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An Interview with Craig Fugate, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, November 24 2009

Hurricanes might gather force, low-lying areas pool with water, and wildfires rage much as they long have. But today they rise as a challenge to a different American people. From mobile phones to Twitter, the communications networks woven into our daily lives would be unrecognizable to the victims of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. That much is obvious. But it's probably also fair to say that they represent a change from even the way people were carrying on digital relationships with one another on September 11th, 2001, or when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in the last summer of 2005. How can we take what we know and are learning about online and offline engagement and use it to better respond when disaster strikes?

Questions like that are what find FEMA Director Craig Fugate hanging out in some unusual places these days, like brainstorming with hackers in the Google mecca of Mountain View, California, about how civic-minded technologists can use their powers for good. Fugate [Few-gate] speaks with a Florida twang, a reflection of his deep personal and professional roots in that state. Fugate's appointment by President Obama was an acknowledgement that as Florida's chief disaster specialist, Fugate turned himself into one of the most innovative and respected emergency management specialists in the United States. Our cell-phone to land-line connection kept cutting in and out during the course of our conversation, which is probably wise to take as a warning against hubris about relying upon technologies. But Fugate, I found during our interview, blends real passion for the potential of tech with an awareness that the Holy Grail here isn't better technology itself. It's helping people survive and thrive amidst some of life's most difficult conditions.

On Friday, you keynoted the Random Hacks of Kindness "codejam" in Mountain View, California. Let's start with an explanation of why the nation's chief disaster specialist is spending time with civilian programmers.

We're trying to solve problems as something faster than the speed of government. The whole idea is looking at how we can leverage existing capabilities to help people in a disaster. We often talk about people needing to have a disaster plan, but that's kind of a high bar, because people need to perceive that a disaster is about to happen. So let's first step down to a family communications plan.

The Red Cross has a site where you can register that you can let people know you're okay. But what we have to do is to build this into things that people use everyday. We saw this in several of the storms in the last couple years where people were using Facebook and MySpace to update friends and relatives about what was going on. So I've said, what if we just built this as widget or tool to incorporate into these social media websites? So that's the kind of things that we're looking at -- how we can take things that people are using everyday, add a little bit of additional function to it, and give people a very powerful tool to help put together their family communications plan, and use that as a first step to get people to help preparing. Because you start telling people to do all this stuff, sometimes it gets overwhelming. They won't do it.

But you point out that time and time again, some of the things that have happened, even most recently with the shooting at Fort Hood, here in Washington DC with the subway crash, a lot of the impact on those not directly involved is not being able to reach people, or let people know you're okay. Say your school goes into lock down because of a chemical spill, and you don't have this stuff somewhere where you can get to quickly, your backup plan on how your kids can reach you, who they're going to reach when they get relocated. We talk about it time and time again when people do their disaster plans. We talk about what are the key elements? So we've said, well, what if we can build some applications into existing web 2.0 applications?

The best thing about it is that a lot of people have multiple systems. So you can do it where you could update one, and with everything else, you get a Twitter account, text messaging or SMS, the Red Cross site, you can populate all those sites without having to go back to do every one separately.

What was the response like from the development community?

I haven't seen what they've come up with, but that is what I left them with. It was an interesting Q&A session that I had because they were looking at who should be the target audience? And I say to them: small, local emergency management agencies that don't have a lot of resources. At best they may just have access to the Internet, or PCs. Small, volunteer or faith based organizations that, again, may not have the capability to build a lot of tools.

So what's out there that they can use to be more effective? Particularly things like being able to display information. You know, how to use tools like blogs to get information out and share information among themselves and then how to use some of the map and visualization tools to look at geo-spatial data which used to be the purview of somebody in our GIS [Geographic Information System] shop. Or in some cases, maybe it isn't so much writing the application as coming up with a lesson plan to teach people how to use these products without necessarily requiring them to have a GIS background.

Is a lot of what you're advocating on the tech front externally focused, encouraging people to use the tools that, as you've said, are freely available and more powerful than we've ever had in the past. Google Maps is a better mapping system than even professionals had not too long ago. Are you focused on encouraging people outside of FEMA to use technology, or is some of this reaching internally and trying to innovate from the inside out?

It's also internally. There are these great tools to display information, but if you go to a lot of government websites, we spend a lot of time designing display systems. Some of which are good, some of which are slow, kludgy systems. I've said, perhaps we should be more focused on developing data feeds and let the private sector build the display platforms.

We would routinely put out information from our GIS lab and post it on our website as a PDF map file. The problem what that is that if you're using a mobile device, it's nearly impossible to use that. The same effort that it took that PDF file we could have produced a KML file or GML or GEO RSS that you could have downloaded it to your handheld.

So one example was, we offer disaster recovery centers map after a disaster where we have individual assistance declaration. A lot of times, unless you're in a situation where there is absolutely no communications, if you could have provided that were people could have looked it up by their zip code or address and said "Tell me where the closest ones are," and now I can get turn by turn directions on my handheld. Wouldn't that be a lot better for the public? And for us, it's really no more effort to produce a data feed than it is to produce the PDF file, because the original process for GIS is getting the information in there. One you do that and you publish it, you can publish it in multiple formats.

It's getting people to think of putting yourself where you're the survivor. How is that information going to be best used by survivors. Not necessarily what is easy for us to do. Really look at how we can improve our information so that it's more useful, whether that customer is a survivor trying to find a recovery center or a local emergency manager who instead of just giving them a map file or a PDF file, give them a link so that they can populate their systems with that information.

In this field, you're dealing with a lot of people have done this work for years, decades even, who have a very practiced ways of doing things that often rooted into their own experiences working in the field. Do you find people resistant to switch from the PDF map that they can print out and hang above their desks to focusing on building data feeds instead? Is there a lot of internal resistance?

I wouldn't call it resistance as much as inertia that you have to overcome. But what I find is that if I can illustrate to them why it makes sense, then it's like, "Yeah, yeah, we can do that. Yeah, we hadn't even thought about that," or "Yeah, that makes sense." Or, "We've been doing it that way, and nobody has really ever asked us to do anything else."

I say [to emergency specialists], "Why do we do PDF files?" The say, "Because that's all that anybody has every asked us for. You're the first person to ask us for a data feed."

In some cases, it's not like it's my technology guys. It's our managers. When I talk about the speed of government, I'm not kidding. There's a certain amount of inertia in any organization. When you deal with a technology that's changing so fast, four, five years ago, Google Earth and a lot of these other tools weren't really available, so what was the big emphasis on developing data feeds?

Now, there are very powerful tools in the hands of state and local emergency response organizations. We weren't [in the past] trying to get information out there independent of a display system, because there really wasn't one. Now you've got Microsoft Live Maps, you've got Google Earth and Google Maps. NASA's got a program called World Wind. Now, you're seeing people take those applications and starting to say, "Hey, if I can go here and look up a restaurant on a mobile site and get turn-by-turn directions, why can't I do that for an emergency shelter?"

To me, it's oftentimes looking at what's happening where the private sector are developing applications, and then looking at where we're at and going, "Look, this is a better way of doing this." The innovation of information is going so fast on how to display and use it. We've seen this with a lot of mashups, where people are taking APIs and other things and building really incredibly cool applications. Why don't we come back and look at what our role should be, and not think our role should be to provide these data feeds?

We think that there's enough creativity out there, that they'll find applications for some of these feeds that we didn't think about.

For sure. But I had a chance to be on a conference call a few months ago with folks from DHS, representatives from Twitter, and some academics who work on disasters. And one of the fascinating aspects that came up was the idea that you go and engage with people on Twitter because that's where the public gathers. Rather than focusing on building FEMAbook.com, you go to where people are already clustering.

It makes a lot of sense, but we saw with what happened with Twitter in Iran where the State Department asked Twitter to stay up and running because of the role that it was playing in organizing. What I think was lost in the enthusiasm over that incident is that Twitter could have said "no," right?

Yeah.

It's a third-party network, owned by a corporation. Should we be worried at all about building so much of our mission-critical work on the backs of, you know, proprietary networks?

No, because I don't think we're building it solely on any one application.

This was another question I asked at Random Hacks of Kindness. How do we carry on a two-way conversation with the public? I often ask people if they have a cell phone to take it out, and I say, that's a data center. They look at me kind of strange. And I'm like, "Think about it. People are going to post pictures, they are going to post videos, they are going to text message. Then are going to send information out about what they are experiencing in a variety of emergencies or disasters."

And so the question that I've asked is, how do we listen? We can't carry on a conversation with an individual person. But how can we look at that not as an unofficial source of information or something we should ignore, but look at what people are posting or sending out to find out what's going on in an area?

I'm not a person that says we're just going to follow Twitter. I think you've got to be looking at Flickr, and Picassa, and YouTube, and Hulu, and anywhere else where people are placing information. They're making it public, so see what's going on. Let's provide a better mechanism for them to be able to share that information with us.

The other thing that I've heard from emergency managers, when they do use these social media tools, whether it's Twitter or Facebook for whatever they've latched onto, is that how do they let the public know that that's an official source, or that that's authenticated, and not somebody who is just putting information out there? I think that there is some learning to take place. But I'm more interested in how you carry out a two-way conversation with the public, particularly those who are in an area where a disaster or emergency is happening and they're sharing information across their networks. How do we look at what they're making public?

If somebody is saying, "My house is on fire" and it's an area that has wildfires, well, obviously that's not official data. But they're telling us their house is burning down. They're shooting video of their house on fire. I consider that pretty good information.

Have you thought through how Hurricane Katrina and Rita would have been different had these techniques been implemented?

Yeah. I'm seeing more and more that we do not put the same emphasis on getting the public's connectivity back up as we do on the response community's. That's one area we're asking people to look at, particularly working with the private sector on how do we get connectivity back up for the public. I look at the public as a resource, not a liability. I ask this question: how many more people -- if they had better information and had the ability to share what was going on -- would [it have taken to] have given us a better response, to have changed the outcome?

You have some challenges, in that even if you have people telling you better information about what was going on, that may not necessary change the response where you're going to work in other areas. But if you are improving the capability of the government and the private sector team to communicate effectively but aren't able to communicate with the public effectively, I'm not sure we're going to see that we're going to improve those outcomes.

So how do we build better communications to provide connectivity to the public in a disaster so they can tell us what's going on? And more importantly tell us what's not happening -- we're missing areas or there are things that are occurring that we may not be aware of. When communications systems are that shattered, oftentimes you find that the only good source of information is really the people who are there and can get it out to you. Otherwise you still have to wait until you get there to find out how bad things are. That just delays your response.

There was an amazing incident during Hurricane Katrina where former FEMA Administrator Michael Brown was being interviewed on CNN, and someone pointed out what was going on at the Superdome [ed. -- It was actually the Convention Center], that people had been moved there. He said 'Well, I haven't heard that.' And whoever was interviewing him on cable news said, 'Well, it's been on the news all day.' And he said something to the effect of, 'Well, I haven't heard that through official channels.'

That gets back to the way you think about the way a bureaucracy thinks about information. It's official, it's stamped as trusted bureaucratic information. In a time of crisis, is it better to maybe lower the bar in terms of where we get information from?

That's been my experience.

If I wait for the official word, it may not be actionable. I ask, how much information do I need to make a decision, to do something? Particularly when I have a hurricane where I know, once it's coming ashore there's some probability of some impact, I'd much rather err on the side of responding based upon unconfirmed information that matches the event or what it could possibly be doing. And if it turns out that it's not that bad, I can scale down.

Time is something you never get back in [disaster] response.

Often times, I'll look at information coming out of a disaster, not so much as the information on which I'm going to make my decision to act as much as it will help me adjust what I'm doing already. From the hurricanes in '04, what we learned in Florida was that when you have something bad that is going to happen you need to respond like it's bad and you don't wait until you have confirmed reports of how bad it is to start that response. In many cases, I'll look at what the public is telling me, not as much as the trigger of, 'Okay, we need to respond,' but 'Whoops, we weren't going there, that wasn't where we thought it was bad. Now we've got to add that to places to go to.'

[Or] they're telling us that maybe we're not going to be so heavily engaged in search and rescue, but we're going to have to really going to have to focus on commodities, on working with the private sector to get stores open. In a storm, there are a lot of power outages and a lot of damages like that. So it allows you to adjust your response much more rapidly. It also helps if there's anything that you had not anticipated or didn't realize was happening to adjust much more rapidly.

[Shared information] should not be the only criteria by which you're going to make your decisions. But I think it helps you make better decisions faster. And it gives you a feedback on your decisions that will be much more rapid than waiting for your team to get in there and provide that assessment and report back. I think the public, if they have the connectivity, will be doing that much faster. I look at it more as a blended system. My approach is that we need to build a bigger team and take off what I call the "government-centric blinders" -- that everything's got to be government -- and recognize that the public is not a liability. They're a resource. They're part of the team.

Without communications, it's very difficult for us to take advantage of the resources the public has in a disaster. The information they have for us is one of the most important resources they can give us.

Part of FEMA's challenge is coordinating between different levels of government. It's something that FEMA, quite honestly, has struggled with in the past -- coordinating between different agencies, state, local, national. Do you see any way that technology can help there?

Yeah, but I think you have to understand the fundamental principles of how we're organized, or you're just going to apply technology and become very frustrated.

Under our structure of our government, we are a federal government. We're not a national government. So what many people think should be FEMA's primary role is really the role of local and state governments. FEMA's role is on behalf of the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security is to coordinate all the federal resources on a governor's request.

When we say "All disasters are local," and state and federal support provide assistance, that is the legal construct of our system. We actually have 56 different jurisdictions primarily responsible for coordinating domestic emergencies. And when they require assistance from the federal government they can formally request it. When you describe that to people, they're like, isn't that kinda like dominoes, like each level has to fail before the next level engages? And that's not the way it has to work.

But it does apply the construct that you're not going to have one way of doing it. You're going to have 56 states, territories, and the District that have constitutions that give that give certain authorities to governors in some states but not in others, and very strong home rule in some states and not in others. We have a variety of different financial and other types of resources in some state governments and not in others.

So FEMA doesn't have the luxury of saying it's going to be one size fits all, we're only going to do it one way, and we're going to respond that way for every state. Part of the reason why we have ten regional offices across this country that are focused on areas that have oftentimes have regional similarities and have regional risks is the recognition that one size will not fit all.

Those 56 governors have a constitution that each of them must follow, and then on top of that that we have literally thousands of political subdivisions of counties, and parishes, and municipalities that are also part of that team.

To play contrarian, some of this verges onto telling people to prepare themselves and taking the onus off of the government response. That's what people witnessed during Katrina, and were uncomfortable with. Is there an argument to be made that this is the one place where you want a very strong government response?

Sure.

Here's the fallacy. Even if government was fully optimized and did everything to the maximum ability, there is not enough government resources that can that can get to people fast enough if we don't count on people taking care of themselves and their neighbors.

Then here's what's going to happen. Now, everybody's in competition for assistance. And so who's going to suffer the most? The most vulnerable. Children, frail elderly, people who are poor, and again it comes back to looking at this as a team. Those of us who can do the things that we can do to protect our families and check on neighbors allows the government response to focus on the things that are inherently government's responsibility, which is to provide security, search and rescue, and responding to the most vulnerable.

If you take the approach that is should be all government, then we're basically saying that we're going to all equally compete for government services. That means the most vulnerable will not have any ability to compete against those who can and will be more vocal and more mobile, and will get to those resources first.

So, let the public take care of what the public can take care of.

And work as a team, so that we can focus on our most vulnerable citizens.

And remember that in many cases the best response may not be government-centric. It may be working with the the private sector to get stores open versus government handing out stuff.

It comes back to 'What is the best way to get something done?' That's why I say you need to take off your government-centric blinders, when I'm talking to the FEMA folks, and look at what other capabilities the team has and who is best able to do something. The public has a role to play. That doesn't mean that they have to be by themselves. Just like when we talk about 'All disasters are local,' we don't say that you've got to do it by yourself.

There's a team that can leverage state and federal agencies, the private sector. But in large-scale catastrophic disasters, oftentimes the first response is going to be a neighbor checking on a neighbor. How do we empower people? How do we get resources there quickly? How do we focus on our most vulnerable citizens? In many cases, it's just recognizing that in many cases, those of us who can and do take steps to make sure our families are ready means that the rest of the team can focus on the most vulnerable citizens in those critical first few days when a disaster strikes.

Where can people who might have technical skills focus their energies?

One of the places you've got to start is finding a single point of contact in government. And it goes back to that there is no single point of contact. Try to look up and hook up with your local emergency managers or your volunteer organizations.

We're looking at national companies at how we build a better team. And I think that the other part for my counterparts is that we really need to embrace the private sector, as part of the team, not as a separate entity. Not competing with each other, or in many cases government doing what inherently the private sector is much more capable of doing.

It goes back to expanding your definition of the team.

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