Irma may be the worst disaster in US history: I believe we can make our response to it the best.

Originally posted at LinkedIn here.

Hurricane Irma will soon make landfall in Southern Florida, at which point one of the largest rescue and recovery efforts in U.S. history will begin.

The exact impacts can’t be predicted, but with the storm expected to rake up the West coast of Florida, consider these quotes:

A friend who is a retired Army officer “self-deployed” to the Houston area last week, and spent a week with his boat helping rescue those impacted by Harvey. He wrote up an “after-action report” on what he observed, and when I read his insights on the technology and communications challenges he saw, it became clear to me that there is a massive opportunity to do better with Irma.

So I spent most of the past few days researching Florida’s official Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, trying new apps that were used in Harvey relief like Zello, talking to volunteers in grassroots organizations like SouthEastNavy Rescue that are gearing up to perform rescue operations, and generally trying to educate myself and figure out if there are ways that a technology guy like me all the way out in California could actually help.

Spoiler alert: yes, there are ways I can help. And if you’re reading this, you probably can too – and I don’t just mean by writing a check.

I never want to be the smartest person in any room I’m in. So my first objective was not to come up with ideas on how to help – it was to try to create a place where everyone could come up with ideas on how to help: a space to share challenges, resources and ideas, and then collaborate on taking the best actionable projects from concept to reality. To that end, I created this ‘Irma Ideas’ Google Sheets document, which includes tabs to capture lessons learned and challenges, potential ‘projects’ proposed to help, and growing lists of organizations, applications & tools that are focused on Irma. I encourage (implore, beg!) you to go there, take a look, and dive in and share your thoughts and suggestions. (The doc can also be reached using the easy-to-remember URL http://irmaideas.org)

The second major challenge I saw was making sure that people in need could find any and all information that could help them. So I registered the domain ‘irmainfo.org’, and yesterday launched it with a deliberately simple but comprehensive list of links to official government and grassroots organizations and information sources. If you are in Florida, here’s the key links you should review:

Florida State Government:

Rescue:

  • SouthEastNavy Rescue: “Coordinating Southeast Texas Navy, Florida Search and Rescue, and many other groups. Signup to Volunteer. Live Dispatch VIA our mobile app. We will also have a form up to request help.”
  • FindMeSAR and https://usngapp.org/: Load from your phone browser to get accurate GPS location information you can provide to 911 or other rescuers

…and you can find additional resources at http://irmainfo.org.

My focus now is  trying to spread the word on the lessons I’ve learned so far, in the hope that I can encourage  everyone —  people in Irma’s path, local governments, volunteers, grassroots organizations, FEMA, everyone — to work together and collaborate in using the vast capabilities of the technologies and people available today to make Irma not just the largest recovery effort in our history, but the most successful.

My recommendations:

1. Be confident enough to try, but humble enough to learn. I have no experience or training in emergency management. It would be have been easy for me to conclude I couldn’t possibly have anything useful to contribute, but I didn’t let that stop me. And so far the feedback I’ve received from those I’ve talked to who do have experience have convinced me I was right.

I know technology, and have been able to contribute my expertise in that domain: you probably know something about something yourself. If you’re a veterinarian, maybe there’s a better way to help pets that you’d see but others haven’t. If you drive a truck or a cab, maybe there’s a different way to look at the transportation challenges recovery will face that you could bring to the table. I try to always be ready to told my ideas are dumb by those with real expertise – but I’m not afraid of it, and once you get past holding yourself back for fear of looking foolish, you can bring your unique set of experience and knowledge to bear on this (or any) crisis.

2. Check your ego at the door. Or better yet, leave it by the curb. One of the very first conversations I had with one grassroots Irma volunteer included them telling me to watch out for another group doing related work that they had a bad feeling about. A few conversations later, I got the same warning from a different person… about the group that the first volunteer who gave me a warning worked with. This didn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t mean these are bad people – they’re not – but they are people. With all the ego and foibles and failings that everyone, including me, have. But we don’t have time to let ego get in the way of getting things done.

For every idea or project I’ve looked at, I’ve tried to be (and remain) ready to find out someone else was already doing it – and to either help them or get out of their way if they were doing it well. And similarly, if I start something and someone else comes along who clearly can do it better, I want to be ready and open to them taking the ball from me and running with it. This should apply to every organization and individual: our criteria for who does what has to be who can do it most effectively. “I was doing it first” is not an acceptable reason, and neither is “We’re the government and you’re not.” I don’t care if FEMA has set up a website to do job X, if some grassroots org comes along that shows it can really do job X better, FEMA should get the heck out of the way. And vice versa!

3. Government must be part of the answer, but it can’t be all of it. The state of Florida, local agencies, the National Guard, FEMA and other official authorities have devoted tremendous efforts to planning for a disaster like Irma, and there are tremendous people working in those and countless other official organizations whose dedication to their jobs should be recognized and applauded. But official resources are limited, and they will not be enough.

The state of Florida is about 60,000 square miles. Let’s be generous and pretend only the southernmost half will be affected by Irma (which unfortunately won’t be true) and that gives us 30,000 square miles. Do you know how many helicopters the Florida National Guard has available for Irma?

13.

So that’s one helicopter for every 2,300 square miles.

I don’t say this to bash the Guard, at all. But they and every other ‘official’ organization have the resources they have, and no more — and they simply aren’t going to be enough given the catastrophic magnitude of Irma’s impacts.

So to any government or law enforcement types who hate the idea of groups like SouthEastNavy Rescue gearing up to do rescues they think should be left to the professionals, or that I should mind my own business and go back to my little technology ghetto: get over it. Irma demands that our government, law enforcement and military organizations be ready and open to collaborating with not just established non-profits like the Red Cross, but with new, nimble, and sometimes unproven new grassroots groups that spring up as people answer the burning desire to help.

This does not mean that everyone should ignore official resources: they should remain the first choice for anything. And everyone must be sober and realistic about their own capabilities: if you are a civilian like me with no training and think it’s a good idea to go try to do rescue operations on your own, you’re an idiot. We all have to be smart enough to know how to both offer and receive help, and to judge the real capabilities of both ourselves and the groups and people around us.

4. Be realistic about your capabilities and communicate them

Let me use small words for this: TALK TO EACH OTHER! As I’ve explored the organizations, tools and people focused on Irma, the most simultaneously exhilarating and maddening thing I’ve encountered is that there are tons of great groups and useful tools out there, and it seems that almost nobody knows what anybody else is doing. That’s a major part of what I’m trying to do with the IrmaIdeas effort: if I can facilitate the creation of a single place clearly showing who’s doing what and how everyone can communicate each other, I’ll consider that a massive victory.

But what I have so far is just scratching the surface of what’s out there, so I can use all the help I can get – both from group leaders and tool creators to add their own information, and from volunteers who can help spread the word and continue the research I’ve started to build a truly comprehensive directory.

5. Use technology, but use it realistically. I am an unashamed technology geek: I love shiny new tools and apps. But I also know that technology that people can’t — or won’t — use can frequently be worse than having no tech at all. Here’s two examples of what I mean:

a. Monroe County sits at the southwest corner of Florida, and almost inevitably will take some of the worst of Irma’s impacts. This week the county sent out a message asking residents to download a special virtual badge app to be used in emergency rescue and assistance efforts, and helpfully linked to a not-even-tailored-for-Monroe-County, generic YouTube video on how to install it.

I’m sorry, but this is just dumb. I have no idea how many Monroe County residents got that message in time, bothered to install the app, and were successful in doing so — but I’d bet good money it isn’t nearly enough of them. It may be a great app — but if nobody actually installs it, it’s useless. [To be clear: if you in or from Monroe County, I still think you should go ahead and try to install the app!]

b. My second example is a pair of apps that took a radically different approach. FindMeSAR and https://usngapp.org/ are both really just webpages (not apps you have to download) which are designed to be loaded from a mobile phone and which both provide accurate GPS location information you can provide to 911 or other rescuers.

So when someone calls 911 (or any other rescue organization) and is lost or can’t identify their location by a street address, all a dispatcher has to do is tell them to go to either of those simple URLs on their phone, and they’ll immediately get GPS coordinates they can read back to the dispatcher giving their precise location in the exact format rescuers need.

That is an effective use of technology: no prior preparation of knowledge needed, easy to explain, zero learning curve and massively useful. (My only complaint is that I have no idea how many people even within official emergency response organizations are aware of them – which is why I’m trying to draw as much attention to them as I can.)

Five points and several pages is more than enough to start with, I think. There are very challenging days ahead of us, and there will be suffering and tragedy. But I truly believe that it is in our power — in my power — to minimize that suffering, even if just by a little bit. So I intend to try to do just that, and I invite you to join me.

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