A FEMA Disaster Recovery Center is set up at a hockey rink in Long Beach, New York, on Nov. 8, 2012, to provide assistance to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy. (Christopher Ragazzo/FEMA)

Common Operating Picture Helps Put Disaster Recovery on Same Page

As part of HSToday’s commitment to share ideas and insights on the future of the homeland security community, here is Part 3 of HSToday Editor at Large Rich Cooper’s take on what comes after FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the system is broken. (Read Part 2 here)

Establishing and Refining the Real-Time Common Operating Picture: With the tap of a finger, any of us can go to our smartphones and find a traffic update to map our work commutes or a trip to a new coffee shop.  At the same time, we can also get a real-time weather report (often with live radar imagery) so we know if we need to bring a jacket or leave the rain gear at home. In short, we can access quick and conventional tools to provide a common operating picture for our daily lives. But that’s not always possible in an emergency environment.

In a crisis, an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is charged with bringing all the information streams together to help decision-makers better understand what’s happening and how to adjust and respond to those dynamic conditions. As good as EOCs have become at bringing all the loose ends together to present a clearer picture of what’s happening, there remain significant shortcomings. Defining areas that the event dashboard is not telling you about until it is “too late” needs to become a bigger priority in the “off season,” when disasters and EOCs are not in operation. It also means sorting out what is priority information to know and share and what is not.

The ability to provide a faster and more effective common operating picture would also bring a better benefit to relief efforts, especially at the regional Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) that FEMA operates alongside its partners at the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). DRCs will often deploy teams to travel out into affected neighborhoods and communities to not only share information with disaster victims (e.g. assisting with disaster assistance applications, etc.), but also collect important details that can help make recovery efforts more effective.  Better utilization of that information would go beyond providing rudimentary victim assistance into real customer service for impacted taxpayers. That would be a sea change in the emergency management culture and will providing more efficient operations.

Creating a better and more responsive common operating picture can also help close the information-sharing gaps that can often spring up between responding parties. And in today’s ultra-connected world with all of its data-generating streams, having a scalable enough system that can bring in new information providers and expand and contract as needed in terms of information delivery and accumulation is a must.

That is by no means is an easy task. It’s a balancing act of inherent human judgment in determining what information is necessary and most critical to have and share, and dependable technological capacity to bring those multiple data streams (and forms) together to put a comprehensive common operating picture together.

As a society, our expectations are to be connected, informed and engaged 24-7, 365 days a year. We are without a doubt an “I want my MTV!,” culture. When that does not happen, public frustration, confusion and rumor take root and gives the emergency management community one more thing to address. For example, this past summer FEMA proactively worked to address rumors that sprung up during its multiple disasters to keep the public informed on what was fiction, fantasy and fact.

FEMA’s efforts here were a great step to build on, but we also live in an era where facts, as well as experienced and authoritative voices, are now questioned as truthful, legitimate and even suspect sources. The only way to address those conditions are to constantly demonstrate the worthiness of trust and confidence that FEMA and the emergency management community establish with each individual work they perform to serve the public in its best and worst days.

That’s part of who FEMA and the greater emergency management and public safety communities are and what they have dedicated their lives and careers to serve. And when mistakes are made (and they will be made), owning them, being transparent about them and working diligently to rectify them are the only cures to rebuilding the trust and confidence that is lost.

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Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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