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.


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 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!

More lessons learned from IMS in the EOC

As part of an extra-credit assignment this semester, I was put in charge of designing and controlling an IMS-based exercise for my classmates.

Up until this point in our classes, and even throughout most of Ontario, our exercises and plans have been based on the old organizational model of the Emergency Operations Centre; with members of the Control Group operating under their positions (Mayor, Fire Chief, etc).

With the Incident Management System (or Incident Command system) becoming so widespread (and Ontario being way behind the US, Australia, and British Columbia in that respect) our teacher wanted us to experience an IMS-based exercise. I volunteered to design it.

It was a huge headache, but also a major learning experience for me.

For one thing, there aren’t a lot of guidelines for exercising IMS within the EOC. Even Emergency Management Ontario hasn’t fully worked out how to move from positions to functions. I tried looking at Australia and the US for guides, but I didn’t find much. I think my major problem was not that I was learning IMS in the EOC, but that I was trying to understand a new model after spending 7 months learning an entirely different model. Had we started the year learning IMS (as my teacher has told us next year’s class will) it might have made more sense applying it to the EOC.

One resource that has helped me has been these videos from the City of Edmonton Emergency Preparedness department. Having a visual to go along with all of the IMS org charts really made a difference in how I understood it.

I still had the challenge of designing the exercise, however. We were using a script from an exercise we’d done a few weeks previous, using the old model. This may have been a mistake, but time limited and a jam packed semester meant we couldn’t afford to spend the time writing a new script.

The day of the exercise, our class met in our mock EOC. We divided the class, with 2/3rd taking on functions in the EOC, and the remaining 1/3 operating as Incident Command and Operations at four “sites”.

We read the narrative (a flood scenario) to both groups, and then gave site-specific information to each “site” group. Each site and the EOC were responsible for completing an Incident Action Plan, based on the information they had. After an hour, we gave each group updated information (as though a full 24 hours had passed since the initial narrative) and the required forms were filled out.

Some things I concluded from this exercise included:

  1. Despite it’s claims, IMS is very form based, at least in the EOC.
  2. We should have started the site groups on their IAP earlier, so that the EOC could base their on input from the decisions being made at site. It was easy to forget that IMS needs to work from the ground, up.
  3. Even though phones are a hassle to set up (last time we spent 20 minutes taping down cords), they are more reliable than the radios were were using.
  4. We needed to give the sites more detail for them to base their IAPs on. Even a few pictures would have made a huge difference in making the exercise more realistic.

Even though it was aggravating, I also learned a lot about myself and my own strengths and weaknesses while planning this exercise. I realized that I very much like to look at every detail and plan for every possibility. I also learned that most of the time, this isn’t realistic or efficient. Though I was frustrated at the lack of control I felt going into the exercise, I realized that we really did need to just go for it, and see what worked and what didn’t. Obviously, I wouldn’t take that approach if I was working with a client, but we practiced the exercise within the classroom for a reason. I feel as though I now have a stronger ability to see the “big picture”.

I also really like IMS, and I have a much better understanding of it now. I’m really looking forward to seeing the direction Ontario takes it in the next couple of years.

Links, pranks, and beautiful weather

It’s amazing how a change in the weather can cause such a shift in mood. I don’t think anyone demonstrates this better than college students.

It’s been absolutely beautiful here for the last week, and everyone has been outside, having barbeques, playing beach volleyball, and…getting up to no good. Relatively speaking. There has been an upswing in pranking lately, which certainly wasn’t helped by St. Patrick’s day. Which, all things considered, was actually pretty tame. Especially in comparison to this Ontario college. (My brother actually goes to Fanshawe, but he was nowhere near the riot, thank goodness).

We (staff) aren’t immune to the good weather either. Last week my fellow RA and I pranked our bosses office, by turning everything moveable upside-down. It’s the best prank because its easy to do and is minimally inconvenient. I went in there yesterday, and his coffee cup, binders, and some posters were still upside down.

This post on the importance of emergency evacuation drill on the fictional campaign site of Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope, made me laugh out loud:  “The official Pawnee City Mandate for disaster evacuations reads, simply, “Run, dummies.””

I’m currently writing a public education program on terrorism, and I came across this article about terrorism not being the number 1 issue. It brings up the question: should emergency management efforts focus on the most prevalent hazards (in Canada: flooding and forest fires) or what the public thinks are the most prevalent hazards?

Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases.” I have at least 5 different groups for various projects this year, and while I think group work can be beneficial (if incredibly aggravating) at times, I also love this article from one of my favourite columns, Bullish: Team Work is Overrated (How To Be A Lone Unicorn).

I took a course on Politics in Northern Ireland while I was studying in the UK, and Belfast was one of my favourite places to visit while travelling. While researching the 1998 Omagh bombing for a disaster recovery project, I found this article on how a trauma centre established after the bomb have been able help other victims of tragic events around the globe.

On modelling myself after Tami Taylor

Fact: I was a late hire for the ResLife team, so my interview was in May of last year, rather than February. It was right around the time that I started watching the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights.

I decided early on in the hiring process that if I were to be hired, I wanted to be the kind of mentor that Tami Taylor was to everyone in Dillon. Tami is everything I want to be when I grow up: strong, devoted to her family, full of life, always gracious and willing to help, and never, ever a pushover. It didn’t matter what situation she was dealing with, whether it was counselling a pregnant teenager or telling Tim Riggins what’s what, she always seemed to do or say the right thing. She perfected the art of slipping what she really wanted to say casually into the conversation — under a thick layer of sweet smiles and a few well-placed “y’all’s”. Above all, she was unfailingly polite and rarely lost her temper.

Some of my favourite scenes are the ones in which Tami is dealing with someone who is trying to walk all over her. This happens a lot when I’m on rounds. Residents will get caught with beer bottles or playing drinking games, and then try to intimidate RLS into leaving. (This happens almost exclusively when alcohol is involved). I’m in this situation, I try to channel my inner Tami.  When I’m in a tough spot, I remind myself to keep smiling and focus on my end goal, whether it’s getting a name, a bottle, or a ping-pong ball. It can be difficult not to take things personally when residents are swearing or being rude, but keeping up that smile works wonders at getting them to give up, or, even better, apologize.

I definitely don’t always succeed in emulating Ms. Taylor. She has a capability for empathy and diplomacy that I’m still trying to develop. But there are some things I know we have in common. I’m able to admit when I’m wrong, and I’m fiercely protective of my residents.

And I can’t wait for spring to start wearing my cowboy boots with everything!

OVERT Orientation

Last Tuesday, I drove myself and two of my colleagues/classmates to Bowmanville for an  OVERT (Ontario Volunteer Emergency Response Team) orientation session. Volunteering for OVERT has been something I’ve been interested in for a while, but it wasn’t realistic until this year.

The orientation certainly convinced me it was something I wanted to do. OVERT acts as a 2nd tier of emergency response, mostly assisting in Search and Rescue operations in Ontario. Its members are able to attend tons of free training and even go abroad with the organization, as well as participate in various community events. You can join different teams, from Marine and Search and Rescue, and even Canine (although it’s apparently really hard to get on).

One of the reasons that I want to join OVERT so badly is that it would allow me to participate in the exciting, first-response aspect of emergency management, while having a higher-level type EM position as a day job. I didn’t realize until becoming an RA how much I love first-response, and now that I have, I want it to be part of my life. I don’t however, want it to be part of my everyday life, as a police officer or firefighter. Being able to respond to emergencies on a part-time, or volunteer basis, would be perfect for me.

Unfortunately, in order to join OVERT you need to be available for all training dates, and the first weekend falls on the same day as move-out, which I’m under contract to attend. I still may talk to my boss and see what he says, because this is something I really want to do.

In the meantime, I’m using my renewed enthusiasm to get pumped up for the exercises we have coming up in the next few weeks. Even though I wasn’t on the design team for these ones, I still feel just as invested, and can’t wait to see how they turn out!

Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses

Right before reading week, my boss handed all of us copies of the book Strengths Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath, and gave us an assignment. We all had to log on to the Strengths Finder website and do an assessment, and then come back to residence with our top five strengths written out. We all groaned and complained, because the last thing we wanted to do on our break was MORE homework. Our boss told us very politely to shut up, and that personal development activities were part of our contract. So one day while sitting by the pool in Florida, I took out the book, logged onto the site, and did the assessment.

I’m so glad I did. The strengths finder theory is that people spend the majority of their time trying to improve upon their weaknesses, or following goals that don’t play to their natural strengths. The goal of the assessment is to find the strengths that come to you naturally, and give you the tools to develop them. The assessment told me that my top 5 strengths were:

1) Input (collecting knowledge or information)
2)  Restorative (solving problems)
3) WOO (Winning others over)
4) Communication (self-explanatory)
5) Includer (helping others feel included)

At first, I looked at the results skeptically. The test seemed a little too simple to be able to know what my strengths were. Not only that, but some of the questions required knowledge of myself I’m not sure I possessed. But the more I read about the different strengths, the more I agreed.

Input, in particular, really seems to fuel a lot of what I do. I love collecting bits of information, whether its random facts, new ideas, or even jokes. I don’t always know what I’m going to do with the information, but simply collecting it makes me happy. When I’m able to make connections between the knowledge, or able to turn it into something useful, like a story or an essay, that’s when I really feel engaged. This desire fuels the restorative strength, because I like to help other people solve problems using my knowledge or ideas. It fuels the WOO and Includer strengths, because that knowledge helps me make connections with other people. The communication strength is both assisted by and assists all of the other strengths–I love talking, and writing, and when I can talk or right about the information I’m interested in, I am happy as a clam.

Tonight we did a seminar based on the findings from the book. We found out who had similar strengths, and who had complimentary strengths. For example, my SRA had Disciple as her #1 strength, which works well with my Input because I can get sidetracked when I’m chasing information and lose focus. We also talked about how to explain and give examples of these strengths in a job interview.

We realized that we all had very similar strengths, and it was pointed out that RAs all would–after all, you need particular skills and interests in order to even want the job, let alone to do the job well. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the skills that came up were the ones that really involved interacting with people.

I loved learning more about myself and figuring out how to use those strengths to my advantage. So often I focus on my weakness and areas to improve, rather than on developing the skills I already have. I’m definitely going to be referring to this book again, both for career purposes and for my own personal development purposes.

On another note: I also won employee of the month tonight. It was a great way to start a night that was all about focusing on strengths 🙂