Storm chasing from an EM perspective

This article, about how amateur storm chasers are getting in the way of emergency response, makes me a little sad. With the increase in mobile technology, it’s easier than ever for an average citizen to hope on the road and follow a developing storm, but emergency management agencies are saying these chasers are blocking roads and possibly putting themselves in danger.

Confession: I’ve wanted to chase storms since I was young. I love storms, and especially tornadoes, but I’ve been reluctant to take off after a storm for several reasons

1) lack of experience/knowledge
2) lack of equipment
3) My location, which has never been prone to much tornadic activity*, and my student budget, which wouldn’t allow for driving/flying to Tornado Alley.

While 1) is still true, numbers 2) and 3) are starting to change. Technology has evolved so that it’s now possible to follow developing storms from my iPhone, even just using Twitter. In the last few years, there has also been an increase in severe storms (including some that spawn tornadoes) in Ontario, as well as the rest of Canada. It would be easier than ever for me to hop in my car and chase down a promising storm (assuming I had an income to pay for gas, which I currently don’t).

So why haven’t I? It’s interesting how my emergency management experience has changed my perspective. I’ve become more interested in helping people prepare for tornadoes, in figuring how to effectively respond to severe weather, and discovering how social media can help (and hinder) both planning and recovery. I’m also more aware of the enormous hurdles that can challenge emergency response.

While I would still jump at the opportunity to see a tornado, I would only ever go with experienced storm chasers. I’m unsure of the reputation of tornado tours within the storm chasing community, but I’ve considered signing up for one before, and I feel like they would be a safer, not to mention more responsible option, than chasing on my own.

There are also several unofficial storm chasing “rules” lists around the internet, that could help make sure that I wasn’t exacerbating the problem. They also highlight how storm chasers can help with emergency response, by keeping officials updated and knowing basic first aid and CPR.

Even with those precautions, however, I’m definitely more reluctant to join the hundreds of other chasers on the road than I was before. Maybe as technology improves, it will be easier to predict what storms will do, and possible to safely watch these storms from a distance. Until then, I’ll settle for watching tornado videos on YouTube.

Note: After writing this post, I came across this blog, which really brings home what I was trying say, that storm chasing can help emergency management, if practiced responsibly.

*It’s also a lot more difficult to storm chase in Canada, mostly due to fewer roads and less technology, and therefore, storm data. That being said, this guy seems to do okay.

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Almost there!

I’ve been really terrible at updating this week. I’ve been trying to focus on my exams/final projects. I have one more day (two exams!) of school left, and then I will be free! Well, almost. I have my last rounds shift on Friday, and move out on Saturday (which is sure to be insane) and then I have about 4 hours to pack up my own car for the drive home.

I have mixed feelings about the end of the year. For the last three weeks, I’ve honestly been feeling so burnt out and just ready to leave. Now that everything is winding down, I’m starting to get rather melancholy. I’ve made many good friends here, and tons of acquaintances I’m sad I won’t get to know better.

One of the best experiences in the last couple of weeks has been getting to know the new RAs a little better. Most of them are so nervous, and it’s funny to look back and remember how similar my own feelings were about becoming an RA. We’ve been trying to give them all the advice we can, but the truth is, you really learn as you go.

I’m looking forward to having a break when I get home, but I’m also full of motivation for some projects I want to work on. I don’t have a job lined up, which, while discouraging, also means that I can pursue some things I haven’t had a chance to in my six (6!) solid years of post-secondary education. I want to brush up on my French, volunteer with the Red Cross, and spend a little time helping, my little brother make his resume. Not to mention working on this blog! I really want to keep it going, and hopefully create some meaningful content. I have found so many good EM resources and articles in the last few weeks, and have had so little time to sit down and read them all! I’d like to share those, as well as some of my own lessons from this past year, in the next few weeks.

I have a feeling the ResLife portion of this blog will become smaller, since I will no longer be living at school, but I still have stories and experiences I want to share, so for the time being, I’m going to keep the name Disasters and Door Decs. I have been spending some time trying to think of a new name, however (mostly when I can’t sleep the night before an exercise/final–like now!).

I’m so, so excited for what this summer will bring!

The light at the end of the tunnel…

This is what the office desk looks like when I'm on duty

I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The end of the school year is only two weeks away, but it still feels so far. The next week is completely insane. There is a significant portion of my brain that this telling me to just bury my head under the covers and only come out when it’s all over. Another part is telling me to drop out.

Fortunately, the rational part is telling me to put a smile on and get through it, because I will be so proud of myself when it’s all over.

I’m currently studying for my DRI certification exam, which is tomorrow. This exam will certify me as an Associate Business Continuity Professional. Even though I’m not sure business continuity is the direction I want to go it, I know having this certification will be valuable if I do. Unfortunately, it feels as though there is too much to study and not enough time. I love my index cards, so I’ve been spending the last couple of days furiously writing out definitions and notes on the 10 professional Practices. Needless to say, I’ll be glad when it’s all over!

Tomorrow night I’m running another Therapy Dogs program. Everyone is stressed, and it seems even worse now that we only have two weeks left. It’s also getting to the point where some people realize that after this year, they probably won’t see each on a daily basis. This makes people either really sad, or really disrespectful, depending who you’re talking about. Hopefully the puppies will make everyone feel a bit better.

On Tuesday, we’re finalizing the business continuity plan we’ve been working on all year, and next week we will present it to our client. It’s been such a long time in coming, it’s hard to believe it’s almost done!

Wednesday is the most hectic day. Along with my group, I’ll be facilitating a tabletop exercise at an Ontario Ministry in order to test one of their emergency response plans. Our exercise is fine, but we need to practice the presentation aspect of it–definitely not my favourite thing to do. As soon as we are done at the Ministry, we’re heading back to school to deliver a public education program to our class. I’m doing mine on how businesses can help prevent terrorism. Again, my presentation is done, but I’ve been waiting until after DRI to practice it.

For those of us that are in the EM program as well as working in Res, we will then hurry back in order to get ready for the Student Leadership Banquet. I’m actually really excited about this, as we get to dress up and watch our colleagues receive awards for leadership. It should be a nice way to end a crazy day!

On Thursday I’m handing in the After-Action Report for the exercise I designed and controlled last week (more on that in another post), as well as starting work on the AAR for the Ministry exercise. Friday will be used for finishing everything up, and then Saturday is the school open house. Some of my classmates will be on the main campus, telling prospective students about the EM program, but I’ll be giving tours around the residence.

Let me tell you, I can’t wait to go home and have a break! I’m a little disappointed that I don’t have a job lined up, but I plan on spending the whole summer applying and volunteering, so I’m sure I won’t get too bored. It will definitely be nice to read books for fun again!

An uncomfortable juxtaposition

Ever since I was young, I’ve loved natural disasters. “Love” may not be the right word—I don’t love the death and destruction that is caused by disasters. For every volcano documentary I watch, or storm system I follow, I’m always aware of the heartache and damage that is being inflicted.

I recently finished reading Reed Timmers “Into the Storm”. In case you didn’t know, Reed Timmer is a meteorologist and extreme storm chaser whose obsession with tornadoes motivated him to start the site Tornadovideos.net. He also is one of the chasers featured on the Discovery Channel show Stormchasers. Early in the book, he acknowledges that an obsession with such a force of nature also means encountering the uncomfortable truth that they do real damage:

It’s an interesting proposition, seeking happiness from tornadoes. For those few of us who are unquestionably mesmerized by them, chasing tornadoes can be the most fantastic experience in the world. Tornado chasing taxes your intellect and puts you at one with incredible, spectacular forces of nature. Chasing is also a fix for any adrenaline junkie and, if you do it often enough, can become your career.

But an obsession with stalking tornadoes can kill or maim you, too, and even if chasing doesn’t leave you with physical scars or a need for crutches, it’s hard to escape unscathed. You’ll witness death and destruction of property that sickens your stomach and saddens your heart. Your family will worry about you. Significant others will grow tired of playing second fiddle. Peers will disagree with the way you chase, and you’ll lose friends to your obsession.

I’m not sure where my fascination with disasters started. I remember an inexperienced and oblivious babysitter taking my brother and I to see Twister when we were about 7 or 8…in other words, far too young! I had nightmares for months, but sometime in the next couple of years, my fear of such terrifying storms turned into a fascination. I figure it’s the same thing that propels my brother, who will barely venture into the ocean when we go to Florida, to sit religiously in front of the television during Shark Week.

 The older I get, the more I can hypothesize about what it is that propels me towards such brilliant displays of the earths power. In some part, I think it’s the reminder that there is something so much larger than us controlling this planet. I’m not talking about God or Higher Power (I can’t believe God would actively inflict destruction and sorrow like that) but about the weather and geologic systems that have existed since long before humans roamed the earth. Watching a supercell spawn a tornado or seeing the impact of an earthquake has a way of making us feel small, much in the same way that looking up at the stars, or down at the earth from an airplane, can make us feel small. It humbles me, and reminds me that as much as I like to pretend I have control over my life, most things are epically beyond my ability to change.

That being said, as a human being, I still have the intense desire to try. I’m fully aware that natural disasters disproportionately affect developing countries and lower-income families. I also know that there are many things that exacerbate disasters. After 6 months of my graduate program, the formula has been drilled into me deeper than an oil well: hazards + vulnerability = disaster. For centuries, humans have willingly placed themselves in harm’s way, by building cities and houses on flood plains, fault lines, or volcanoes. In some cases this has been the result of ignorance. In other cases, it’s because there are clear benefits to living in hazard zones: beautiful scenery, fertile soil, or cheap real-estate.

Fortunately, my interest in disasters has also made me aware of how many things can be done to prevent or protect against destruction: On an individual level, having an emergency kit and plan for your family will greatly increase chances of surviving a disaster. On a larger scale, encouraging cities and countries to have emergency plans, to enforce stronger building codes, and to invest more money in emergency preparedness and response.

It took me years to identify emergency management as a possible career path, but once I did, it made perfect sense. It combined my love of disasters will my desire to help people and save lives (and, let’s be honest, telling people what to do).

There’s a certain amount of guilt that comes along with this interest in disasters, and this post is, in some part, a way to rationalize that interest, as well as explain how I became interested in Emergency Management in the first place.

Experience as a mock casualty in a full scale exercise

Last Friday, our class participated in a full-scale exercise for our city’s local airport. The exercise was designed by one of the groups in our class and involved a full-scale response by police, fire, and EMS, and a functional activation of the airport and city EOCs.

It was loads of fun. On the morning of the exercise, half of us arrived at the airport at the ungodly hour of 6:30AM in order to prep the victims/casualties. Thanks to the casualty simulation course we participated in a few months ago, we created some pretty realistic injuries, including shock, 3rd degree burns, and a broken femur.

I got to play a victim in shock. I was so annoying! When the responders first arrived, I kept telling them I knew first aid and could help. I was speaking really quickly and breathing kind of heavily and kept saying “Oh my god, oh my god…is that guy dead? IS HE DEAD?” It was so much fun. I also would bother them by telling them really loudly that my friend was pregnant. “You need to come over here, she’s pregnant, she needs help! Oh my god, oh my god, the plane crashed–is that guy DEAD?!”

I used some of my experiences from rounds on Res to help me out. Whenever we respond to a first aid incident, it’s funny how all of the residents want to help, to the point of getting angry at us when we tell them to back-up. “He’s MY friend, you don’t know him, you don’t even know what you’re talking about!” –I get that a lot. I’ve always found the best thing to do in that situation is give the onlookers something to do, so they feel useful.

We (some of the casualties) would also wander off if the responders weren’t paying attention to us. I wandered right back into the “plane crash” once and got yelled at.

At one point, when someone made me sit down with a blanket, I went really silent, staring at the ground and not responding to people talking to me. It was funny how much the fake “freaking out” ended up taking out of me. Pretending to hyperventilate actually made me quite light-headed, so I was happy to sit and not do anything for a few minutes!

Eventually we were taken by ambulance back to the hangar, where we cleaned off our make-up and did a quick hot-wash with the airport personnel. Overall, the exercise was a big success. It was our first experience with a full-scale exercise, but I’d love to have a part in planning one again. I’d also like to see what it would be like watching the exercise, rather than running around freaking out!