equation, which is rewarding and wonderful, but I miss the folks that I used to work with every day. I've been a firefighter and a police officer. I've been in this for about 35 years, and those are the folks I most identify with. My federal time was wonderful, but it's really a function of who's the ones actually affected and who can actually make a real positive change? It's the state and local folks. And so ICF just is that perfect avenue because you've got a long history of working with state and locals, and I want to continue and grow that support, and it's definitely the right place to be.

Andrew: Yeah. And I'm glad you bring up the fire service, right? I always tell people that the most important lessons in leadership I ever learned, I learned at the fire service. So if you go back and think about those times wearing a yellow hat and rolling up hose, what are the things that you think you learned in the fire service that you bring to the job now?

Marko: The quickest and most important lesson is teamwork. Fire service operates on teamwork. We're not a bunch of individuals. There is no lone ranger activity. You rely on the person next to you and the next person on that team because your life will depend on it and because the actual work required requires a team. That's really true of disaster work as well. There is no single entity that can do everything. It is always about how do you get the best of everybody to work together in order to solve a problem? And the fire service taught me that. The fire service taught me about how to organize operations. The incident command system, which is the core of what fire service created back in the 70s, is now the basis of the national incident management system. There was a reason for that. It's because it's all about teamwork and multidisciplinary teamwork. Those two lessons, I think, actually translate really well into business the same way. It's about teamwork.

Andrew: Those are great examples, right? I think the other one is the idea of span of control, that once you get beyond six, the reality that you're actually controlling the situation is just an illusion. That and I think it always had a great perspective on how you train, right? Tell me, show me, give me an example. And walking out of that, it seemed like a better model to help people actually know how to do things as opposed to just pretending like you were trained.

Marko: It is. And how do you evaluate the operations after? How do you learn from that and drive it back into training and exercises that improve the system at large? Almost everything we do in life, we should be thinking in those terms because that's how we continuously improve.

Andrew: This is great. So, one of the things I always think is interesting is that we've seen so many industries disrupted, right? We've seen transportation disrupted. We've seen—obviously—retail absolutely rethought. One of the places where we've seen sort of slower to transition to a more disruptive thing is in disaster management. So, if we think about all the digital opportunities mapped to the realities of that mission, where are the places you think that we're going to see disruption in the market?

Marko: I think a lot of it is around how technology is used to understand the risk problem, how it is used to effect quicker recovery… advanced analytics to really understand what the problem is beforehand or what the conditions are beforehand and where the failure points can be. And then during events, understanding situational awareness, whether it's culling social media in a much more advanced way to understand trends and activities, whether it's understanding the operational ability of the private sector to move resources. The biggest challenge in a disaster in any community is not just the government function. It's actually the industries that support, the businesses that support that community. The sooner they are restored, or at least able to access and reopen, the quicker the economic viability of that community is restored. That involves technology.

Andrew: The ties to the community fabric I think is under-discussed, right, the way that the disaster not only reshapes the solid infrastructure… but what it does to the actual fabric of the community and the relationships between the community leaders and the government is absolutely understudied and under-understood.

Marko: Oh, it is… because what do people most worry about? First, they worry about the safety of themselves and their family. The second thing that enters their mind is, "Do I have a job to go to? How am I going to earn money?" That becomes the next big thing, not just, "Am I safe and do I have a place that's safe now to stay?" It's, "How do I continue to earn money so I can continue to eat and support my family?" That immediately turns the focus to the industry that supports the community. Supporting jobs is also paying taxes to local communities which drives the ability of local government to even function.

The biggest challenge with any community—and there were studies done back about 20 years ago… In communities whose largest employer was closed or out of work because of a disaster for more than 60 days, there's a 75 percent chance that community is going to fail. And it's all about the economics. And government relies on the economics, business relies on it, and individuals, they want to know that they've got that paycheck coming. And so, everything we do to support state and local governments or others in figuring out how to quickly restore those services actually aids and speeds the recovery and gets them to a point where those communities are viable in the future.

Andrew: That's right. You can't rebuild the roads and not rebuild the employers.

Marko: Exactly.

Andrew: I want to come back to what you mentioned about analytics because I think it's an important discussion that we miss a lot is that Katrina, Sandy, storms of 2017 should have thrown off a vast amount of data that we should be using for things like mitigation planning. So how do we get a better handle on that data? And how do we make sure that the systems we're building going into 2019, 2020 are actually collecting that data in a more viable, valuable way?

Marko: Well, part of it is harnessing the data that's been gathered already. Whether it's state or locals or FEMA, there's vast quantities of data. It sits in multiple different systems, some of which are connected, most of which are not. And there's no good way, at least nobody is really sharing that data in a way where it doesn't require a tremendous amount of effort to consolidate. It's not that you have to put all that data in one database. It's how do you get access to the data you need, not that you're going to change the data, but how do you use the data? And then what kind of tools are you looking at? What are you trying to solve? Are you trying to look at the risk problem and understand that better? Are you trying to look at the vulnerability issues or the sustainability?

Those are the questions that have to be asked, and the data scientists know how to ask those, they know how to form those into actual queries of that data. There are tremendous tools now that are being developed to understand how to use the data and actually get good answers out of it, but it requires a marriage of those that understand the mission, the risk with the folks that actually understand the science of data analytics. The tools become almost just the final piece that says, "This is how I get it."

Andrew: And that's a great segue to my next questions, right, which is gut feel, how much of that is a technology problem, how much of that is a mission problem, and how much of that is a management problem? Just gut feel.

Marko: Gut feel, it's probably mostly a management problem. The mission is largely understood by most. The ways to go about achieving that mission is where you get the divergence. The technology, you'll always be able to develop and pull in technology. Technology is constantly changing. Today's great idea is tomorrow's antiquated idea. There's always the next one. The key, it seems to me, is the management and understanding of that mission and how technology can enable it and enhance it is more important than technology for technology's sake.

Andrew: Now you have the chance to provide the guidance to the manager, and they have the desire to be data literate. They have the desire to actually break down those walls and query collected from the systems. You give three pieces of advice.

Marko: The first one is don't think that you own that data. Yeah. Husbanding data like that and fearing the democratization of it, I'll just use that term, is the biggest mistake they make. The second is… learn to share your data in exchange for others. Build that network of understanding where those data points are, where all that information is. And the third thing is be open to ideas on how to analyze it. Don't just think in terms of discrete program needs. Think in terms of how you can extrapolate that across broader problems.

Andrew: That's right. Because it seems like it's not the individual data sets that are adding the most amount of value. It's the mashup of the various different kinds of data where we're really starting to see payoff.

Marko: It is. There are great examples of this. There is a tremendous amount of data that sits in what's called a National Fire Data Incident Reporting System that literally tracks almost every single time a fire department rolls a truck to an event. Doesn't matter whether it's a car crash or an emergency, that data is completely siloed off and never used to understand community risk because those fire department vehicles are also running with police vehicles. They're running to events that are both natural hazards as well as man-made. That is part of your risk equation when you look at a community risk model. It's not used now for that. It's used purely for the silo that it was designed for.

Andrew: Absolutely great point. One of the things they were looking at when they were studying opioids and the spread of opioids was that they were looking at overdose data in California and there was no single code for heroin overdose, and so they vastly under-reported what had been happening over the last 10 years. And when they had gone through and actually mapped the correct codes to what happened, they realized not that there's a possible epidemic, but the epidemic started 10 years ago and by then was out of control.

Marko: Absolutely. And we're going to see that same kind of enlightenment, so to speak, if we start taking that fire data, the police data, the emergency management stuff that's being done through hazard mitigation data gathering or just the disaster response data. I don't need to know who the individuals are. I need to know how many of them and where and what were the conditions that they were in. That helps to broaden that understanding of the risk in a broader community, and stop looking at it necessarily from purely state perspective, but start looking at it from a micro-regional perspective because that's where the events have the most impact.

Andrew: And then matching that against something like CDC social determinants of health, right, to understand, hey, in communities that we're going to rebuild, what are the socioeconomic factors that might be hampering that redevelopment versus what might be a community that is otherwise reasonable and functioning but just needs funding.

Marko: In a lot of cases, there's an old adage that basically says the ability for a community to recover is predetermined by their condition prior to the disaster. And the more we understand that, the more programs can get tailored to actually addressing the communities' problems in recovery as opposed to just what happened to them because their existing precondition determines how well they're going to do because if their infrastructure is broken to begin with, they're going to have a hard time doing it anyway.

Andrew: On the weekend I was reading a GAO report. And one of the interesting findings of the GAO report is for the community development block grant disaster recovery. There had been 120 disasters they responded to with 61 independent declarations. Each one had its own set of rules. So, if you're a state and local government official, how do you navigate that level of complexity?

Marko: That's part of the problem. That complexity doesn't need to exist, but unfortunately, it does. And that's really understanding that you need to have folks, whether it's on your staff or whether you bring folks in to assist that understand the various complexities of these programs and how they change in any given year. Congress constantly makes changes to the appropriations bills which change the way HUD or anybody else manages the money that they're given in that particular fiscal year. Understanding those changes is almost half the battle because all the federal money comes with multiple strings attached. And so, it's really important to understand that.

Secondly, if I'm a local or state-elected official, one of the things that I'm going to be pushing for is streamlining. The idea that if there are multiple programs, allow me to understand and manage those in concert with one another. Don't make me do a completely narrow set of rules on one and not be able to understand how the other can help support both projects because ultimately when it comes to all of the money that's provided by the federal government, it's augmented by money that the states put into it. It's augmented by the money they get from the non-profit communities or foundations or other charitable organizations. They have to have a much more holistic way of managing that money, whether it's at the community level or at the state level because not every challenge requires the same hammer.

Andrew: Right. It's a great point. And you think the discipline of emergency management, especially for state and local emergency managers, changed so substantially over the last 10 to 15 years, right? What now should an emergency manager be prioritizing, right, because in most cases, the communities aren't looking to put more money into emergency management, although they should? How should they spend their time? What are the things they should be focused on in the context of the complexity of the federal scenarios?

Marko: Well, a lot of it is relationship-building that exists that they need to have a very strong thread within their community and not just the normal people they work with... They all work with the fire chief and police chief, etc. They all work with the public works director. In some cases, they are [the public works director]. They have to be actually much more open. There are community leaders that actually drive real action, and none of them are necessarily in established organizations. There's a notion called social capital, and social capital is when there are non-traditional community leaders that actually influence actions, although they're not necessarily part of the Red Cross or some other formalized entity. Finding those people and understanding how to draw them into the dialogue ahead of disasters about how they can be part of that.

The second thing I think a lot of local emergency managers really have to understand is to learn that you don't actually have to be the expert in everything, but find the experts to help you because they do exist. And be willing to listen and take that advice. And finally, get smart about the programs that are coming down the road. State and local governments are going to be asked increasingly, because of the changes to federal grant rules around disaster relief, to do more. They're being given resources as part of that [so they can] do more, but they're actually going to take on even more and more of that responsibility. And getting smart about what that responsibility entails and not necessarily cringing from it, but embracing it and saying, "Okay. This is not only an avenue for me to learn and get expertise. It's also an avenue for me to advocate for help."

Andrew: Right. And the National Emergency Management Association is a great venue for that, right?

Marko: It is. NEMA is an organization of the state directors more than anything else. The states are still the primary grantees for all federal assistance. So, they have a tremendous amount of influence over how the money gets used or quite frankly, how the programs are designed. FEMA is in partnership in a lot of times with NEMA because there's a lot of give and take on whether or not the programs are effective or not.

Andrew: That's a great segue. So, one of the things we learned in 2017 with the whole series of storms followed by the wildfires, was the ability of the national emergency workforce to respond to three, maybe three and a half, large-scale just wasn't there. There just weren't enough bodies. So, I guess there's two questions, right? One is, how do we increase the size of that workforce? And two, how do we increase the professionalism of that workforce?

Marko: Well, size is certainly based largely on how many folks really want to get involved in that as a career. Thankfully, there are a number of universities now around the country with emergency management degree programs both at the bachelor's and master's levels. That's good because they are starting to churn out a lot of folks that want to be in this profession, but more importantly, encouraging through training and education more advanced skills. That's being done through some of the national academies, some of the other universities that are a part of the Homeland Security Consortium. Those are all providing avenues for folks.

Finally, it's really around understanding that the workforce is not entirely always going to be government. It can't be because communities don't have disasters every day. Some do, most don't. And so that workforce has to be very flexible and has to available. And as it grows, it's a combination of public and private partnership in order to get it done because not everybody has to be a pure emergency management planner. They also need people who really understand data. They really need people who understand finance. Those are very broad skills which are available in abundance, but they don't necessarily gravitate toward emergency management because they've never actually been welcomed in. Now they are being welcomed in. And that's going to change that workforce significantly. 

Andrew: Well, this has been sort of a very broad-ranging conversation, but if we think about that as the context, where do we think ICF is going to provide the greatest amount of value, both to our state and local partners as well as to our federal partners?

Marko: Well, I think one of the things is really the understanding that managing any disaster is a function of understanding where all the resources are and how to best utilize them. ICF is well positioned to do that, whether it's working directly for the federal agencies that are providing some of the funding, but also understanding how that funding is supposed to be used. Secondly, it's about incorporating ICF's understanding of both the private sector community, the commercial world, the technology world, into how to make recovery much more robust, how to make response much more effective. And ultimately, how do we help these communities really understand resilience? What does resilience really mean and how to affect the community in a way where the next series of disasters don't have the effects that maybe prior ones did.

Andrew: Absolutely right. We didn't have a chance much to get into the discussion around the story around mitigation, and then the ties between mitigation and resilience. But I think that's a great hand-off to our next opportunity to talk to other parties inside of ICF because any story about response, any story about recovery has to include the story of resilience.

Marko: It absolutely does.

Andrew: Great. Thank you. It was good to talk to you.

Marko: You too.

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