Irma Update: Rescue Workers On The Ground … Around The World?

Originally posted at

Last week, I listened closely to my phone as a woman with a lovely British accent gave the latest status for Everglades City

, a small community on the southwest coast of Florida. The designation ‘city’ is more aspirational for the community than descriptive, and the news wasn’t good: it was a mess, with widespread flooding, spotty electrical service, and no safe drinking water. She continued on, painting a grim verbal picture of other generally poor, rural communities in Collier County, each one having seemingly only one thing in common: none of them had enough of anything.

My verbal tour guide wasn’t just sporting a British accent: she was giving her report from the U.K itself – and I was listening to it from my home office in Orange County, CA. Neither of us was within a thousand miles of Florida, but through an app called Zello, we were both working to help teams of volunteers on the ground as part of the vast rescue and recovery efforts going on throughout the state.

US Marine Corps Gen. Robert H. Barrow said of war, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” The enemy in Florida is no foreign army; it is nature itself, and the frailty of human life when stripped of the technologies and comforts that Americans especially take for granted. But it is clear that General Barrow’s words apply: the whole of the crisis in Florida is made up of millions of individual needs: of one person at point A who lacks X, and another at point B with X to spare. In the first days following Irma’s sweep through the state, X was often urgent medical care, or evacuation from hazardous locations that only hours before had been homes and businesses.

Now, almost a week later, the demand has shifted to (slightly) less urgent but equally vital needs: Food. Water. Shelter. (Note: when much of an entire state finds itself in a situation where food, water and shelter could initially only be secondary priorities, we are truly exploring uncharted depths of the wrong end of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

The reason a woman in England could be of real, tangible help in the recovery effort is simple: there are many challenges that may prevent X from getting from point B to point A.  But what is certain is if nobody at B even know of A’s need, the chance of them fulfilling it is zero. And so someone thousands of miles away can literally save lives by talking to people: the people in communities that have needs, the people who know people in the communities that have needs, the people with supplies, the people who can move them, the people who just want to help. Separately, all those individuals are only a small step away from useless. Connected and communicating, they are the most powerful response we have to disasters of the scope and scale of Irma.

Strictly speaking, this kind of remote coordination and connection was possible before applications like Zello. Some of the talking is plain old phone calls. But while theoretically someone far away could pick up the phone and call numbers from the phone book in communities they thought needed help and say “…do you need help?” — in reality, just about nobody would ever do that. What Zello enabled was spontaneous communications between people who had never met, and had literally no knowledge of each other whatsoever. So just by listening in on one Zello channel, you might hear someone you’ve never met making a plea for help from a place you’d never even heard of. And if that person happened to describe a need that some other person on that last channel you were listening to had been saying they could satisfy: connect those two, and magic happens.

But, I hear some of you thinking: why bother with any of this messy people talking stuff when we have FEMA and FL-SERT and county sheriffs and the National Guard and the Coast Guard and for Pete’s sake two count ‘em two aircraft carriers of the United States Navy to handle all of this for us?  Because – some of you might want to sit down for this – government isn’t enough. (In related news: ask me later about the Easter Bunny).

A cynical libertarian(ish) guy like me takes that as an axiom of life under normal circumstances. But what even I was stunned to grasp was that in a crisis like Irma, it isn’t just that government isn’t enough –  it’s that it’s not even close.

Amy Couts is a human resources professional who for the past five years has run her own consulting firm providing HR services to businesses in the Orlando Florida area. Early last week, she told me about the situation in Naples, one of the coastal communities that took the brunt of Irma’s impact.

“It’s a mess down there. Cell service is horrible; neighborhood very suspicious probably due to looting. Supplies and volunteers coming in this weekend, but no one, I mean no one there to help until then.”

Somewhat baffled, I asked her where official law enforcement / emergency services were in that grim picture. Her reply was simple: “MIA”.

Naples’ situation was far from unique. And while I do enjoy bashing government at times, that’s not the point here: with a few extremely stupid exceptions, most places suffering from a lack of basic services and assistance aren’t lacking because official agencies are malicious or incompetent. They’re lacking because no conceivable amount of budget or staffing could ever give the State of Florida sufficient resources to effectively cope with literally the entire state being plunged into disaster status simultaneously – which is precisely what has happened.

As Irma approached Florida, Amy happened to have just completed several FEMA training courses in emergency management, so when she heard about a group in her area working to form a civilian emergency response team, she quickly joined up. The team turned her on to Zello, and she soon was regularly tuning in to monitor the ‘Florida Search and Rescue’ channel. There, she found a small group of volunteers beginning to coalesce around one voice in particular: Mike McGill, who when working his “day job” is a Platoon Sergeant in the US Army.

Mike’s first hurricane was Katrina, where he did Search and Rescue (SAR) operations and “threw MRE’s out like delivering newspapers.” When Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston, he took a leave and traveled to Texas on his own initiative with supplies badly needed by the friends and family he had in the area. After completing his delivery, he thought he could help with SAR work, so he went to find and sign in at the Incident Command headquarters… only to find that there wasn’t one.

“So I just jumped in. I had my friend’s wife log on a map the location where people were calling from and document their situation and needs. She’d call the people requesting help to see what they needed and if we were the right type of rescue asset for them. I essentially created a simple dispatching method and we would respond to calls as they popped up on the map.”

His moment of revelation was when he realized that managing disaster response was not so different from his Army responsibilities: “All I had to do was change the name from bullets to food or bombs to water and it opened my eyes to the fact that running ammunition in a combat zone is the same as running supplies during emergencies.”

And so as Irma swept through Florida, McGill again stepped into the Incident Commander role, using the Florida Search and Rescue channel to coordinate what started as just a handful of volunteers — including one Amy Couts.

Irma would be cause a crisis at least as severe as Harvey had, but this time, McGill personally faced two added challenges. First, he wasn’t actually on location in Florida, having returned to his unit in the Midwest. And second, he wasn’t on leave, and had his full slate of responsibilities as an Army First Sergeant to fulfill. He’d have to run IC with every minute of free time he had outside his “day job”.

So establishing a team that could function independently was critical. “I pulled out my trusty FEMA training as an Incident Commander and established a rank structure just like the book says to do. Amy thought she was going to just do dispatch, but made the mistake of demonstrating her competence so early that she almost immediately became my Operations Officer. Before long, volunteer SAR teams started showing up and asking where they needed to go to start helping people. Amy and I pulled up the maps and started getting people to cluster into towns that our reports were showing had the most need.” And so the Florida Civilian Search and Rescue (FLCSAR) team was born.

Before Irma had even completed its pass through Florida, an uncountable number of other volunteer groups and just plain individual volunteers also sprang up – many of which had, like McGill, done similar work with Harvey recovery.

SouthEastNavy Rescue brought not only their experience from Harvey, but also, crucially, a software dispatching system (originally meant to manage trucking cargo operations) that they used to track volunteer ‘assets’ available for rescue operations and ‘tickets’ submitted by the people in need. Their system was quickly leveraged by McGill’s and other groups and provided a real-time view of operations across the state.

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Crowd Rescue, an organization that has created a crowdsourcing platform for disaster relief, went live with their own site and rescue map, building on their own Texas experience and the software and other assets they could bring to the table.

The sheer volume of the volunteer response was — and still is — both an amazing resource and a tremendous challenge. How do you get groups and people who have never met and never heard of each other to not just talk, but communicate and coordinate effectively? The answer is “not easily”, and while watching Irma relief efforts has showed me the massive potential of grassroots relief, it has also reinforced my own belief that coordination and communication will be the #1 issue impeding the success of such efforts.

Some part of the answer may well come from — you might want to sit down again — the US Government. Having gone through FEMA training

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, Amy Couts explains: “I’d recommend that everyone working in a crisis like Irma take the time to become familiar with FEMA’s emergency management model. FEMA has a very good structure in place already, and getting diverse groups on the same page is exactly what it’s designed for: it’s meant to bring law enforcement together with first responders, with civilian efforts, with military / national guard unit and private sector companies and individual volunteers. If everybody at least understands the FEMA model and follows it as much as they can, the response to a disaster like Irma can be much more cohesive and effective – and at the end of the day that’s the only thing we should care about.”

The FLCSAR team is now transitioning from emergency rescue operations to coordinating delivery of supplies to those that need it: in other words, logistics. They’ve spun up a web form for providing donations of food and goods, and also looking for volunteers – especially drivers and pilots with private aircraft.

An early major win was coordinating private aircraft flights to deliver food to Key West in the days before the Coast Guard and state emergency management re-opened the islands to entry. Beyond the complex planning of matching planes, pilots, and cargo and actually executing the flights, permission first had to be granted to get past the de facto embargo around the Keys. Couts recalls going through three different phone conversations and transfers before finally finding the satellite phone number of the person on the ground in Key West that she was convinced was the correct contact to grant the access needed for the flights. “I called him immediately, and kept calling. I never heard back from him.”

Happily, after a few other false starts, FLCSAR connected with another contact who was able to coordinate with the Coast Guard and the supply flights have delivered over 24,000 pounds of food so far  — with more scheduled to come.

“A ton of guys and gals went down to Florida to do rescue, and bless them for it,” McGill says. “But the recovery phase we’re entering now just isn’t as sexy: everybody thinks responding to an emergency rescue call is cool; but driving a truck delivering a few tons of food and water? Not so much, even though it’s just as important to saving lives. Which is why we need all the help we can get, because as the media gets bored and the public’s attention span is exhausted, we’re going to have to work twice as hard to ensure that the people and communities still in need aren’t forgotten.”

Update, 1/15/18: Corrected a minor issue that confused CrowdRelief with Crowd Rescue. We apologize for the error.