Thoughts on Haiti, Olympics, and other disasters

Absent those who have gone gaga over the iPad, the top news for the past two weeks has been the earthquake and disaster in Haiti.  The concern, the outpourings of support (and, yes, the malware and phishing sites that have been attempting to capitalize on the crisis) are all reminiscent of the tsunami, Katrina, and other events stretching back in time.

Haiti has been different.  The major factor has been the total breakdown of infrastructure, and the consequent difficulty in getting the help to those who need it most.

Those of us in the security communities are always interested in disasters.  We are forever dealing with crises, both large and small, assessing risks, planning and comparing mitigation strategies, and looking at the management of it all.  So, I recall that, when Katrina struck, there were endless discussions of the latest details, the structures, the organization (and lack thereof) in the followup efforts.  One person made a donation to a charity, and challenged the group to match his gift.  I upped the stakes.  I challenged everyone to get trained for disasters.

Unfortunately for the point I’m trying to make, I am speaking from a position of privilege.  Canada has the best emergency structure in the world.  (Our disaster response team is in Haiti at the moment, and is always one of the first on the ground whenever there is a major incident, anywhere.)  British Columbia has the best emergency response management system in Canada.  (No, I’m not volunteering at the Olympics.  But for the past year, I’ve been working with a group that has been planning for the fact that, with the big event in town, even a minor crisis is probably going to mean that we may have to provide emergency lodging for a few hundred people.)  And the North Shore, where I live, has the best disaster training regime in BC.  (The group lodging thing isn’t done by VANOC: it’s an effort by the ESS volunteers from the North Shore, Vancouver, and Richmond.)

Emergency response, in a major disaster, is not simply a matter of having water, generators, blankets, and rescue dogs.  It has to do with organization, co-ordination, management, and, particularly, trained people.  Most of them volunteers, since nobody can afford to pay for a full-time staff of all those you need to have ready in an emergency.

That’s where you come in.

Get trained.

There is some emergency measures organization that covers your area, regardless of where you live.  Your local municpality probably has an office.  And they probably need volunteers.  And they provide training.

If you volunteer, you will probably get trained.  For free.  (You may also get additional perqs.  I get my flu shots paid for every year, since I’m an emergency worker.)

First of all, you’ll probably get trained on what you need for you and your family.  What do you need to survive the first 72 hours following a disaster?  Do you know how much water, what type of food, etc, you need, in the event of a total failure of utilities and other factors we rely on?

Then there are the skills you need to help other people.  Sometimes this might relate to first aid, or structural assessment of buildings after an earthquake, etc.  However, there are many necessary skills that are not quite so dramatic.  Most emergency response, believe it or not, has to do with paperwork.  Who is safe?  Who needs care?  Do families need to be reunited?  Documentation of all of this is a huge effort, which goes on long after the bottles of water and hot meals have been distributed.

Then there are management skills, to co-ordinate all of the other skills.  An awful lot of “charity” gets wasted because some people get too much help, and others don’t get enough.  Someone needs to oversee the efforts.

Training in all of this is available.  And, in an emergency, having trained people is probably more important than having stockpiles of tents.  Trained people can make or improvise shelter.

Maybe your municipality or county doesn’t have a formal emergency structure.  In that case, there are organizations covering the gap.  In Canada, the government doesn’t do it all.  The Red Cross and Salvation Army are two of the groups that have been working on this for years, and have specialists.  In BC we have courses provided by the Justice Institute in a number of areas.  The provincial government has created a marvelous structure, ensuring consistent organizational layout for all sizes and types of disasters, and all types of response.  But we don’t bother reinventing the wheel.  In our formal training curriculum, a number of the courses are prepared, provided and run by the groups that have been doing it for years, and know it best.  If your government doesn’t have the courses available, go to those who do.  They are around.

(For those who have security related certifications, like the CISSP, ongoing professional education is a requirement.  A constant complaint is that training is expensive, and getting the credits costs too much.  I get all kinds of training related to business continuity and disaster recovery.  I get almost all of it free.)

Get trained.  Volunteer.  You’ll get a wealth of experience that will help you plan for all kinds of events, not just for major disasters, but for the minor incidents that plague us and our companies every day.  You’ll be ready for the big stuff, too.  You’ll be able to keep yourself and those near to you safe.  You’ll be able to make a difference to others, certainly reducing suffering, and possibly saving lives.  If and when something major happens, you will be a part of the infrastructure necessary for the response to be effective.  You’ll be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

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Researcher, author, communications guy, teacher, security maven, management consultant, and general loudmouth Rob Slade. Also

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