10 things 'I wish I had known' before the disaster hit


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Stay connected with the public at all times

Stay connected with the public at all times

Dispatch procedures have come a long way since the first few months of Pete Gomezs career at the city of Miamis Fire-Rescue team. Thirty years ago, phone operators acted on handwritten notes slid across the desk. Now there are automatic, reverse-911 mobile systems that allow public safety to proactively alert citizens of danger.

Gomez, who also manages one of the nations 28 Urban Search & Rescue teams, told StateScoop that maintaining a pulse on city residents in times of crisis, whether it be through social media channels or public safety-dedicated communication technology, is more valuable and easier than ever before.

It is so valuable to us nowadays, maintaining connectivity to the people, he said. Understanding the need, even if they dont necessarily call in to 911, but were watching [social media] and if theres an area identified that might need assistance, just by keeping track of whats happening on Instagram and all those other medias, we might dispatch people over there to assist them.

Proactive outreach proved crucial in ensuring citizen safety during Hurricane Irma, when two cranes collapsed in the city, he said.

We have a mass-communications system that we can call back all the residents with within a certain geographical area, Gomez said, referencing the citys reverse 911 system. We sent out a message: Please be advised, theres been a crane collapse. Evacuate if you live at this area or that area. That way we can get the people out of the buildings that are going to be affected directly by it.

The ability to monitor citizen safety in real time through the citys communication department, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Gomez said also allows for his team to inform residents of a disaster before its underway.

We can use that notification system when an event is on its way, and we can blast the entire city if we want with a message, he said.

Prepare for zero-notice emergencies

Prepare for zero-notice emergencies

Like many Americans, Rosa Akhtarkhavariwoke up on June 12, 2016, to the news that 49 people had been shot to death in the middle of the night at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. By 9 a.m., Akhtarkhavari, the Florida citys chief information officer, was setting up the governments emergency operations center as it started working through what was then the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

For the next 13 days, the command center was her home, with the occasional night to go home and get clean clothes, Akhtarkhavari recalled to StateScoop. Serving in Orlandos government since 1992, andbecoming CIO in 2010, Akhtarkhavari wasnt new to emergency management. But Pulse was different in nearly every regard.

“Ive been through hurricanes, she said. Natural disasters come with notice.

But for a mass-casualty event that arrived without warning and traumatized the entire city, especially its LGBTQ population, the Pulse shootings aftermath featured exemplary work from Akhtarkhavaris information-technology team, she said.

We were able to have full support from IT within 30 minutes, she said. We needed to be sitting at the table, because everything was shuffling and shifting all the time.

In the nearly two weeks she worked out of the emergency bunker, Akhtarkhavari was responsible for keeping Orlandos 911 system and websites up and running, along with making sure the police and fire departments communications remained online. She also had direct lines to city technology vendors in case systems glitched out.

This was not a time you call the 1-800 support line, she said.

Thats standard-issue for any disaster, but Pulse also put Akhtarkhavari in the position of supporting city agencies a CIO doesnt talk to on a regular basis.

I never thought Id have the direct number for the coroner, she said.

Looking back nearly two years later, Akhtarkhavari said she wouldnt do anything differently, but the Pulse shooting did move her to re-evaluate how the CIOs office reacts to a disaster.

All my experience with emergency response had been with notice, she says. Our emergency response now includes zero notice.

Try pulling the plug

Try pulling the plug

It should go without saying that a disaster recovery plan should have thorough contingencies for worst-case scenarios, but the U.S. Virgin Islands learned the hard way during Hurricanes Maria and Irma last year that Mother Nature can make even a good plan look inadequate. Sometimes things come up that no one thought of until it was too late.

The two Category 5 Hurricanes presented the most devastating weather the region had seen in a century, and the islands are still recovering. Virgin Islands Chief Information Officer Angleo “Tony” Riddick relayed through a commentary for StateScoop that the local government found its own disaster recovery plan lacking in several areas in the face of such powerful storms.

Backup generators proved to be insufficient to provide continued IT support as power outages lasted for months on end. The government also lost critical data because of inadequate planning. And there’s still much more that can be done in the area of training and education.

The only real way to know how prepared your people are and how they will respond during a true life-and-death emergency, Riddick said, is to pull the plug on the power when things are calm and see what happens.

Read Riddicks account of responding to those 2017 hurricanes and the lessons his team learned in his commentary for StateScoop.

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