Learning from big disasters

Interview with Michael Brown

Published:  01 September, 2008

During his career in emergency response
Michael D Brown – former FEMA director and former Under Secretary of Homeland Security – faced over 160 disasters in the US including high impact events such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. For some people Brown’s name might remain controversial but the lessons he can teach us cannot be ignored.
Brown talks exclusively to Ann-Marie Knegt.

Michael Brown on making the public and government officials aware of their responsibilities during, before and after a major disaster.
“Particularly in the US and maybe in the EU as well, the public has a high level of expectations. The public needs to understand that during a disaster the power grids and communication lines can fail, and cannot be restored immediately. Often, elected officials – particularly at a local level – do not really understand what their role is in a disaster, which can lead to confusion when they insert themselves into such an event.
First responders have the incredibly important job of educating government representatives about what their work entails. So it is important to build coalitions with local officials because there is always a shortage of funding in emergency response. My message for government officials is that if you do not understand how emergency response works, or how the integrated command and control works, you will rue the day when disaster strikes.”

Michael Brown on government accountability and media management.
“The public will always scrutinise the fire brigade and rescue workers during a crisis, but if there is not enough equipment or manpower within those fire departments, the attention shifts to the elected officials. As a government should have absolute credibility and legitimacy, its officials will be held accountable when a disaster is handled wrong. In order to prevent this, officials must understand how the systems work and how individuals perform within them. And they should have properly funded that system to the best of their ability.
Officials need to clearly and concisely communicate with the public during a crisis, and the media cannot be ignored in this process or the result will be a loss of confidence in government as well as in first responders, which increases the difficulty of their jobs even more.”

Michael Brown on willingness to learn from other nations.
“International cooperation is absolutely essential in disaster response. In my six years as Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, I used to gain new insights from countries all over the world. However, as soon as I took these back to the United States they would fall on deaf ears.
I am asked to speak in the EU all the time because people are willing to learn from other countries, and I think that Europe as a continent has more willingness to learn than the US.”

Michael Brown on the US refusal of international mutual aid in the aftermath of Katrina.
“Some might see this as a generalisation, but during 9/11 and during Katrina there were offers of assistance from numerous allies and none were accepted. I really objected to that and wanted foreign rescue teams there, because we could have done with more help. However, sometimes as Americans we are a little too arrogant and say that we don’t want any help. There are two reasons for this. The first one is that we are too proud and the second one is that we are not sure how this foreign help might fit in. Of course both arguments are invalid, but I am sure that we need to change this.”

Michael Brown on the balance between planning and exercises.
“On the other side of the coin, responders in the EU incorporate large amounts of planning, and I think they might do that too much. In a disaster such as Katrina, where there is no communication at all, all of those principles go out the window. There is a requirement to establish a healthy balance between planning and exercising, because exercises, whether they are on a table top or in the field, need to be pushed to the point of failure. Only after failing miserably can disaster response teams really understand what their capacity is. More often than not, people tell me that they have conducted a brilliant exercise, because the whole scenario went exactly according to plan. If it did that then they didn’t push it to its limit.”

Michael Brown on turning failure into a success.
“In the US, there is a tendency not to admit to the media that anything in an exercise went wrong, because any failure could then become a story. In a nutshell, the wrong perception is created, even though this failure is actually a success, because all of the command and control structure’s weak points are identified and can be fixed. Also, there is always a concern about putting the command and control structure at risk by revealing all the weak points, so instead the purpose of the exercise needs to be communicated to the media so the failure will not be sensationalised. In our society failure is not seen as acceptable, therefore we need to exercise in different ways outside the limelight, so we can fix our weak points and present the results to the media after having successfully pushed these exercises to the limit.”

Michael Brown on training, education and funding of first responders.
“Not only firefighters – volunteer or professional – are first responders, so are doctors, nurses, ambulance personnel, utility workers and police. We need to get all these people as educated, trained and well funded as we can. I would rather see that more funds are spent on this purpose than on events that are least likely to happen, such as another 9/11. Primarily, FEMA was successful in the handling of that event because we had a very good relationship with the New York City Fire Department and with our USAR teams, which come from local and volunteer fire departments all over the country. Another 9/11 is least likely to happen again, but has huge ramifications, and the better we prepare any fire department within a 100 mile radius of New York City, the better off we are, and this counts for every major city. The better we prepare our local fire departments, the better they will be able to handle every day disasters, and the better they will be prepared when the big event occurs that is least likely to happen.”

  • Operation Florian

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