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Choosing meetings on Emergency Preparedness over actual preparedness

Uploaded: May 26, 2015
I expect Palo Alto to continue to be needlessly under-prepared for disasters. Why? Because of consultants, people who love attending meetings, but especially the people who know a meeting is a waste of time, but suffer in silence. Bad meetings don't just waste time, but have a chain of consequences that inhibit preparedness activities and that can be disastrous themselves when a disaster strikes.
Teaser: A simple measure that City Hall could have made local cell phone service more resilient to a power outage, especially during a disaster, has languished undone for over a decade.

This blog was provoked by a meeting that I walked out on at the 45 minute mark (of a scheduled 2 hours). I had been invited to this meeting because of my long involvement in Emergency/Disaster Preparedness (Eprep) activities. And I recognized most of the other attendees from their similar involvement. At the half-hour mark, the organizers had gotten far enough into the introductions to tell us that they knew we were busy people and they wanted to be "respectful of your time." They then continued reading vacuous PowerPoint slides, including telling us that among the things we needed to prepare for were earthquakes. Who knew?
OK, to be fair, the PowerPoint presentation was similar to one I have seen tens of times before: This one probably was a minor modification to a generic introductory briefing produced by the Department of Homeland Security or similar agency for "pointy-hair bosses" (of Dilbert infamy): It provided a modest illusion that the presenters (consultants) had something useful to say about the issue. And it bore no resemblance to the announcement of the meeting.(foot#1)

I had been looking around the audience and almost everyone was descending into a stupor. So I decided to be brash and interrupted to ask if there was going to be anything in this meeting that wasn't intended for someone absolutely new to the topic. Upon being given no assurance there would be, I (correctly) decided not to waste any more of my time.

Standard management practice is to demand metrics to track progress, but sometimes there aren't good metrics, or at least none that are practical within the available resources. Forced to provide metrics for your management, you go with the least-bad ones, but over time forget just how bad they are. In the case of Eprep, these metrics are often the length of the plan, the number of meetings held, and the numbers and categories of people attending the meetings.

In an emergency/disaster, there is tremendous benefit to having a core group that is trained in both the individual tasks and in working together. However, the wrong core group can be worse than a hastily assembled leadership team because they get in the way of doing what needs to be done. For example, being unable to make timely decisions, or seizing ownership of crucial tasks they don't have resources to perform.

If you look at the dynamics of bad meetings, you see this happening. People with "a bias for action" depart out of frustration, or are discouraged from even trying to contribute. What remains are people that enjoy meetings ("a bias for socializing, pontificating, arguing, uninformed speculation ?") and those who are willing to endure the bad meetings because the goal is important, but who lack the temperament to take an active lead to make the meetings more effective. And each successive bad meeting further entrenches the organizers, solidifying their positions as leaders.

Bureaucracy developed not just as a necessity for managing large organizations, but because it had significant benefits. However, like most good things, it has definite limits and is subject to abuse ("power corrupts"). One of the basic problems of larger bureaucracies is that they easy become virtual "living organisms" whose prime directive is self-perpetuation: self-preservation and growth. And one of the ways to justify your existence is to have meetings to create the illusion of necessary activity. And should those meetings accomplish little if anything, that simplifies justifying additional meetings.

In an emergency/disaster, do you really want a designated leadership whose primary qualification is a history of running ineffective meetings?

----Scaling up----
Having the number of meetings as an important metric incentivizes "the care and feeding" of a core group populated by those willing to attend meeting after meeting, and it ignores those who aren't. But in a disaster, the key ingredient for success is the ability to rapidly scale up from the core group to the general population, yet this is rarely represented anywhere in the metrics.

For example, in a disaster, typically the biggest problem is communications. The City has focused on improving the communications within the core group and expanding the core group to include more contacts outside officialdom, such as the BPCs (Block Preparedness Coordinators in the neighborhoods) and the CERTs (Community Emergency Response Teams in both the neighborhoods and commercial companies). However, the City has failed to pursue seemingly easy enhancements to the commercial cell phone network: The current plans simply take the attitude that "If it is working, great; if not, we will have to cope."

The cell phone network is designed to operate through brief power outages: Larger towers have backup generators, and small towers have backup batteries. An example of the latter are the DAS (Distributed Antenna System) that AT&T Cellular has deployed widely throughout Palo Alto. These backups are typically provisioned to cover a power outage of 4-6 hours. I had long argued that the City should not expect the cell phone carriers/tower operators to refuel the backup generators during a disaster because their support staff would be overwhelmed. The reality is that they are totally unprepared, and this was demonstrated by a power outage in February 2010 that lasted over 10 hours.(foot#2) Despite the outage affecting only Palo Alto, cell phone service blinked out as the backups ran out of fuel. To my knowledge, none were refueled during the outage.

I have unsuccessfully advocated that the City should negotiate agreements with the cell phone carriers and tower operators?there are different mixes of who owns and leases what? to allow (not require) the City to handle refueling and recharging backups during an emergency or disaster. Aside: During the meetings on deploying DAS, an AT&T engineer told me that swapping the backup batteries (for recharging) was trivial: easy access, no special tools ? So why hasn't this happened? The first reason given is that it needs to be part of the overall plan, and thus it should wait until that plan is finalized. Wrong. This is something that can easily be done now, and would have tremendous benefit should a disaster strike between now and the completion of the plan. I argued unsuccessfully that the best opportunity to get AT&T's attention was while they were applying to install the DAS systems. The second reason is that this would divert some effort from the core group, for example, allocating one of the Utilities Department trucks with a bucket (aka "cherry-picker") because the DAS batteries are typically located about 15-20 feet high on a telephone pole. Notice that by regarding refueling/recharging as simply a cost/loss (diversion of a resource), this is a rationale assigns virtually no value to the larger community being able to better communicate.

Additional reading: For those interested in an approach to Emergency Preparedness that centers on resources rather than organization, I prepared an extensive outline (set of talking points). When this approach got no support, I stopped updating the outline (2006) but continued to push the individual items for some more years.

----Hiding Non-participation----
A problem with metrics emphasizing what groups are attending meetings is that encourages hiding who is not actually participating. It can be easier for a group to have someone simply present at a meeting?doing email, playing games??than explain why they didn't send someone. And such groups are likely to continue with this charade if the leaders of the meeting allow such to happen.

For example, in most communities, the schools are expected to be major facilities during a disaster, but not Palo Alto. The policy established under previous superintendents and boards was that their involvement would be limited to supporting their students and staff until the students could be retrieved by their parents. I became aware of this when one of the HAM radio operators told me that several of the school principals had deliberately removed the HAM antennas that had been installed under earlier administrations to make it easier and faster to use the school sites during a disaster (antenna height is important?to get above surrounding trees and buildings). The rationale: Since HAM radio was not part of the PAUSD emergency plan, its facilities should be removed. Aside: In dealing with PAUSD on a range of issues related to school-community interaction, I have found the attitude of "The schools are not public property" (exact quote from one instance) to be very common. Unfortunately, the people in a position to be able to be effective in making a stink about this wouldn't.

----Planning vs Plans----
A basic reason that so many governments have failed so badly in responding to disasters is that their planning processes were dominated by people that love to develop plans, and grossly over-estimate their ability to predict and control events. In the military world, there is a long history of distinguishing planning from plans, emphasizing the former and warning about over-confidence in the latter. (foot#3) Over-confidence leads into inadequate testing, which leads to fatal flaws being undetected. On the flip-side, the extreme difficulty and expense of the testing of plans invites false confidence.

----About my participation----
I became active in local Eprep activities in the 1990s through my neighborhood association (Barron Park) and then as part of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) and on groups sponsored by City Hall. In 2007, California's annual Eprep drill involved responding to a highly infectious deadly disease breaking out in this immediate area (think Ebola, SARS, Bird/Pandemic Flu, ?). After a series of meetings, City Hall decided that 9 months was not enough lead time to participate, and dropped out. PAN decided this was unacceptable, and the Block Preparedness Coordinator (BPC) program was created as a partial work-around to City Hall's "difficulties". By the way, some elected officials did recognized the absurdity of Staff deciding they would be unable to do in months what they would be expected to do in hours should the real life-and-death situation occur. However, the local dictates of "civility" and "deference to Staff" meant they couldn't publicly voice this. Fortunately, things have improved somewhat since then.

Additional reading: For those interested in additional details of my perspective on Emergency/Disaster Preparedness and some of the history of the aspects I have been involved in, I recommended a long article I wrote "Barron Park Emergency Preparedness: A personal perspective on a bit of history and a bit of philosophy" in the Fall 2011 issue of the Barron Park Association Newsletter.

----The need to not attend/walk out----
I should have known to not attend the meeting that provoked this blog entry: When I asked for an agenda and any preparatory materials, the organizers said none were available. But when people you need to be able to work with encourage you to attend, it is hard to say "No. You haven't adequately laid the ground work for this meeting", partly because there are so many badly organized and run meetings(foot#4) it can come off as you picking on them.

Once you arrive at a meeting, it is very hard to walk out, and even harder to expect others to do so. Attendees arriving at this meeting were given a 4-page glossy pamphlet containing mission statements and a high-level enumeration of the topics that would need be covered in an extended series of meetings. None of this would have been new to anyone who warranted an invitation to this meeting, and many could have written much of this pamphlet from memory.

So why weren't these materials emailed out to the invitees to read before the meeting? I was struck by the absurdity that this was a meeting for people who are expected to be leaders in preparing for an emergency, but the organizers aren't willing to expect them to read a few pages in preparation for a meeting. I should have turned around and walked out the door right then.

Why not? Sunk costs: a 14 minutes to drive from home to City Hall, and 9 minutes hunting for parking inside the City Hall garage(foot#5) and an expected 12 minutes to drive home, for a total of 35 minutes sunk simply getting to-and-from the meeting. Being irritated can come quickly, but giving up hope takes a bit longer.

Walking out may seem rude, but silently enduring only perpetuates the problem. Is perverse civility more important than success?

Aside: For those of you haven't yet received this (novelty) award ribbon, do a web search for "I Survived Another Meeting That Should Have Been An Email". Now if only there was a way to give awards to people who walk out of, or otherwise protest, such meetings.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Meeting announcement: "On May 22nd *the consultant* will hold a Stakeholder Meeting where we will present the existing EOP draft, reconcile issues and policy decisions, and give stakeholders opportunity to contribute feedback" (EOP = Emergency Operations Plan).

2. Power Outage 2010 details: Caused by a plane crash into a major transmission tower: Fatal Plane Crash Causes Major Power Outage and Five years after crash, City still looking to safeguard power

3. Planning versus plans: Of the success of the D-Day invasion of Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said many variations on this theme: "Planning is essential; plans are useless", "Rely on planning, but never trust plans", "The plans are nothing, but the planning is everything" ? This has its roots in the admonition "No plan survives first contact with the enemy" by the brilliant strategist Prussian/German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891), building upon von Clausewitz and Napoleon.

4. Previous blog post on badly organized and badly run meetings: Why is Palo Alto politics so stubbornly pre-Internet? (2015-01-07)

5. 9-minutes to find parking: The public spaces were fully occupied, which means that people stop in the aisle waiting for someone to pull out, but blocking those behind them from proceeding. It only takes a few instances of this to add up to big delays. Aside: The permit parking spaces were less than 20% utilized, but that may have been that this was Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, and possibly an alternate Friday off.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Walter Underwood, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove,
on May 27, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Walter Underwood is a registered user.

The 2010 plane crash power outage is a great example of Palo Alto failing to use their resources. The amateur radio operators immediately checked in on the the local wide-coverage repeater. That was up, though it does have emergency back-up power.

Staff, students, and parents were in the dark about what to do. Was school canceled? Where to pick up? The city could have activated the amateur radio operators and dispatched them to the 19 PAUSD sites (schools + district office). We run a net of that size every monday evening, and do it without a repeater. Even without antennas at the school sites, we could have easily provided comms.

Instead, operators were relaying cell phone messages from relatives who were teachers, trying to update them on what was happening. It was a mess.

This was a "communication emergency", much like the fiber optic cut that took out 911 service in south San Jose. That was handled very well. This was not.

The PAUSD emergency plan (from 2003) does include amateur radio. Web Link

[[Blogger: Additional detail: I was told that the PAUSD plan changed in this regard after the schools were connected to the fiber-optic network, although I don't know whether the official version of the plan was updated. My sources were two HAM radio operators active in the larger Eprep effort (members of ARES/RACES) and when I mentioned the antenna removal to then-Superintendent Skelly, he said it conformed to PAUSD policy.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Walter Underwood, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove,
on May 27, 2015 at 9:46 pm

Walter Underwood is a registered user.

Note: "HAM" is not an acronym. It is slang and never all caps. The origin of the term "ham radio" is lost in antiquity, but is most likely a slur on poor operators. The negative connotations are are no longer current, but we prefer the more accurate term "amateur radio".

I have also heard about the removal of the amateur radio antennas by the school district. I have no idea why they would do something that hurt their ability to respond to emergencies. Not smart.

If PAUSD has a new emergency plan, it isn't published, so as far as I know, it does not exist. I searched for the latest plan when I was writing my response.

Not sure why replies are through an edit of my response instead of a reply -- that seems odd. Please just reply.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on May 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Thanks Doug - excellent points.

Note that the new Menlo Park Fire Protection District 100 ft antenna at Station 2 in East Palo Alto:

1 - covers the entire South Bay
2 - has a self contained generator and a large fuel tank
3 - has a Ham radio relay station that dramatically improves communication with lower powered Ham radios
4 - will withstand an 8.0 earthquake

Posted as a private citizen and not on behalf of MPFPD.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 1, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Nothing new, Doug. Read Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. He describes an amateur theater group that prefers to meet and talk about theater instead of actually doing a production.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Jun 1, 2015 at 8:51 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

What I find troubling is that Doug posts a very thoughtful piece and almost nobody even pays attention.

I really worry how our "community" will respond when disaster strikes.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 2, 2015 at 12:00 pm


Some historical contexts:

"The best-laid plans of mice and men/ go oft awry"

"fog of war"

So, stock water food and medicine, and trust in FEMA. Re that last: pray that no Bush ever gets in the White House again.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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