Jun 082014

A recently published paper claims that the gender of the name given to individual hurricanes is linked to the public’s perception of the risk posed by that storm. In short, this study claims that hurricanes given female-sounding names are perceived to be less dangerous than those given male-sounding names.  The author concludes that more deaths result from “female” hurricanes.

Having grown up with the name Jan, many people have wrongly assumed I was female. I can appreciate that gender discrimination does in fact accompany names.  However, I can’t quite make the leap that Hurricane Betty would cause more deaths than Hurricane Butch given they were of equal strength and a population would be of equal risk upon landfall.  Would both males and females downplay the risk or is it only men who are more at risk of falling victim to a Hurricane Betty? The study does seem to indicate a problem.

Regardless, it raises the issue of why current storm naming conventions exist and whether they still serve a purpose. Today, we hear a male or female storm name followed by the current and projected strength of the storm.  I suspect the meaning of the storm ranking scale is probably lost on most. Certainly, the need for action is not always clear.

If storm names are a problem, then this is a simple and cheap fix to make: develop names which engage the public and include intuitive descriptors of danger. Optimally, new storm names would also take into account the demographics and language preferences of those at risk upon landfall and be crafted to be heard and understood.

Let’s redesign storm rankings which include a description of how to react. For example, “Storm Rain on Your Parade” would clearly be less severe than “Storm Run for Your Life.” Let’s hope we never see “Storm Kiss Your Ass Goodbye,” but we should have the name just in case.

Simple, more informative names could actually improve our storm warning system. As an added benefit, more generic names won’t stigmatize men and women whose name happens to be the same as a killer storm — think of the poor Andrews and Katrinas!

With hurricane season underway, any improvements to raise awareness and educate people about preparedness measures is a good thing.  Now is a great time to dust off hurricane plans and make sure triggers are gender-neutral.

Thoughts? Please share!

May 092014

I once thought that a disturbed ants nest was a great example of high entropy. It’s not.  Don’t believe me? Go kick a fire ant nest and stand there.  A wave of ants emerges to search and destroy the disruption; another gathers up young and critical supplies; some protect the hierarchy. Almost immediately, workers set to rebuild. Ants recover quickly from disaster — natural or man-made. If you don’t know, entropy is a measure of the unavailability of a system’s energy to do work. It’s also a measure of disorder — the higher the entropy, the greater the disorder.  In the world of humans, certain problems consistently come to the surface in after action reports: communications; command and control; resource management and coordination. All of these problems raise entropy in major events. In 2005, adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was mandated by Presidential directive as a solution for these reoccurring problems.  Yet, as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, we still have the same issues and entropy remains high. We’ve added complexity to how we address major events, and personnel continue to be vexed by how to best manage resources and reporting requirements. The NIMS approach raises entropy and takes the focus away from solving actual problems. I think it’s time we admit these recurring problems will be present in events and concentrate pre-planning efforts on keeping entropy as low as possible.  How? We need to simplify planning factors and accept that we cannot address every contingency. Pre-plan, train, and drill at the community level to undertake these immediate efforts:

  • To stabilize the threat, even if these methods are not perfect.
  • To rescue those unable to do so themselves. This includes children, the elderly, and those who are mobility challenged. It does not include able-bodied persons. They can take care of themselves or assist in one of the areas of stabilization, rescue, critical resource management, or restoration.
  • To protect key resources or obtain resources necessary to maintain basic living needs.
  • To re-open impacted community services. Partial opening is better than waiting for full service recovery.

In all pre-planning efforts, crowd-sourcing should be utilized to look for innovative ideas in meeting the above objectives. Ants understand entropy and the need to keep disorder to a minimum.  Rebuilding a nest is pre-planned and works very well because everyone knows their simple assignment.  I have never seen ants with incident command boards, expensive inter-operable communication suites, or a reliance on FEMA to provide grants and guidelines. Planning like an ant colony may sound nutty, but they control entropy and get the job done. Why must humans make everything so hard and complicated?  It’s time to revisit our whole planning process and focus on activities that help keep entropy as low as possible.

Apr 052014

A mud slide in Washington State kills 30.  A plane disappears with 239 people on board.  At Fort Hood, a disturbed man kills 3 people and injures 16 before taking his own life.  Washington Mudslide

Like baby birds frantically peeping to be fed, the public implores mother media to feed them details. We demand answers and want to know what will be done to prevent similar events in the future.

I’m sensitive to the feelings of those who have lost loved ones in these events. However, can we expect government, emergency managers, and public safety officials to do much more to protect the population in the case of sensationalized events? Despite efforts to inform, the impact of prepared media releases fade as fast as winter’s light.  So too does the public’s interest in real calls for action.   Is there a true need to expend effort to mitigate these events? No. I believe we have already defined our society’s standards of tolerable loss, even if it hasn’t been consciously done. Failing to admit it is what holds us back.

For example, about 100 people die in motor vehicle crashes in the United States each day. That’s the equivalent of 1,200 Washington mudslides, 153 missing flights, or 9,000 shooting events over the course of a year.  Should we spend public funds to mitigate sensationalized events (slides, plane crashes, shootings) when we chose to accept the high probability events (car crashes) as the cost of living in society? One person died in this three-car crash. (KATU News photo)

Even though there is risk, I still drive. But the consequences are tolerable, and the level of risk is agreed upon by most Americans. 35,000-40,000 dead every year due to car crashes is our consensus standard of tolerable loss.

Achieving zero risk is an unattainable goal. Bullet proof vests, for example, are merely bullet resistant. They are not bullet proof.  When mud slides, plane disappearances and shootings occur, it’s fair to investigate and identify weak links that need urgent attention. Gather data, ask subject matter experts where faults exist, and then share the findings so both the policy-makers and the public can make informed decisions.

Defining reasonable expectations of tolerable loss will help us to develop realistic preparedness capacity and to build resilience. Are we prepared to agree that in an earthquake-prone city with a population of 100,000, a tolerable loss of life is 0.2% or 200 people?  Or that in a local economy of $10 billion dollars, we take a hit of 0.2% or $20 million? These are the discussions we need to have.

The point is not to achieve the lowest possible impact, but to find the acceptable impact of a given event.  By setting realistic tolerable loss limits now, we avoid the emotionally charged atmosphere that happens after an incident. Emotional spending is wasted spending. It also raises false expectations that there won’t be more slides, plane crashes, or shootings. We know these will occur despite our best efforts or money spent.

Let’s calculate possible life risk threats from natural hazard events and then compare them with the risks we face in everyday life. Let’s identify the level of economic impact that towns, regions, and the nation could withstand. When our risk assessment shows an impact potential greater than our tolerable loss, let’s reevaluate current plans and agree to fund mitigation and preparedness efforts.

If it proves difficult to make a financial case to mitigate rare events, set a benchmark of ten times our tolerable loss limit for more probable events. That should provide a measure for a catastrophic impact and show whether there is a clear need for mitigation and preparedness activities. seattle

The next steps are discussions that involve subject matter experts, the public, and policy makers. Science will give us evidence based data that looks at the cost-benefit ratios of particular mitigation strategies for specific events.  The public offers their expectations of safety, and policy makers are tasked to fund efforts to balance the two.

We need to move beyond emergency management and public safety policies that are driven by knee-jerk reactions.  There is a cost to living on this planet and it is not risk free. Quantifying that risk and setting tolerable loss limits will serve to take emotion out of the discussions. Only then can we set realistic goals and move forward.