In a cramped corner conference room, the whiteboards are scribbled with details about upcoming calls, four television monitors are showing live faux storm updates, and people are coming in and out of the room at a steady rate as a teleconference call goes out to the FEMA regions. Welcome to FEMA Headquarters, where a hive of activity is underway as the real-world emergency management issues coexist with a fictional, but reality-based, hurricane called “Cora” that is approaching landfall along one of the most costly and dense pieces of real estate, infrastructure and population in the U.S. The National Level Exercise (NLE)18 is now in Day Three and the tempo and participants have multiplied considerably.
I’m sitting in the corner of the room and observing one of many of the regular conference calls that FEMA will convene to bring everyone up to speed on what is happening with “Cora.” This particular call is the NICCL (sounds like “nickel”), one in the blizzard of acronyms that seem to dominate the verbiage of the emergency management community. NICCL stands for National Incident Communications Conference Line and it is literally a round robin of people quickly reporting on what is happening with the weather, emergency disaster declarations, movement of commodities, transportation networks and so on.
Sitting in the room and watching the call’s chairperson keeping everyone on task, you can’t help but feel you are watching a cross between an air traffic controller and orchestra conductor working the room. As they move around the table and back to the phone lines for FEMA Regions 3 and 4, along with five different states and the District of Columbia to report in, the flow of information keeps going back and forth. Laptops are open with people typing away as others look to their phones and compare what information they have on their handheld screen to the pages that were just dropped in their laps.
It’s easy to see this is the true ramp-up stage of the exercise. With the storm building strength and coming closer to shore, more exercise players are coming into view to lend a hand or whatever other resource they can bring to the exercise table. A couple of things stand out to me. First, the diversity in the room – men and women of every age, race, size and background are in thoughtful action. To me, the room looks a lot like America, which is a great thing considering who they are working to secure.
Second, every one of them is focused, calm and resolute. While they all know it’s an exercise, everyone is taking it very seriously. The comments that come from around the room and the phone lines are all sprinkled with references to hurricanes of years gone by. As reflective as they all might be on the events of the past, the experiences of last year’s hurricane season are the proverbial shadow in the room. Every one of them also knows it won’t be long before they’ll be doing this type of call and support activity for real.
As the reports go around the room and on the teleconference bridge, several words keep being repeated time and time again. I’m more than confident that if you were to record the entire conference call and do a verbatim transcript, followed by a Word Cloud of the “key words,” three sets of words would rise to the top.
In third place, the word “mobilize,” as everyone in the room and around the mid-Atlantic are moving people, materials, equipment, commodities and more into position for when Cora comes ashore.
The second-place set of most mentioned words would be “private sector.” I can’t begin to tell you what a sea change this is from where FEMA was in its pre-Katrina days. The indifference that FEMA and many in the emergency management community once had toward this critical sector is long gone. It’s been replaced by the reality and fervent acceptance that the people who are in business for a living, are truly the most dynamic and adaptable of partners they could ever be aligned with on a “bad day.” They also know, without a doubt, that small-, medium- and large-sized businesses are just as equally vested in preparedness, readiness and recovery operations as they are.
In first place as the most mentioned word in the room and on the conference call was “coordination.” I think for most outsiders and casual observers of what FEMA does, that word would be a surprise of sorts. People certainly know that FEMA shows up around the country to respond to disasters in all forms, but because they aren’t aware of all the details of FEMA showing up, they equate them as a first responder.
In taking in the nerve center that is the cramped conference room, as well as all of the busy activity happening outside of the room and around the country among those taking part in the fictional hurricane exercise, that is an incredible misinterpretation of who they are and what they do.
As worthy, meritorious, challenging and multidimensional as a first responder might be, FEMA is doing something that in reality is even bigger and more complex. They are playing the role of convener, the coordinator, and orchestra conductor of multiple instruments from different bands all assembling at the same time, from lots to different places, hoping to be able to play in concert with others when called upon. It is not an enviable role. In fact, it’s downright daunting to try to keep track of who is where and doing what to whom, but there is no sweating or apparent nervousness by anyone. They are in a battle rhythm they’ve been in before, and if a nerve center is going to be where all the information comes to be parsed and shared having nerves of steel is what is called for.
It’s certainly easy to make fun of the fact that everyone on the NICCL call is going to leave this call so they can get ready for another call less than an hour away. Armchair critics of government and bureaucracy think that is all government really is – one call and meeting after another. There may be truth to that in some quarters, but when you are planning the disaster response for one of the most populous regions in the country there are so many aspects and details that need attention and reporting that one call and one meeting cannot do it all. This is a multi-staged process where focus and discipline are paramount.
As a nerve center, everyone is pulsing, pushing and pulling all of the data points so they cannot just report up to the chain of command, but make sure leadership has as full an aperture as possible of what is happening so decisions can be made and the public kept informed.
Which is exactly what happens when FEMA’s executive leadership convenes an hour after the NICCL call. While some of the NICCL are at this session, we’ve all now gathered in a larger, but equally cramped conference room in the center of the headquarters building. Surrounded by representatives from all the Cabinet Departments, numerous federal agencies, leaders from each of the Emergency Support Functions (ESF) and 30 different video teleconference feeds broadcasting onto digital screens, a series of quick, methodical and crisp reports are delivered on what everyone is doing to get ready for Cora.
At this point in the exercise, the fictional Hurricane Cora is a deadly Category 4 storm and is primed to unleash 10-15 inches of rain, possibly 20 inches, in a short period of time over the National Capital Region. Estimates from the energy experts (both private- and public-sector members) forecast up to 6 million people in the region will be without power for several days.
Adding to the mix, since the nation’s capital is in the direct path of the storm’s fiercest bands, and with rain and wind inundating the region and power anticipated to be unavailable, the federal government is preparing to literally leave the Beltway and exercise its COOP (continuity of operations) plans and head to higher ground.
While there are parts of America that would undoubtedly cheer at their government leaving “the Swamp” of Washington, D.C., pulling up stakes is something the federal government has never had to do because of a hurricane or other natural hazard. After all the briefings have been shared, FEMA Administrator Brock Long addresses the elephant in the room that everyone in the room has already figured out.
Given where everyone in the room lives in the National Capital Region, each of them as well as their families will undoubtedly be disaster victims. With forecasts for the region being without power and a whole lot more for some time after Cora moves through, the very people working to save and secure the targeted areas are going to also have to save and secure themselves and their families, too. It’s a sobering moment for everyone to acknowledge but, again, everyone is calm, cool and focused on what they need to do.
This is just one more complex factor to add to the growing pile of issues they will have to address. No one knows exactly how that is going to happen yet, but as individuals and as a collective unit that is literally growing by the hour everyone is convened to work a problem called Cora.
Everyone in the nerve center, either in person, on the phone or video teleconference link up took their respective positions because they are committed to working problems and not having problems work them. There’s a big difference between those two conditions and it’s something any refined nerve center is used to encountering and working its way through.
Which is why the rhythm of the nerve center continues to move forward to what is next on the agenda.
It may be another meeting or call with more information-sharing and new problems to address, but the coordination of problem-solving and sharing those responsibilities is what makes it all work in saving lives and securing the homeland. That’s what good nerve centers are charged to do.