The first thing all reporters, and eventually lawyers, ask, is: “Who knew what when?” In the case of emergency response or disaster recovery, there should be no doubt, because the organization, in this case, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), should publish codified procedures that leave no doubt about what to do in a number of potential situations. These procedures should be tested through simulations to certify they are as robust as possible, and publically accessible to provide for feedback and transparency.
Given the disparate stories, apologies and hand-wringing associated with Atlanta’s recent snow event, it does not appear that GEMA’s process were well documented, and if they were, they weren’t well implemented. A knowledge management failure on either count.
All emergency response agency should have the following knowledge management fundamentals in place in order to react to the wide range of emergencies they may confront.
Good Information architectures. There should be common data available such as weather reports, highway cameras and databases of contact information about which agencies to coordinate with along with any protocols, hierarchies of other information that may be useful should any of the agencies make decisions contrary to the lead agency’s recommendations. In the case of Atlanta, it was pointed out that the school districts made their own choice about closing or not, or when to close. An early morning call from Governor Deal to Atlanta area school superintendents would probably have kept the schools closed, and thousands of people off the road, and hundreds of children at home, rather than sleeping on gym floors. A social media and e-mail monitoring system should also be a primary component so that communications. This system can act as another sensor for the agency, providing input from on-the-ground resources, and monitoring the positions and actions of other agencies not directly associated with the emergency management agency.
Event triggers and responses. A series of event triggers and prescribed responses should sit at the core of any emergency response system. These can be as simple as paper-based flow charts or as complex as data-driven automated systems. The most important characteristic is a clear line of action that result from data. In the case of Atlanta, the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning for the Atlanta area at 3:39am, plenty of time to set policy for local and state government, communicate with school districts and get the operations center up and running. Event triggers and responses should be documents for a wide range of issues from floods and earthquakes, to unusual traffic jams, riots and terrorist activities. These event triggers and responses should include what event initiates a response, the potential values for the event and the subsequent activities that flow out of that event value.
Transparent procedures. Although the public may not look at emergency procedures until a day after it is too late, they should be able to look at them anytime. During practice drills, emergency agencies should include communications to their constituencies about what procedures they are following, and ask their constituents, even those not involved in a drill, to provide feedback in order to improve the procedures.
The most important thing that GEMA and the leaders in Georgia need to do now, is make their review about more than snow. Many times the failure for one type of event leads to overzealous investment in repairing the practices associated with that event, rather than recognizing systemic failures related to all events. In this case, GEMA needs to review all of their practices, and also take the time so see if their existing practices cover as many possible types of events as they can imagine.
Who knew what when should begin with an analysis of incoming triggers and what people did with that information, as well as what they should have done with that information. The 3:39am Winter Storm Warning should have precipitated a wide range of suggested responses, some of which executives and elected official may have decided didn’t warrant immediate action, but without the framework of event triggers and responses to track what did happen, the situation devolves into finger pointing at first, and then reconstruction of events after the fact. It is a very different thing to say, “we called all of the school superintends and suggested that they close the schools for the day, and several declined to take up our recommendations,” that to lean on broad generalizations about authority with reflect a lack of communication.
A good emergency response system should know its trigger events, document and practice its responses, and track the data related to any event so that they can always report, in near realtime, about who knew what, when, and what they did with that information. Atlanta’s snow storm should prompt all emergency responses centers to doubt their complacency and take time now to ensure that what happened in Atlanta doesn’t happen in Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami in the future.