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(ASL Version) PrepTalks: Aaron Titus “Let the Community Lead Rethinking Command and Control Systems”

[PrepTalks theme music playing] On a recent trip across Wyoming, I took
some time to look up into the clear night sky, blazing with stars. Far away
from city lights, I could see faint dots, which were
actually entire galaxies. I could easily see the North Star and the 3 stars that comprised Orion’s belt. Orion’s belt appears in more than 30
constellations across many cultures. If I lived in Hawaii and I looked at those
stars, I would see the Cat’s Cradle, not Orion. If I was a part of the Ojibwe
culture, I would see Wintermaker. And if I was Navajo, I would see First Slim One.
The order we impose on the stars, the constellations we see, tell a story about
us more than the stars. People are like stars. In this metaphor, you and I are
stars. Our communities are constellations. Some stars are brighter than others.
Others give us direction like the North Star. But even the North Star does not
connect with every constellation. And I’ve seen some people try very hard to
bend communities to their personal will, perhaps we’ll call those people
black holes. Governments and the people within communities tell two very
different stories or see different constellations after disasters. The
community constellations tell a story of collaboration and compassion. Government
star systems tell a story of command and control. My name is Aaron Titus. I’m the
president of the Mountain West Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters or
Mountain West VOAD. It is the second largest VOAD in the country,
comprising twelve states from Alaska to the Dakotas. I’m the author of “How to
Prepare for Everything” and Executive Director of Crisis Cleanup, a cleanup
collaboration platform that has documented nearly 1 billion dollars of
voluntary disaster relief services. In these capacities, I’ve helped coordinate
one hundred and forty three disasters in forty states, working directly with seventeen hundred relief organizations and hundreds of emergency managers, during their times of greatest stress. I’m also an attorney, graduating from the George
Washington University, so it’s good to be home.
My wife Jennifer and I are the proud parents of nine children, yes nine. So I
never stopped training for disasters, even when I go home.
I hate disasters, but I love to see communities self-organize, and watch
humanity shine, like the stars coming out after the clouds have cleared. Look
carefully and you’ll see that our communities have already organized
themselves. They have their own constellations. You don’t need to impose
order. Yet we have trained emergency management and law enforcement to look
into the community after disasters and see a pyramid constellation where they
are on top. Rebecca Solnit has observed that many believe if they are not in
control, the situation is out of control. Or if they don’t impose order, the sky
will fall. While bad things will happen and people will die, the sky does not
fall even after the worst disasters. However,
disasters are by their nature overwhelming. If it isn’t overwhelming, we
call it an inconvenience or perhaps an emergency, but not a disaster. And yet our
entire response paradigm is built upon the concept of control. This bias
manifests itself throughout ICS and government response structures. Consider
several states’ ESF 15 or 17, volunteers and donations management. First it’s
called volunteer management, not empowerment or engagement. Second, anyone
who has worked with volunteers and donations, knows that the only thing they
have in common is that they are messy things emergency management’s wishes
would go away. Emergency management can control many
things, but at a certain point the disaster and the community it affects
becomes fundamentally uncontrollable. We train emergency managers to control an
emergency, then we ask them to control a disaster. It’s like we give them the tools to dam a stream, then tell them to stop the
tide. Just as absurd as controlling the tide, it is also absurd to think that we
can control the people within the community and their natural human desire
to help a neighbor. Turning them away can have devastating consequences. During
Hurricane Sandy, 1000 homes flooded in a New Jersey town. I offered thousands of volunteers to help clean up, but the city had locked
down and kept all relief organizations out. Weeks later, the city finally opened
up but would only accept ten volunteers to help operate the chipper to help clean up the park. This decision cost residents roughly 10 million dollars. After Hurricane Irma, a
colleague of mine had a chainsaw accident that required him to be
evacuated by a helicopter. Although he made a quick in full recovery, emergency
managers shared that story as a warning about letting volunteers help. But for
the cost of one accident, his organization saved 5,000 households
roughly 13 million dollars. Our frameworks do not consider the benefits
of community engagement. Communities do work government cannot. Each group has
its own responsibilities, resources, expertise, and authorities. We must
recognize and respect our different stewardships. Government’s stewardship
often ends where private property begins. Emergency management stewardship
includes coordinating rescue, restoring public infrastructure and basic services,
and applying for federal assistance. But the community does not wait patiently on
the sidelines for someone to signal that the response is over and recovery has
begun. Neighbors rescue neighbors. They evacuate
friends, family, pets, and livestock. They engage in donations management. They
provide emotional and spiritual care, even when refused entry into official
resource centers. The American Red Cross has a humanitarian stewardship to
provide mass care and immediate sheltering. Many faith
communities have an independent stewardship to help the widow muck out
her private property. Government doesn’t have the capacity to know, much less
control, the whole community response. Let communities lead themselves and focus
your limited energies on the stars without a constellation. The typical
emergency manager I encounter is experiencing his first largest and last
disaster. And yes, the industry is male-dominated. Without much practical
experience they must rely on their training to know how to interact with
others. We set our emergency managers up for failure in this respect. Because ICS
is infused with a command and control philosophy, it almost requires emergency
managers to interact with others as though their ego is in charge. One thing
they don’t teach at the Emergency Management Institute but really should,
is how much energy community organizations and volunteers must spend
stroking emergency managers egos and and flattering their command-and-control
worldviews, simply to ensure they don’t stonewall humanitarian missions. We
currently train emergency managers that theirs is the only, or at least the most
important, community stewardship. Instead we must train them to recognize and
honor the stewardship of other community actors. There is no single
all-encompassing community constellation. Communities have many centers, they are
polycentric. We must adapt our models, our constellations, to reflect reality. The
path to adapting our models is to understand how communities actually work.
There are four universal laws that govern communities. First there is no
pyramid and you are not on top. This law is true for everyone during all phases
of disaster relief, especially if you believe that you are an exception. This
subject came up at a state VOAD meeting where dozens of relief organizations and four emergency managers met together. One of
them stood up and told the relief organizations, “You all need to get your
act together and provide us a single point of contact.” I shook my head and he
asked “Why?”. I replied, “There are four counties represented in this room. In a
disaster, which one of you is in charge?” Instinctively two of the emergency
managers blurted out “Well, I am.” While the other two gave me confused looks. I
explained, “There are several reasons why my question does not make sense, so I’ll
make you a deal. The day you all can get your act together and provide a single
point of contact to the VOAD, we will do the same.” What you ask of us is
impossible for the same reason it’s impossible for you. There is no pyramid
and nobody is on top. But you might ask, what about emergency support functions?
Everyone important has a place in the pyramid. Doesn’t ICS already solve
this problem? To that I would respond, yes life would be much easier if everyone in
the community just did it your way and followed orders. Or would it? Does your
staff really have the capacity to give that many orders? Can you really control
the tide? This brings me to the second universal law of communities. Volunteer
means you’re not the boss of me. Neither you nor anyone else may be as in charge
as you’ve been trained to believe. For example, the Sheriff’s Department can
order me out but they can’t order me in. The power company coordinates with, but
does not report to, government. The American Red Cross doesn’t tell the
Salvation Army what to do. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
doesn’t tell the Southern Baptists what to do, as my Baptist colleagues are happy
to remind me. But then again most Baptists I know don’t let other Baptists tell
them what to do either. Even an emergency manager has no
jurisdiction over how a Methodist minister performs a disaster relief
ministry. Another reason communities fall outside of any command structure is
a competitor cannot tell another competitor what to do,
Which is a third universal law of communities. On the surface this seems
intuitive but we attempt to violate this law all the time. In government, the
command-and-control approach would seem to sidestep the problem of competition
by establishing unity of command. Now perhaps in your jurisdiction the guns
and hoses always get along. Perhaps your elected officials really
can do your job just as well as you. The city and county never disagree. And the
state is always there, ready to support the local needs of counties. And thank
goodness for the feds, bless their hearts. Now, in reality each of our organizations
has competing interests, even within the same command structure. Sometimes those
interests align like the stars. Other times they are separated as the North
Star and the Southern Cross. To illustrate, please raise your hand if you
have never experienced another government agency or community
organization try to exert control over you, by leveraging money, data, or the
color of law. Any hands? No? That’s a pretty consistent response. If the third
universal law of communities is, a competitor cannot tell a competitor what
to do, then the fourth law is we are all competitors. And it’s time we acknowledge
that fact. It is healthy to recognize competition in a polycentric world,
instead of glossing over this reality with euphemisms like partnership. We each
have something that others want and we all want something others have.
Volunteers want access behind the perimeter. Emergency managers want control over community resources. Agencies want
authority and funding from one another. Elected officials want credit. We compete
for grants, mind-space, brand, and volunteers. While there are a few winners
in this perpetual power struggle, the primary losers are the survivors we
serve. In the VOAD movement, we espouse four ideals called the “Four C’s”.
Cooperation, Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration. It’s not that we’re any
better at any of those things than anyone else. If the Four C’s came naturally we
would not need an organization devoted full-time to their promotion.
We’ve just learned through a painful experience that we must work together, at
least to some minimum degree, to accomplish our missions and overcome the
fifth, “Silent C” that does come naturally, Competition. While the Four
C’s are foundational, they don’t actually make disaster response happen.
For that, you need the Four R’s of disaster relief. They are, in order of
importance, Relationships, Resources, Roles, and Responsibilities. Implemented
backwards, the Four R’s can have catastrophic effects. Responsibilities
without roles yields confusion. Roles without resources leaves you with
impotence. And resources without relationships produces dysfunction,
infighting, and backstabbing. Relationships drive communities. Our
failure to train emergency management to develop and maintain community
relationships sets them up for failure after a disaster. Emergency managers who
have been battle tested or live in very poor communities seem better equipped to
foster relationships, often in spite of their training. They understand that
partnership means a relationship between interdependent equals, whereas others use
the term euphemistically to mean a resource I can’t task. Relief
organizations will truly be equal partners with government, the day
emergency management can call itself “voluntary support function-1”, with a
straight face. Partnership can feel like you’re giving
up control, but true partnership does not reduce control because you didn’t have
it to begin with. Let the community lead. Communities and people heal faster when
they help themselves and each other. Even during response work yourself into
the constellations that your communities have drawn, before imposing your own. You will see those constellations easier when you understand the four universal
laws of communities. First, there is no pyramid and you are not on top. Second,
volunteer means you’re not the boss of me. Third, a competitor cannot tell another competitor what to do. And fourth, we are
all competitors. It’s time to help emergency management and government
officials interact with the whole community, using the integrity of
relationships, rather than the personal ego encouraged by command and control
systems. And if you believe that ICS describes the way that communities
actually work, then you do not understand the essence of community. To that end it
is past time to develop an incident response framework that can allow
communities to organize themselves, while permitting ICS to function in the
government’s sphere. Please remember communities already help
themselves during all phases of disaster. Our frameworks just need to catch up
with that reality. This new framework would consider the benefits of whole
community engagement and acknowledge that all communities are polycentric
collections of stewardships. Government is one of many centers. This
whole community framework would permit coalition’s of competitors to
transparently work together around shared interests. It would also describe
non-hierarchical interactions during the entire recovery cycle, rather than just
command and control relationships during the response phase. The word disaster
originates from the Latin “dis” and “astro”, meaning a misfortune blamed on a bad
alignment of stars or planets. The literal translation of
disaster is “without a star”, which seems poetically appropriate. When your
community finds itself in a disaster, and you feel as though the sky
will fall, please remember it is not your responsibility to hold up the heavens.
Instead, if you will let them, the constellations of your communities will
orient you and give you direction and support. Let the community lead. Thank you. [Audience applause] Well, I mean I would say first of all,
just begin by seeing the community in a polycentric way. Once you begin seeing
that and that way of seeing it will govern your interactions with others, the
moment you start seeing yourself at the top of a pyramid and then everyone
becomes a resource that to be tasked, and that’s the way command and control
systems in general work, whether you’re talking ICS or any of its analogues. The
closest thing was in 2011, FEMA promulgated the whole community doctrine
but if you read that, even that doctrine is extremely government centric. And I
mean in some ways, I know that I’m coming at this from a almost controversial
perspective, but the fact that a community centric view of disasters is
off the beaten path or even controversial itself is at the core of
my critique. So I’m an attorney, and with my lawyer
hat on, I’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t become partners by
begging. You come to the relationship from a position of strength. In my work
with crisis cleanup for example, so I mentioned those three clubs we bash each
other over the head all the time with, money, data, and the color of law. The
color of law belongs exclusively to government. The private sector doesn’t
have, at least you know nonprofits, don’t have money, and not like the government
does. Government doesn’t have enough but they have more. But we have data and when
we finally get our act together, that data is powerful. And I I believe that
that is one path forward to renegotiating some of the response
culture. I’ll give you a simple example. Just because as a faith community leader,
just because I perform a disaster relief ministry after a disaster, I am
browbeaten into giving the state and federal government my membership list.
Give me all your volunteers, give me all your hours, give me all your hours,
give me all your hours, tell me everything about them. And I want to know
where they were and other names and everything. Well, there are other ways to
do that. And I see data as a way for the voluntary community to come to the table
and say, we have this thing of value, you may have it under our conditions, and
we’re going to renegotiate the response culture in this country. It’s a lot of
what I do with my crisis cleanup hat on,
right. I have a lot of somewhat terse conversations with
emergency managers across the country who you know believe that you
have data, therefore it is mine, and I have to inform them that, no it really
belongs to the community, and you need to develop relationships with the community
first if you if you want that information. I found it isn’t actually all that hard,
once you simply open your eyes and start to look. Once you start, it’s like the first
time you look up into the sky looking for the Big Dipper and you
see it. And once you see it, once you’re looking for it, it’s not that hard
to see. Now having said that, you know in my experience your community
brokers, they’re the people who have one foot in more than one community. Like one
of those constellations up on the screen had a shared star between
constellations and those community brokers, those are the people that you’re
really looking for, who understand. Maybe have one foot in in your
constellation and another foot in another constellation, whether that’s a
minority community, or faith communities, or the schools, or clubs. And all you need
to do is just show up, like just show up and you’ll begin to see the influencers. So that is actually the
topic of my book. And what I would say is, we need to stop preparing.
This might not sound intuitive, but we need to stop preparing for disasters.
When we prepare for disasters, we focus, first of all there is infinite number of
things that can happen and we can’t prevent them, if we could we’d
make sure nothing bad would happen, and when we focus on them it creates fear,
uncertainty, and doubt. That has all kinds of side effects. It’s complex
and so now all of a sudden to navigate preparation, we need an expert, somebody
from the Red Cross or somebody with a badge, or something to tell us what to do
because we’re so overwhelmed .Instead, we can prepare for disruptions not
disasters. And we can prepare together. So, for disruptions to the power, water
sewer, shelter, property. And instead of engaging in these pseudo risk analyses,
otherwise known as guessing, like should I prepare for a hurricane, or a flood, or
a fire, or a tornado, ask has your power ever gone out. Yes?
Well let’s prepare for a power outage. Now it doesn’t matter whether the power
outage was caused by a flood, fire, backhoe, or grandma backing into a pole.
If you prepare for a few disruptions, then it doesn’t matter what disaster comes
your way. Once you start thinking in that mindset, now all of a sudden we don’t
need experts to tell us what to do. We’re preparation experts, we’re all
preparation experts, we just lack a framework to organize our thoughts. And
once we give people the framework, they can prepare, and we prepare better when
we prepare together. And the act of preparing together builds community
resilience and those relationships, so they’re more likely then to rely on
their neighbor or also see themselves as a resource to their neighbor when the
bad thing happens. You know, applying these
principles let’s say after Hurricane Harvey right, so we all coordinate with
hundreds of relief organizations. And they’ll come to me, hey hurricane, well in
fact today it was Imelda. Imelda, so I have to put my phone is on mute right
now because my phone’s ringing off the hook from people in Texas saying,
hey Aaron we’re gonna start coordinating and collaborating as a
community. Can you get the system up and running and can you get the hotline up
and running. So I’ll open up a hotline and those are all, and then because of
relationships, we’ll work with let’s say a dozen relief
organizations and volunteers from their homes, that will answer those calls from
the public at their homes. They’ll put that information on a shared map, that is
shared among all the relief organizations that want to do cleanup,
for example. And then organizations that have capacity can claim that case,
contact the homeowner, and then go complete it, and mark it complete. So
everybody can see what everybody else is doing, but there is no single
organization on top. There’s no assign button, there’s only a
claim button because voluntary means you’re not the boss of me. And so once
you understand like those basic principles, the solutions I don’t know
kind of write themselves, right. You just it’s really about basic human
respect and in respecting each of our stewardships and recognize them that they
exist. [PrepTalks theme music playing]

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