The State of Emergency Management with George Whitney

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Todd:       Hi and welcome to EM Weekly. Today we have George Whitney with us and we’re going to be discussing a lot of different things today, and kind of the state of emergency management and kind of the direction, and also a lot about what George does with his consulting company and the software.

So George, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into emergency management?

George:    I got into Emergency Management quite by accident. I was working in Hawaii after the Iniki storm in ’92. I was having a good time over there, meeting a lot of neat people, working on some neat projects, really getting a feel for what disaster’s looked like on the ground. But I had a few weeks between different projects throughout the year, so I called up Region 9, happened to speak to, I think her name was Suzanne Mooney and Joe Rodriguez — and this was going way back — but they were kind of GS-15’s big shots in Region 9 and they had said, “hey we don’t have time right now, let us send you an application, fill it out.” And I thought — hey, whatever.

So I got the application, filled it out. Within, I don’t know, I’d said four weeks or so, I’d been asked to go down to the Police Department and get finger printed. I got a phone call about my background in the Air Force. And like two weeks later I got a Diner’s Club Card and Federal ID in the mail, never met anybody. Couple, three days later, maybe they called up and said, “can you be in Kansas City, Missouri at 6 am?” I showed up, old style CPO — Central Processing Office — where you meet a leader in the parking lot, you go through an armed guard because there was cash they paid people at the time. We walked down two or three stories of steps and we found ourselves in a World War II era morgue in downtown Kansas City.

I worked there for six weeks I thought of thinking I was a volunteer, I’d actually packed jeans and boots and planned to fill sandbags during the first appointment in ’93, the great Midwest flood. When I found out I wasn’t a volunteer, like I said, about six weeks into it, I was like, “man, people get paid to do this? I’m doing it for free and I love it.” So being able to make a career out of it just looked like a great idea.

Todd:       That’s a nice surprise that you go in thinking it’s going to be volunteer and then you start getting paid.

George:    It was truly fun. Every single… I’ve been on so many different types of deployments. I’ve been a local, state, federal emergency manager and spent time in the private sector too.

It’s those early sort of simple exposures I think that you remember the most — the family that you got out of the car, that got housing so they got a chance to sleep somewhere other than the car. Rescuers have those memories about pulling people out of cars and buildings and that sort of thing too, it’s same thing for us I guess.

Todd:       I agree with you. You know what’s funny is I teach at Coastline Community College in the recovery aspect of it. I think recovery actually is one of the hardest jobs to do in EM, because it takes such a long time to do it you know, forever. I mean look at Katrina, we’re still recovering technically from that, right?

But I tell the guys, once the lights, the sirens are stopped and the cool Fire trucks and police cars are back in their barns and back at their stations — that’s when the work of recovering and emergency management really comes in, and that’s when you really touch people and I think that’s a really important aspect of our job.

So I’m going to ask you two questions and they’re kind of back to back and they’re similar but a little bit different.

Number one is, where do you think emergency management is most effective? What department or role should they play?

The second thing, what do you think the biggest challenge that you see now in emergency management?

George:    Wow. Let me start with the second one first. I’ve been in this profession almost 25 years and I don’t think we’re any further along in answering the question that we were asking back then, “What is an emergency manager and what do they do?”

We’ve got standards that have taken a great deep look at what emergency managers do and how they might do it and what they might submit and what capabilities they should be able to demonstrate in a disaster. But we really haven’t done a good job of defining what an emergency manager is and what constitutes success.

So I think that’s still the biggest sort of challenge.

Until we understand that and all the things that come with that — the being sort of lower in the food chain in a city or county or state, but having to co-ordinate leadership from different departments and deal simultaneously in the operations and political realms? But we’re not going to answer those questions until we define what success is or come to a better way of doing those things.

In terms of the models — let’s see, I’ve seen emergency managers like at the state level under public safety, general public safety, under law enforcement, under the governor’s office, under the adjutant general. I think the last time I saw it there were a third of the agencies were reporting to an adjutant general at the state level. A third or more were reporting to governors, and there were another third that were reporting to like secretaries for transportation and those sort of things.

So we still have various models and those varieties replicate down to the local level where you can see several programs put into health departments and health and EM departments combined with EMS and all that.

Let’s see, so I don’t know that any one of them is more effective than the other as long as the superior department, the host department really understands what needs to be done.

I don’t want to make a generalization about all fire and law departments but typically — and I’ll say probably better than 50% of the time — when you see an emergency management program put in a law and fire agency they tend to take on what fire and law think those positions should be — either primarily a CERT coordinator or sort of an extension of the volunteers and policing thing and working on search and rescue and sort of more law enforcement things. You don’t find as many programs that are focused on large scale risk management, mitigation, preparedness response recovery, that sort of thing.

Todd:       One of the cities where — I’m out here in LA county — the EM department is a part-time position and it falls under their HR department, and I’m really kind of confused why it’s there and I really can’t get an answer for it. But that kind of throws me for a loop on that one.

George:    I don’t see too many of those, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Todd:       So in that aspect of it, so the challenges that you’re seeing realistically is that we’re aren’t defined. I know we’re fairly new, Jimmy Carter put FEMA on the planet, and I know that our background is really kind of the nuclear age type thing with the civil defense. But we really haven’t defined ourselves from there.

What do you think we could do as a profession? Are we still arguing that point at the IEM or are they defined what we’re at right now. I mean do we even know what we want to be?

George:    Again sort of starting backwards here. I think we need to do more of what we’re doing now. By “what we’re doing now” I mean defining the standards, having institutes of higher education help us do some research and help us define things and maybe bring people up with better head start than some of us old-timers had.

Todd:       Right, right.

George:    So again, I think it’s doing more of the same but we need to… You know I blogged about it somewhere a while ago, about how we’ve evolved from different agencies. We’ve had so many different influences in our organization. I mean off the top of my head we got started with Three Mile Island and then it was SARA Title III and all that LEPC stuff. Then it was General Emergency Management, sort of natural hazards stuff because we had a few of those. Then we got pooled toward OJP at the federal level and domestic preparedness after Oklahoma City and Ruby Ridge and Waco.

Todd:       Right.

George:    Then 2001 happens, 9/11 and most people know the story after that. But even digging deeper into the creation of DHS after 9/11 — we had huge… I mean…

Let’s just be honest about it. That fight that happens, excuse me, that polite struggle that happens at local, state and federal level for money and influence between jurisdictions, the reasons why sheriffs and police chiefs sometimes like to get the emergency management program so they can better influence over grant investment decisions.

Those struggles — you see them at all levels of government. Early after 2001 — and it started before, but you saw it intense after 9/11 when DHS stood up — you saw the fire service introduce NIIMS with two i’s? remember that? And before that, you had law enforcement, particularly the FBI sitting down and making the distinction between crisis and consequence management, which is a nice way of saying “stay out of our business.” Right? [laughs]

Todd:       [laughs] Right.

George:    Unified command is only going to go so far. We’re incident command when it comes to crisis, right?

Then we saw… I went to… Sorry, this is a more involved answer than you wanted, probably.

But I was involved in helping to finish up the target capabilities list, and FEMA rented the Hilton, the conference room at the DC Hilton. I counted over 200 agencies that were plying for influence in the way emergency management was defined. We’re going to get better if we continue to do the things that we’re doing. We’re not going to get better until we get serious about all agreeing on one thing.

When I get online and I see emergency managers tear each other down — that’s what they’re doing — I think that kind of stuff holds us back.

I also like the forum that you just launched, and guys like me, who podcast and blog and do other things, because we’re getting people to talk about stuff that emergency managers haven’t talked about and need to talk about if we’re going to get better.

Todd:       Yes. I agree with you 100% there. It’s funny you talk about the NIMS and the SEMS and the ICS, and the — unified command versus incident command.

I remember we had a fire out here, a pretty large fire going on, and they come out and they announce that they had “unified command” and so the fire chief comes out and he says “we are a unified command, and I am the incident commander.” I started laughing.

Well, it doesn’t really work that way, chief, but OK. That’s what we’ll call it.

We didn’t even know our own nomenclature at times. We’re talking different words and I know we’re trying to do better on that, but hopefully somebody will —

George:    Todd, we got a ways to go. I was talking with a really sharp guy, that’s a — I don’t know if he’s ready for me to call him out on this, and he deserves all the credit for this — but to kind of give you one glimpse of a — oh, man, are we really still there yet?

He was telling me that just in the last few months, he’s been talking to local, state, and federal agencies about figuring out ways that we can deal with hazmat responses. Right? Believe it or not. It’s 2017 — believe it or not, under state and federal statute, state and federal incident commanders come in to a local government and say “we’ve got it” and there isn’t a formal place on the ICS org chart for a local government rep, other than the generic liaison role.

Todd:       That’s going to cause some — [laughs]

George:    That’s amazing. Right?

Todd:       Yes.

George:    I’m so glad we got people paying attention to that and helping us to fix it, but that’s an indication we’ve got some more work to do.

Todd:       Oh, yes, for sure. I went through a debriefing on the Deepwater Horizon. I went to the debriefing on this, and it was… They showed the org chart, and it was — I don’t know — zero font on the PowerPoint presentation —

George:    [laughs]

Todd:       — and uses so many boxes. I’m like — holy crap; how is that ICS’s organization chart.

That was how crazy it was. The guy was talking about how people didn’t even know who was in charge of what over there at one point.

You know, we’re trying hard, and the public doesn’t understand that we’re trying hard, but I know that we all do, and we do have to give each other a break sometimes when things go not as by the book as most people think it should be.

Complete EM with George Whitney

George:    But I also think we need to be hard on ourselves too. Take AARs for example — After Action Reports. It’s not just us, but there are very few agencies that really do those things the way they’re supposed to be done. I hear people say things still like — I don’t want to exercise, because then people will see how bad we are. [laughs]

You know? Or — I don’t want to examine what went wrong, because then we could be sued for it, or we might be criticized.

As long as we look at things like that, we’re not going to… There’s no way we can solve the… I mean, isn’t step one — admit you have a problem?

Todd:       Yes. [laughs]

I was doing some consulting work for a company and we were doing some stuff, and I put down some of the issues found, and the guy told me, he goes — you can’t put that in a report.

I go — well, why? — I don’t want to say what it was, but it was more about a fire alarm type thing. And I go “well why? This is what we found; this is the issue that we found.”

And he was like — yes, but if somebody found that report, we’d get sued.

I’m like — so then fix it. [laughs] If that’s what you’re afraid of, fix it. Mitigate the issue. This is what we’re looking for here, you know?

George:    It’s totally a person problem, too, right? It’s not a system problem. It’s a person problem.

I was in an EOC during a functional exercise, so all the seats were filled. This is no small city. We were in there and there were 50 people in this room, and most of them were watching the — and I was there taking pictures and stuff, and talking, and offering opinions — and I’m standing next a young lady who got up on a chair and stood high on a chair that swiveled, with very few feet, leaning over to put something on a whiteboard. I mean, there were 50 people in that room, and I’m betting 35 were watching her do this, and somebody came up to me and said — you didn’t take a picture of that, did you?

Todd:       [laughs] That’s awesome.

It’s across the board. I have a friend of mine who works for a large university here in Southern California, and yesterday they were doing a fire drill, billed “evacuation,” I don’t know if it was a fire drill or not, but they were evacuating all the buildings simultaneously at 6:00 at night, and because they really don’t do it in the evening. He said this administrator comes over to him and says — hey, if we’re doing it as 6:00 at night, there’s not going to be any of the administrator staff here. How’s that going to go? — and he says “that’s exactly why I’m doing it; I need to know how it’s going to function when you guys aren’t here. Don’t worry about it; this is a drill; this is why we’re here, trying to find what our problems are.”

I love that, how people always want to make sure that that drill is perfect, and doesn’t go sideways. That’s not the whole purpose of why we do these drills.

George:    Yes. We could spend a whole hour probably talking about exercise design and stuff. But one of the things that I hate most about going to exercises is when people either program them… Exercise designers program people just to never win. It’s — whatever they call it — the Kobayashi Maru, right? You can’t win it. Or they make it so easy, that literally, all you have to do is show up, and sign in sheet.

These things should be challenging, and we should be building proficiency and confidence as we gain that proficiency. We should be identifying every single time, something that we can do better.

Todd:       Yes, more than just communications. Whenever we do the hot wash, I stand up and I go — OK, we already know communications is a problem. OK, it’s on the board, now let’s talk about other things.

George:    Right.

Todd:       OK, so let’s change gears here for a minute. Because this is the important thing for me, is… And tell me a little bit about your company and what you guys do and then how your company affects emergency management?

George:    Alright. So there’s kind of a longer story behind it; I’ll try to make it short.

But I spent a good portion of my career working at the local, state and federal level as a government emergency manager. I’ve done everything from — show up, expecting to fill sandbags, to actually filling sandbags, to… I did almost two years, I think, as a acting undersecretary in the state of California at OES. People like me — and I’m a little, I guess, strange in that regard — I never pictured myself being in government for an entire career. The longer I stayed, the more I found out… I felt like I was being held responsible and given charge of things that were broken, that nobody would allow to be fixed.

So I said — I want to be someplace where I can fix things. I went in the corporate world; did some consulting; did some stuff for FEMA as a consultant, and big agencies, and UASIs, and focused on a bunch of different things, and got to work on some really, really neat programs.

But you know, again, it was like there was something missing.

One of the things as a consultant that generally we hate is — you get called in to do a job, and you do that job; you put your heart and soul into it, and then they’re like — OK — and they put it on a shelf. They never read it.

So that was kind of why I didn’t find total satisfaction there. So I said — hey, I did a little bit of research, though about it quite a while. There was 23,000 local jurisdictions in the United States and most of them don’t have viable emergency management programs.

I reason from my experience that we’ve made emergency management way too difficult. We’ve got to build program support tools that fit in an organization that is — I don’t know — 10,000 miles or whatever — however big a county is in land area, and has like 10- 20- 60,000 people, and one emergency manager, and not gear these things, not develop support at the state and federal level that a team of 20 couldn’t do with millions of dollars.

So I sat down, and I said listen — what is it that emergency managers have to do? And I found myself asking the question — dammit, we haven’t answered that question about what constitutes success.

So me, and a few folks who have worked in the program management, strategic planning, performance metrics things, related to emergency management — we sat down and we said — hey, we can define what emergency management success is.

As it turns out, it’s about 150 different things. So we started developing simple assessment tools where people can figure out where their program’s at across the spectrum of 150 things that really needed to get done, and then we saw opportunities to add other tools that would help — tools that would help people develop priorities, develop a strategic plan, develop and execute annual work plans, manage budgets, project management stuff — and we kind of went “wow, we’re coming into all these opportunities to help people manage programs better.”

But what’s the other half of their problem? Emergency managers, when they do set down to do like an EOP rewrite, they typically take 12 to 18 months. That’s way too long.

So then we spent some time engineering how emergency managers could get that work done quicker.

So at the end of — I don’t know — about a year and a half of R&D and testing and all that stuff, we came out with a suite of tools that essentially… It has about 45 different tools in it; it creates a one-page dashboard so people can see at a glance where their program is. Then it’s got some tools in there to help develop some of the critical documents — EOPs SOPs, COOP-COGS, LHMPs, etc. and does it in a way that dramatically reduces the amount of time on emergency manager has to put in to documents.

Some cases, we’ve got people drafting good exercise plans in less than an hour, and putting first drafts of EOPs together in four hours.

So that’s that. But really what we want to do overall, is give emergency managers a chance at winning in this job, by getting a good portion of those 150 things done. With that sheer number of things to do and the limited resources that you have, you just have to be as efficient about it as you can.

So as a business… Because I haven’t found a way to do this effectively as a non-profit, but as a business, we wanted to focus on the I guess, smaller two-thirds of the country emergency management programs that really want to evolve, but aren’t quite sure how.

Todd:       That’s awesome. That’s some really, really good stuff right there.

Now I want to go and buy your software and start using it with my students. That might be something that they could really learn from.

What do you think you project as far as getting out there? How many people have you touched so far with this software?

George:    Oh, well in terms of subscribers, I have to look, because we have an ecommerce capability where people can just go to the sight and load it up. But we’re in dozens of jurisdictions now. As far as touching folks go… Gosh, I wish there was a better word for that.

Todd:       [laughs] Sorry. Oh my gosh. You’re so right. Because it does sound bad. OK.

George:    We talk with a bunch of folk, but we know… Because we’re all emergency managers, except for the hardcore software developers that work for me. We know that not every emergency management program is ready to take the step.

When I talk with folks — and I get a chance to talk with them, because I do work for IAEM on committees, and I go to conferences and I do keynotes at state association meetings and stuff like that — you get around and you talk to people, you’ve got to find out where they’re at first.

If for example, we run into the emergency manager that’s like — yes, I’m kind of held hostage in this other department and they got me doing this — one or two things; they have no need for a comprehensive program management tool.

Todd:       Right.

George:    Right?

But if you… The people that we love to talk to are the people where, because we can help them, are the people that say — I’m new to this — or — I’ve been doing this a while; we’ve had a change of leadership; they’re giving me a little bit of latitude to do something a little bit differently, but I don’t know where to go next. — or — I have a lot of ideas, and I don’t know how to balance all of them.

Those are the folks that you know are ready to move forward.

Todd:       Oh, good. I’m hoping that you are able to break into some more bigger places, so you can get this going.

I really do think that that type of software is definitely needed. I’ve been that guy who’s sat there and had a project and you’re going — oh my gosh; how am I going to get through this.

It does take you a long time. I have rewritten EOPs. It’s nice to look at ideas from other people, but I’m not a guy who can do a control agent change X jurisdiction to my jurisdiction, and say — yes, there’s my plan — because it’s just not the way it works, at least, effectively.

I’m glad you’re out there and doing this.

M: I got to a point in consulting, that I interviewed clients more. Because I didn’t want to deliver strategic plans that people wouldn’t… It was a deliverable for their grant program, to put on their web page, but didn’t really want to use it.

You’ve got to be really careful about, I guess, spending time with folks that really don’t want help.

Todd:       Right. That’s so true.

Alright George, one more question. Little twist here — this is the question I’m asking all of my guests.

What is the number one book — or two or three — but what’s the book that you would give away to a new person who is entering the field of emergency management?

George:    It really depends on the time of year, the interest… If you’re in emergency management long enough, you see the same things come back around. I think the one that I’m thinking of the most — and there’s a lot of great books out there — so I can’t be fair to the good ones. All I can tell you is what’s on my mind today.

That is a book that my boss handed me back in ’97 maybe. I can’t remember the title, but it’s by Peter Senge. He basically lays out, defines and helps you figure out and manage creative tension. Because, throughout my career, and hopefully I got better at it as I stayed in it longer, but I couldn’t completely ever get over that tension that’s created when bureaucracies compete to provide public service, or to gain grant funds, or that sort of thing.

For an emergency manager who feels embattled, who has to pull teeth or cajole or beg or whatever for departments to participate, that book — oh, I can’t remember the title; I’ll give it to you later if you want — really I think can put people at comfort, being comfortable with the idea that tension, some amount of tension in relationships, is not only OK, but can be helpful.

Todd:       Would it be “The Fifth Discipline”?

George:    Yes. Thank you.

Todd:       It is actually a really good book. That’s actually… You’re right, that’s something that…

That’s one thing I talk to people about too, especially my students, when we talk about books and stuff. I really push them a lot to some of these leadership books, and business management books. Because at the end of the day, as an emergency manager, emergency coordinator — whatever title that you want to put in that aspect — it’s about bringing diverse groups of people together and making them get to one prospective goal.

I think you’re right with that book; that’s a really good one there.

George:    I don’t want to be too cliche, but Simon Sinek’s making rounds around the internet. He’s got… While a lot of his stuff is — none of it is specific to emergency management — the whole idea of asking why — why am I doing this? Why do I need this relationship? Why am I doing things this way?

That’s a lot of value there.

Todd:       There is a lot of value there. You’re absolutely correct.

Alright sir. Well, thank you so much for being here with us today. The bottom of the show notes here, we’re going to put your information. So can you tell us, if someone wants to get a hold of you, how would we get a hold of you?

George:    Best way to reach us here is and you can find us with some variation of that spelling or name at Facebook. I’m also on LinkedIn — George Whitney at LinkedIn. And you’ll find @complete-em at Twitter. And that’s where we spend most of our time.

Todd:       Awesome. Thank you so much for being here. And you have a wonderful day.

George:       Thanks Todd, that was fun. And good luck with your show.

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