How NOT to become a disaster within a disaster

A serious-faced Jennifer Goldsmith at the Joint Field Office in American Samoa. Photo by Jennifer Warren 2010.

You simply cannot be prepared for everything  that life throws at you, but  if you are anything like me, you really try to be.  I have hard-copy notebooks, backed up by thumb drives, backed up by encrypted cloud-based searchable documents that can be pulled up anywhere.  I gather reference documents for work and diligently squirrel them away “just in case” I get out to a disaster office and nobody knows what to do. I may think that I am really preparing myself and I am ready for anything, but alas, I do not know what it is that I do not know. My mettle was tested over the summer when I was deployed to Connecticut to respond to Severe Storms and Flooding. The Mitigation Branch Chief of the disaster wanted to bring in a person with “406 Mitigation experience”, but the job titles in the automated deployment system had changed, so that it was difficult to see who had that kind of experience. When he saw that I was available and had a technical GIS background, he figured that if I didn’t actually have 406 mitigation experience, then at the very least, I might be a quick study. He called me, and after we talked for a few minutes, he decided to deploy me not just as a 406 Mitigation Specialist…BUT AS THE GROUP SUPERVISOR!!! At this point I had already been working in emergency management  for 2 ½ years, so I had the knowledge, resources and contacts to fill in many of the blanks. And there were MANY blanks. No one at the disaster had any real experience doing 406 mitigation, so I had to hunt around looking for information—websites, contacts, and making things up as I went along. I often thought of the saying we use in Emergency Management: “Don’t ask for permission, Ask  for forgiveness.”  I received a very good review from my manager after that deployment. So-here are the most important things that I did to keep my sanity and get the work done. This is for all of you Emergency Management folks out there who get thrown into a new position at a disaster, and want to avoid becoming a disaster yourself!

STRENGTH-FINDING–I listened to my team and tried to learn their strengths, and utilized those strengths, when possible.

PRIORITIZE–If there are multiple projects/meetings/deliverables happening at the same time, I would prioritize them and deploy my team members appropriately.

PREPARED ORGANIZATION–I don’t like to re-invent the wheel, so I keep detailed notes, templates, data sets, formulas, spreadsheets, etc. with me, and take them from disaster to disaster. As a worker, I am well-prepared, but as a manager, having this type of documentation is an essential armament for my team members.

COMMUNICATION–I keep the management up-to-date with my team’s progress using regular emails and spreadsheets. I create group emails, which I regularly used to inform my team of any important project information, without interrupting their work. Rather than long, drawn out meetings, I would pull together quick status update meetings about whatever is at hand, and then get back onto the project work.

These are the things that had the most impact on MY job performance.  What kinds of things have helped you in similar situations?



8 responses to “How NOT to become a disaster within a disaster

  • Max

    As always, a very well thought out and well written account of your deployment and position during that deployment. If asked by any of the disaster execs about your strengths, I would have been able to give them a thumbs up from observing your performance during Hurricane Ike, DR-1791-TX.

    I was impressed with your tenacity in performance and ability to smile during the stressful situations we all experienced in leadership.

    Thank you for your job well done once again.


  • Tim Pridemore, CFPS

    I was asked at a conference about the best way to coordinate with local responders. My answer was simple. When your local responders show up if the first thing you say is… Hello, I’m (fill in the blank) and I am the emergency manger here on campus, you are already behind the curve. If the first thing you have to say is… “Hello, it sure is good to see you again” half the battle has been won.

    • kalamityjenn

      Good Point, Tim. I am a fan of keeping regular meetings for partner groups. That way you are not only acquainted with the folks at The Army Corps of Engineers, or the State of Colorado Dept. of Em. Mgmt., etc., but you also have been involved in data sharing, creating memorandums of agreement, and identifying potential emergency issues (etc.), well in advance. Nice!

  • Mims Carter

    Great article. As a veteran of 5 years of disaster work in Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, and Ike, I can say that the greatest advice I received from an old hand in recovery work was to take advantage of the chaos. If you are sharp and have the attitude of asking for forgiveness instead of permission, you can get a lot done.

  • Gaylord Hanson

    I have enjoyed this discussion. My background is from the private, faith-based side of disaster response. I am a volunteer with Adventist Community Services Disaster Response with 20 plus years experience. Hopefully everyone folllowing this topic is aware of the VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) Organization, All states have chapters at the state level. Many states have local chapters as well. VOAD is an excellent resource for helping in the emergency as well as the recovery phases as each agency represented has a specific area of expertise.

  • Megan Pioch

    I was on deployment in Haiti last year. Our medical caches needed to be reconfigured, because it wasn’t possible to land a C-17 on Haiti’s runways. We finally get everything in, and are deployed to an area. I was working under the Logistics Section Chief, and the computer program responsible for tracking our cache malfunctioned. I used an easy solution. I looked through all the boxes, noting down the items in each box, and also drew a map as to where each box was located – either inside or outside the tent. My Logs Chief was so happy I performed this simple, yet effective task independently and successfully. Knowing where each box was, and the contents in each box dramatically reduced the time needed to restock the medical supplies. We didn’t have to spend time looking through all the boxes. Additionally, when we were demobilized, I handed off the list and map to the new Logistics Section Chief. He looked at me and it with disdain. I gave it to an RN, who saw the simple practicality of having everything mapped out.
    Another thing I provided was a medical picture card that can be used by the medical staff and the patients. I knew that Haiti’s language was French and Creole. I made copies of this booklet and laminated them so that all the pictures could be utilized by anyone. ImSURT liked it so much they decided to make it a part of their medical cache.
    As an EMT-B, I have learned to adapt and overcome in just about any situation. Sometimes you need to just improvise or learn to think differently. I succeeded in that environment because I could speak French, and I had alternate, practical solutions ready to go in case a problem occurred. I am the lowest level on my Team, yet I came out with solutions to major problems. Another suggestion is to seek out people like me – not necessarily in the “norm”, but who are highly intuitive, independent thinkers. There are many people like me out there, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the success of the mission, and to help the Team. Thanks for your time and consideration.
    Respectfully, Megan Pioch
    NR-EMT-B, HAZMAT Technician, ECO/EMD, Rescue Technician
    FEMA Disaster Generalist

    • Gaylord Hanson

      Right on Megan! It is people like you that make a huge difference and make everyone (including some leaders who are clueless) look great! As a coordinator you are the type of person that I look for and try to empower. Keep up the great work. There are individuals who do notice the positive difference that you make and may recommend you for awards and positions of greater responsibility.

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