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Innovating in the Face of Disasters: Two Key Requirements

Feb 25, 2014
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

The evolving nature of emergency management and the new challenges posed over the last few years have led many emergency management professionals to ask how they can improve their ability to respond to these emergencies effectively. This prompted the Conference Board's Council on Emergency Management (CEMT) to host a meeting on the Future of Emergency Management on January 29th and 30th, 2014.

One key issue explored during the meeting was innovation. Necessity is a strong driver of innovation especially during an emergency. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been experimenting successfully with implementing new, innovative approaches to assist victims of disasters as they unfold.

In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, FEMA piloted a Field Innovation Team (FIT), which was given the freedom to work across boundaries and pioneer new methods for helping survivors. They developed a series of innovations which allowed FEMA to increase its overall effectiveness, such as:

  • Deploying the FEMA Corps with iPads and satellite communications to connect with residents on the ground and rapidly identify their needs. This saved time and helped prevent long queues at disaster recovery centres. It also increased engagement and support from the public.
  • Working with non-government agencies to communicate with the public about what FEMA was doing. Specifically, the use of social media helped to get messages out more broadly and effectively.
  • Utilizing and publicizing maps developed by local youth to identify gas stations that had fuel available. This provided a valuable source of information for the general public.

A number of these innovations have now been integrated into FEMA's plans, and forms part of their improved approach to emergency management. While innovation is a concept that is now rooted in FEMA, the FIT has moved outside of FEMA. Formerly a group of volunteers, the FIT has organized into an independent entity. Desi Matel-Anderson, former Chief Innovation Advisor for FEMA, is now CEO of FIT. While its mission remains similar, the FIT is expanding its ability to use innovations to solve the problems faced by disaster survivors.

How can other emergency management organizations encourage and incorporate innovation into their operations? Two key requirements emerged from our discussion:

  1. Integrate and use innovators from outside emergency management

    Truly innovative ideas were developed when people from outside the traditional emergency management sphere were brought in. Therefore, it is critical to find and involve creative people who are not normally a part of this sphere. Furthermore, innovators need to be part of the overall management of the incident. FEMA managed to find a way to help integrate the new ideas into their Incident Command Structure (ICS). Finding individuals who can bridge the creative world and emergency management response is equally important. FEMA had a Chief Innovation Adviser who played this role very actively, being an employee of FEMA but coming from a creative background. Although creative and innovate individuals may come from the outside, they need to be made to feel like they are part of the response and part of the team to be effective.

  2. Build a culture that allows you to "Fail friendly and fail often"

    In innovation, it is common to talk about failure and learning from failure. Truly innovative ideas are risky and therefore, by definition, you will have failures. The trick is to be able to fail within a safe environment, learn from the failure and move on as quickly as possible. This applies to innovation in emergency management as well. FEMA's leadership created the space and the support for the FIT to try out new ideas and to quickly learn from them. By building on the concept of failing often through trying many experiments, but doing so in a safe and friendly environment, allowed innovators to learn and improve. Admittedly, this is a difficult concept to implement, especially in the context of an emergency. Experimenting rapidly and finding solutions in the midst of major crises has been something that humanity has done many times throughout the course of history.

In the context of a rapidly changing emergency management environment, increasing demands from the public and shrinking budgets, discovering innovative solutions that allow us to be more effective during an emergency is an absolute necessity. FEMA and the FIT have shown that this is possible and that new, innovative approaches can be developed and integrated into emergency management plans. Innovation has become a fundamental requirement when it comes to the future of emergency management.

The Centre for National Security (CNS) will be organizing a Study Tour to New York (Hurricane Sandy) and Boston (Marathon Bombings) from the 27th to 29th of May 2014. If you are interested in participating, please contact Debbie Fleck.

Join us for Lessons from the Flood, a webinar on April 20, 2104 at 2:00 p.m. ET with Scott Holland, provincial manager for planning and preparedness at Alberta's Emergency Medical Services. During this session, Scott will discuss how the EMP performed during the 2013 Southern Alberta flood disaster as well as outstanding challenges, take-away messages, and overall lessons learned from the emergency.

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