What we can learn from the Drummonds Mill Fire



Originally posted on my blog July 14th, 2016

As I sat down to write about Bradford’s emergency preparedness plan, I saw on BBC news that a fire had broken out at Drummonds Mill. High levels of carbon monoxide were released into the air. According to the BBC about 100 houses have been evacuated as a precautionary measure, and 100 firefighters were still tackling the fire as I was writing.


So a discussion of Bradford’s emergency preparedness plan couldn’t be more timely.


In researching my book Safer Cities of the Future, I discovered that many urban emergency plans are inadequate. Many such plans in America, for instance, rely on people self-evacuating in private cars. But up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often other remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.


But Bradford has one of the better plans that I’ve seen so far. In my study of 100 urban emergency plans from the top English-speaking cities in the world, I discovered that Bradford’s plan is one the clearest and most concise.


Bradford’s plan is called Don’t Panic: Prepare! It includes useful checklists so that people can determine exactly what they need in an emergency, such as emergency contacts lists, wind-up radios, agreed meeting points, copies of important documents, and contents and building insurance.


But Bradford’s plan isn’t perfect.


Its section on flooding, for example, is a bit vague when it recommends keeping a “flood kit” ready. What’s a flood kit and what should it include? The plan doesn’t say.


Also the Bradford plan’s point about keeping pets safe is a good one, but needs elaboration. It’s not enough just to say that pets should be moved to a safe place.


People in urban emergencies will die trying to look after their pets. Disaster victims return to evacuation zones to save their dogs and cats as they would a loved one. Half of all pet-owners say they would consider defying authorities during a disaster to stay with their pets if they were not allowed to evacuate with them. And in America, owning pets is considered to be the major reason why households without children fail to evacuate in time of emergency.


This is why a place like Kansas City, Missouri, has an Emergency Pet Services Plan. This includes estimates of how many pets and stray animals there are in Kansas City, what sort of equipment may be needed to look after them, which local organizations are meant to do what, as well as sample press releases reminding citizens how to take care of their pets in time of emergency. This is definitely a “best practice” which Bradford and other cities could adopt.


Other elements of Bradford’s plan could be improved with more specific language on exactly what to do. It’s not enough to say “put flood protection equipment in place,” for example. Exactly what this consists of must be spelled out.


Bradford’s plan covers floods, extreme weather, and industrial disasters. But there is no mention of what to do in the event of fire or carbon monoxide pollution. Luckily, authorities reacted quickly, and no one was seriously harmed this time. The Drummonds Mill disaster and its aftermath should be a wake-up call that emergency planning can and should be improved.

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A Serious Reality Check

Charlotte’s emergency plan is a reality check, wake up call, or perhaps a bucket of cold water on the topic of evacuation and our safety in numbers.
Researchers have called most city approaches to these topics “fantasy plans” because they rely on private cars when up to 56% of urbanites don’t own one, citizen self-sufficiency which doesn’t exist, services on evacuation routes which don’t exist, public transit which is rarely mentioned, or “potentially life threatening” measures such as having all roads lead out (contra flow).
On the topic of evacuation, the latest, best advice appears to be in a document issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1984.
Charlotte posted a document called an “Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook” by John Sorensen and Barbara Vogt. It’s a great series of well-researched lessons for emergency plan writers.
Here is the Cliff notes version:
Many people refuse to comply with evacuation orders. We need long warnings for some events such as flooding and shorter warnings for nuclear or chemical events. Emergency managers need to use multiple means of communication — door-to-door, loud speakers, TV, and radio announcements. People need to hear from multiple authorities — the mayor, fire chief, police chief, Red Cross and others, perhaps. People need specifics and definitions of “shelter…evacuation” and such.   
We know much less than we would like about human behaviour and how to influence it (just ask anyone who has been married or has raised children). Assumptions about all this are based on engineering not on actual human behaviour.
When it comes to evacuation, some people come home from work and then leave, others go to find family members at work and then leave, and still others may meet in a neutral place and then leave.
There are shadow evacuations of people near the danger zone. On average 26% of people get out. There are spontaneous evacuations of people who weren’t even asked to leave. People who do leave will return for their pets or to tend to livestock.
Panic is limited and so is anti-social behaviour. Worrisome, though, is the fact that people can become complacent or fatalistic about regular threats. The phenomenon of hurricane parties, which are common in the Southeastern USA, proves this.
Newton’s first law of motion is that a body in motion has a tendency to stay in motion. The Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook notes that people with a household emergency plan are more likely to obey an evacuation order. But in this case, Newton was wrong about a body at rest staying at rest. Evacuees tend to want to return home as soon as possible.   
One observation in the Guidebook is chilling in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on urban safety and the 8,000 or so pages of emergency plans and related research papers I’ve read.
Cities are spending on public education programs, children’s school displays, glossy brochures with pictures of kids and dogs as if preparedness were a fun ride at the fair. The authors of the Guidebook say there’s “…no conclusive evidence regarding whether or not preparedness programs…actually makes a significant difference… [A] good pre-emergency information program will increase response although the amount cannot be estimated. …[A] poor program will not likely make a great overall difference. …[E]ffects will drop off over time…”
My intuition is that the authors are right. This raises the question as to why we are spending so much money on emergency plans?
Don’t get me wrong. There are some very good plans out there. Auckland, NZ, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a natural disaster. Kansas City, MS, has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets including food and shelter. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities. But most plans leave much to be desired, as the Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook implies.
It’s a shame that this excellent document has been removed from the Charlotte city website. It offered hard lessons — maybe too hard for comfort.

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Instilling Vigilance or Promoting Paranoia?

“If you see something, say something.” It’s a trademark slogan of the US Department of Homeland Security that we in North America have heard and seen often. You can find it in railway stations and bus terminals all over the USA, often accompanied by a graphic of a large eye or a phone number for reporting suspicious objects or behaviour.  This slogan has even made it into presidential speeches.


This campaign is meant to instill vigilance. Critics, though, claim that it promotes paranoia and fires up irrational fears. Both may be true.


Either way, does it actually work? It’s up to police to investigate reports that come to them. But are ordinary citizens capable of spotting and reporting suspicious items or people so that police can do their jobs?


Leeds in the United Kingdom has among the most effective and realistic approaches in the world.


In researching my book Safer Cities of the Future, I discovered that many urban emergency plans are inadequate and that discussion of suspicious activity is usually vague and insubstantial.  What are we to look for and whom should we tell?


The “See Something, Say Something” campaign offers little direction.  It refers to “a vehicle parked in an unusual location,” unattended packages, or “other out-of-the-ordinary situations.” But none of these things is well defined. How can American cities count on their citizens to report suspicious things with only this level of vague direction?


This is why I was so intrigued by Leeds City Council’s campaign called “If You Suspect It, Report It.” This campaign involves specific and detailed descriptions of suspicious behaviours and items.


What’s a “suspicious package?”  Leeds is taking no chances.  It isn’t relying on diverse citizens guessing at the definition.  There is a detailed description and even pictures of what a suspicious package looks like.  It’s unusually heavy, tied up with string, oddly shaped or lopsided, hand addressed, with too much postage and perhaps even leaking oil.  There are instructions and a checklist for businesses and mailrooms advising processing all in-coming mail at one place only, training and briefing mailroom staff, and ensuring that workers have protective equipment such as latex gloves and face masks.


And what’s a terrorist look like.  What’s a terrorist’s daily routine?  What are we looking for?  A section of Leeds’ plan is called “Reconnaissance and vigilance at work.” This includes warning about persons with large quantities of mobile phones, people who buy large amounts of chemical products for no obvious reason, or who have multiple pieces of identification.  Does how and where they live raise suspicions, or how they use bank machines?


Business are advised to keep proper audit trails for all aspects of business, to check employees’ references carefully, and to keep computer systems secure – in other words clear and specific proactive, as opposed to reactive, measures.


Very few, if any other urban emergency plans studied are this specific.  Only Louisville, Kentucky advises citizens to be extra careful on special anniversaries—the Roe v Wade Supreme Court abortion decision, the anniversary of the storming of the religious compound in Waco Texas, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, tax freedom day, and such.  These are uniquely American milestones, but there are similar ones in other cultures.


It’s not a bad idea to take emergency preparedness right into our families and homes.  When teenagers start driving, parents aren’t content to hand over the car keys with the advice “drive carefully.”  Most parents get specific—“don’t speed…keep eyes on the road…both hands on the wheel…pull over if tired” and so on.  Cities emergency plans need to be more like thoughtful parents, rather than conduits for advertising slogans.  Leeds proves this is both possible and the safe route to go.  

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Fredericton disaster plan gets failing grade


Last year I was interviewed by CBC Fredericton on their surprising lack of emergency planning. The province’s three major cities need to make major improvements in their emergency plans. This is crucial stuff

Allan Bonner, a crisis management consultant, says the province’s three major cities need to make major improvements in their emergency plans. (CBC)
An expert in disaster management gives Fredericton a failing grade when it comes to emergency response plans, and he says Moncton and Saint John aren’t much better.
He says Fredericton’s emergency preparedness website has links to federal and provincial sites, but lacks specifics.
“It’s a failing grade,” said Bonner.
He says he expected more guidance, especially about evacuation plans in the event of a disaster.
For example, “In other cities they have the number of buses, the number of bus drivers, the capacity of the public transit system,” said Bonner.
Fredericton city councillor Bruce Grandy said via email that, speaking for himself, the city could do more.
“I know we have some plans at the city and we connect to the plans the province has, but it never hurts for the city to have a more comprehensive look at the gaps and other areas.”
Moncton, Saint John get a passing grade
Bonner says he would give Moncton a C-plus for personal preparedness. He says the city’s emergency preparedness site includes useful information, such as what to pack in a “Go-bag” in case of the need for a swift evacuation.
However, he points out that Moncton’s municipal emergencies measures plan includes only an executive summary. He said the larger plan should be made public.
“I’d like to see more concrete direction to people in Moncton on where to go, what to do,” said Bonner.
Isabelle LeBlanc, a spokesperson for the City of Moncton, says portions of the plan are not made public for security reasons.
Bonner gave the Saint John emergency management website a grade of C, saying it includes no mention of Point Lepreau. the oil refinery, or climate change.

“I used to live in Saint John and I was expecting some reference to the Point Lepreau nuclear plant,” he said, pointing out that other jurisdictions with nuclear power plants have elaborate evacuation plans.
In fact, the province has a comprehensive EMO website that includes information on nuclear safety and in November completed Operation Intrepid, a nuclear emergency preparedness exercise.
Bonner says that kind of information needs to be on the Saint John city website in detail.
CBC News reached out to the City of Saint John for comment, but has not received a response.


Originally posted here:

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A Fine Way To Make Money

I was part of a routine traffic stop a while back.  My old, old car was missing its front license plate. After about an hour with the police officer, I was issued a ticket.  He noted in conversation about four times that many owners of specialty or vintage cars didn’t install their front plate because they felt it didn’t look nice.  How interesting.  I noted the rust on the bumper and speculated it rusted off.  I speculated it got bumped off while parking.  I suggested vandals stole my license plate.

I finally said, “I have no reason not to have a front plate.”  The fine was $80.  I took it to a police station where another officer wondered why the first had bothered to give me a ticket.

Toronto makes up to $100 million dollars in revenue from traffic tickets.  This is fine with me.  In fact I have done my civic duty and told some officers in my neighbourhood about a new revenue stream for them.  In addition to catching people who turn left at the wrong time of day, I suggested that ticketing cars that run the stop signs half a block away would produce as much revenue and result in more safety.  Turning left just slows down traffic. But running stop signs is a real hazard to pedestrians.  Police are training to remain calm and not betray emotion, so I didn’t see the look of exuberant gratitude on their faces.  

What I’d do is put the cops on the trail of the proverbial really bad guys, and replace them with a camera to take a picture of the left-turners and send it to their homes.  This would be just like on the ski hill or cruise, except it would cost more and be a mandatory purchase.  I’d put another camera at the stop signs and send out more pictures.    

I’d buy a camera for the police officer who told me repeatedly of the preference of car collectors, instruct him to take a picture of the front end of offending cars, keep one for his collection and send me one with a fine.  My city would be rolling in money.

Why this fixation with cameras?  Many routine traffic stops have resulted in damages, injuries, and death.  We need a new approach.  The infamous Watts riot of 1965 resulted in about $45 to $100 million in damages—in 1965 dollars.  There were also 32 deaths and 874 injuries.  The Watts riot started when police pulled over a person suspected of driving drunk.  A struggle ensue.  Crowds formed and the rest is history.

On July 23rd 1967, Detroit police raided an unlicensed bar.  Inside were 82 black people celebrating the return of two GIs from Vietnam.  Police decided to arrest everyone.  Somebody threw a bottle at a police officer.  Confrontations resulted in one of the most destructive riots in US history, lasting five days.  Police didn’t have the staff to control the evolving riot because it was a Sunday.  This is the event that became “Black Day in July”-the song by Gordon Lightfoot and MC5’s “Motor City is Burning” from their 1969 proto-punk album Kick Out the Jam.    

In the end 16 people were killed and 493 wounded, including members of the 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, the Michigan Army National Guard, a Detroit Police Officer and two members of the Detroit Fire Department.  Damage was $40 to $80 million.

I bet the thought has crossed the minds of some of the victims’ family members about whether 82 people celebrating the return of GIs from Vietnam was so grievous an infraction that it required arresting everyone and this kind of escalation.  There must be other revenue sources.

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Less an Architect Than a Visionary Planner of Planetary Ambitions

Long before the TV show Madmen, artist and oddball Salvador Dali noted that the difference between him and a madman, is that he’s not a madman.  Point taken.

Every now and then though, you have to be armed for dinner parties with stories of mad people.  One of the best to bring up is Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.  Adopting France, he became an essayist, painter, architect, and planner.  He also adopted the name Le Corbusier.  Pretty well all books on urbanism, planning, design, and architecture make a few comments on this nut.  I’ve just read James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State and am reminded of just how nutty.    

Scott turns a witty phrase by calling him “less an architect than a visionary planner of planetary ambitions.”  He was mainly a paper architect, meaning that most of his schemes never got built.  But Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab in India and a big apartment complex in Marseilles (L’Unite d’Habitation) did.  He sampled from revolutionary syndicalism and utopian modernism.  This flexibility allowed him to design in Soviet Russia and in Vichy France for Marshal Petain.  

One must be able to discuss Jeanneret (Corbu) because the Athens Charter of the Congres Internationalaux d’Architecture Moderne (CAIM) reflects his views.  The most powerful architects of the time, organized by Corbu, used a series of meetings between 1929 and 1959 to promote modernism.  When discussing this, it’s good to work in Pierre Jeanneret, Corbu’s cousin who also attended.      

Corbu was the Mr. Big of urban planning, with one example being a housing scheme for about 90,000 residents in Rio de Janeiro.  He didn’t care if anything fit in with anything else—he was content to supplant if not destroy.  “We must refuse to afford even the slightest concession to what is:  to the mess we are in now” said he.  

He liked order and the linear.  Apparently he was also a spokesperson for machines.  “We claim, in the name of the steamship, the airplane, and the automobile, the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection.”  Before him, modes of transport did not have a voice.

As Scott points out, some of Jeanneret’s drawings show he may not have even liked cities.  His plan for Paris is from afar.  Buenos Aires is seen from miles out at sea–five shiny bumps that must be buildings reflected in the water.   Rio is seen as if from miles up in an airplane, and so is Alsace—mainly featuring the striations of ploughing or crop growing.  

If you want to one-up dinner companions in the fashionable suburbs who quote from his 1933 book The Radiant City, just retort, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”  It doesn’t matter what he said, it’s that he would say it.   

In fairness to Jeanneret, he advocated the “prefabrication of houses and office blocks, whose parts were built at factories and then assembled at the building sites.”  This is a good idea and should be more prevalent.  I refer to these factories machines for making machines for living in.  This will be too clever by half (as the Brits say) for those who know the Jeanneret quote, “a house is a machine for living in.”

Another quote is his “death of the street” because he didn’t like people and cars mixing, or even slow cars and fast cars.  He also advocated segregation of city districts by function.  He liked communal food preparation and laundry to save space, ignoring, as Scott points out that much of food preparation is a private event for families.     

Jeanneret lives on in our cities, getting the last chuckle if not belly laugh in the ‘park-like settings’ and other unused space between huge apartment blocks.

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All Bound For Morningtown!

In the children’s songs, Morningtown ride (1957 Malvina Reynolds), girls and boys under their blankets are “All bound for Morningtown/Many miles away.”  This refrain is repeated until near the end when we hear that “Somewhere there is Morningtown/Many miles away.”

I sang this song many times (badly) to my boys.  The technique of indicating there’s a train voyage which will take time and cause the boys to arrive “[m]any miles away” is a nice mix of time and place.  So is the notion that the name of the place is a combination of a time of day (Morning) and a settlement of people (town).  

John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost uses a similar combination of precision and vagueness to describe Hell in his quest to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Metaphors are invaluable when soothing children, and when trying to describe and probe the almost unfathomable.

But why would emergency plan writers use this technique?  

Brisbane, Australia advocates “[c]areful planning” in advance of a decision on whether to evacuate.  Fair enough.  In fact the plan suggests ensuring that people “would be significantly safer at another location.”  Readers are also encouraged to determine if the risks of moving to another location are less than the risks of staying put.  

This all makes sense, until you think seriously about what this might mean to a person facing a risk.  Does it make sense to someone who will have to make the life and decision about whether to call for an urban evacuation?  In fact it just might delay information gathering or the decision.  What is careful planning?  Is there a lot of dangerous planning going on that we need to correct?  How much safer is “significantly” safer.  Is this a statistical significance or a qualitative one?  Is “safer” measured in discomfort, injuries, or death?  

Comparing risks is a good idea.  There’s no such thing as no risk.  Some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency.  Moving the elderly and hospital patients probably reduces life expectancy in many cases.  But how shall one measure the risk in one location, the risk of moving people, and the risk of locating people elsewhere?  We are none the wiser by reading Brisbane’s plan.

Waterloo advocates developing a list of “reliable” contractors, but doesn’t actually list them.  

In Tampa they’re pretty precise.  Their Emergency Operations Plan stipulates that “every attempt will be made to obtain the assigned driver or drivers who are familiar” with certain types of vehicles.  Good idea.  There are good reasons why heavy equipment operators, school bus drivers, and 18 wheeler drivers need training and special drivers’ licenses.  Putting a cabbie at the wheel of a school bus or highway coach may be more live-threatening than leaving people in the danger zone.  

Another way of creating the impression of precision is through using words with lots of syllables.  “Procuring” seems more precise than “buying” and yet the end result is still the same—obtaining something.  When someone says s/he will “utilize” a technique, the impression given is that more thought has gone into this than from someone who is just going to “use” a technique.  Wrong, but a strong impression.

Tampa will “ascertain” the type and location of “all” available transportation vehicles.  

Houston uses a combination of vague weakness and proscriptive strength in its dictum that “[l]aw enforcement will request wrecker services needed to promptly respond and clear disabled vehicle impediments …”  Leaving aside how a “disabled vehicle” differs from a “disabled vehicle impediment”, Houston will need an order not a “request.”

This mock-precision does not take the place of actually doing the work described.  Make a list.  Check it twice.  Stop nattering about what a good idea a list would be.

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Judging a Rusty Book By The Cover

I judged a book by its cover recently—Beyond Rust seemed like it would be a good read.  I’d learn more about Pittsburgh and the phenomenon known as the rust belt, and how some rusty areas came back.  The Pittsburgh Renaissance was aided by the Alleghany Conference and public private partnerships.  Through these efforts, thousands of acres of strip and otherwise mined land became parks.  New roads allowed more mobility and the modernization of tourist areas.

The author is an historian who has well documented the facts.  But facts need defining, ordering, and context.  Is the Pittsburgh Renaissance (capital R) just a name for the comeback of a great city?  Or is it a duly constituted organization with articles of association, letters patent, or incorporation?  The Alleghany Conference (capital C) seems to be a body, the membership in which and its mission is not discussed in any detail.  As for public private partnerships, this may mean nothing as in the current ubiquitous use of “our partners” in government or “we’ll partner up with…”.  Or it may mean some spot on the continuum of design, build, finance, maintain (DBFM).

The book often feels like one of those history books or local access TV documentaries on a small prairie city.  You have to know who and what is being talked about to know what’s being talked about.

But there are some nuggets.  We get the local perspective on the “coal wars” a time of industrial strife that caused more death in America than modern terrorism.  There are snippets on the fight for industrial safety and the use of new technology and mining techniques to generate prosperity, but reduce jobs.  Industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s steal works and mergers, and the emergence of US Steal is covered, and the region’s contribution to the war effort.     

During the daytime, people sometimes had to drive with headlights on and windshield wipers wiping because of industrial smoke.  Some smoky days killed people—reminiscent of the old Soviet East Block.  It was in Pittsburgh that fights for clean air took hold.  

This book deals with more than just a few important subjects.  One is the notion of ‘roads to jobs’ — still a notion applied to transport in cities.  Road improvement in Pittsburgh was supposed to connect areas of high unemployment with expanding suburbs.  Another is the value of sports stadia.  A third is the gigantic shopping centre—often called The Golden Mile or Miracle Mile.  And then there’s that great clean industry–tourism.      

There are a few cautionary tales in these themes which run through urban planning literature.  First, the Cambridge/Boston area high technology companies may be as much a function of being near several great universities as the quality of the paving.  If pavement were the key to riches, New Brunswick would be wealthy as a result of more miles of pavement per capita than most jurisdictions.  As for sports stadia, they do seem to make money for team owners through the rental of boxes, parking, concession sales and such.  But what the average citizen gets out of the deal has not been studied well.  And these days, shopping centres are being repurposed as office space, accommodation, or just being left abandoned.  

The fact is that there are only so many discretionary dollars to go around.  You may get to repurpose a few, but you won’t create much new money with any of these initiatives.

One of the tourism ventures covered in the book was the restoration of Ohiopyle House, a 37 room hotel.  Just after opening arson destroyed it—“mountain justice” said many locals who didn’t like change, being forced to move, sell their homes, or otherwise didn’t see the wisdom in developers and planners efforts.

We’re not entirely beyond rust.  

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The Witty Professor

My witty high school teacher used to ask questions in class.  How many here want a particular lesson—raise your hands.  How many here will be attending the event Friday afternoon—raise your hands, and so on.  Then came the wit.  “If anyone is not here, please raise your hand.”

Equally nutty is the use of devices which need power to notify people that they have no power.   

But reputable, big cities do it.  Waterloo, Ontario, in the heart of Canada’s technology triangle does it.  Nova Scotia Power has a website (viewable from plugged in computers) which has a map showing exactly where the power is off.  The fact that if you have no power you can’t see this is perhaps lost on NS Power.   

I have made this point via Tweets and Toronto Hydro has responded. They understood my point, but that many of their stakeholders preferred social media alerts. One assumes this is a preference even if those who prefer it can’t get it.  Get it?

I suspect you think I’m being cranky because hand held devices are everywhere and many users prefer to receive all communication and notifications on them.  More than 50% of all Google searches are now via handheld devices.  And you’re probably thinking that batteries will hold up until the power is back on.  Perhaps, but probably not.  Power outages last longer on average, than the life of smart-phone batteries, according to some studies.  Most young people sleep with their hand-helds on so that the alarm will wake them in the morning. That means they start the day with limited battery life.  

They seem to recognize the danger in Baltimore—sort of.  The power company does provide an “Outage Map” which tells citizens in real time what areas have no power.  But that’s on the power company’s website, so it may be of no use.  It also encourages citizens to report outages.  So, for all those without power who cannot use their computers, please report to us on devices which require power.  

But Baltimore also notes that 25% of power outages last more than four hours—perhaps the battery life left after a hand-held has been on all night, or has been used for music or streaming for a bit.  

“They’ll charge up when the power comes back on,” you say?  Perhaps, but probably not.  The power coming back on will cause a stampede to the few available plugs in shopping centres and the subway system.  But if people can charge up, they may be able to see where the power was off when they had no power to determine exactly where the power was off, but now on.    

Calgary appears to be hoping to use radio to communicate with the public, even though a radio station’s transmitter burned down in Fort McMurray recently.

Emergency response should not be a fad.  The current lingo of “I Tweeted it out…it’s on the web…I blogged it…I sent an Instagram…” does not mean that any communication of any sort occurred.  Communication is two-way.  There must be a sender and a receiver.  A receiver is not a person who doesn’t know s/he should look at a transmission, or can’t because there’s no power.  A receiver is someone who gets a message, understands it, and in the context of emergency response, takes some action.

There are best practices in urban emergency communication.  These include lawn signs, LED signs on trucks, loud speakers, door knob hangers, door-to-door visits, auto-dialing, and, for the disabled, setting off strobe lights and turning on radios powered by batteries.

Good, modern emergency response has to be both low tech, and high tech.  But most of all it has to make sense.  

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What to Wear


In 1967 Singer/Songwriter Scott MacKenzie (Philip Wallach Blondheim) gave some advice that may still hold.  “If you’re going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear/Some flowers in your hair.”  I did go, several times.  I dined at the Cliff House, Fisherman’s Wharf, and put a quarter in the human jukebox.  The human jukebox occupied a very tall cardboard box and would raise the cardboard flap and blow a tune on his trumpet when called upon.    

MacKenzie sang his advice after being a member of the Journeymen during the folk era, the group that included his mum’s friend John Phillips.  Phillips wrote and co-produced San Francisco before moving on to The Mamas and the Papas.  MacKenzie wrote for Anne Murray.  Phillips and MacKenzie reunited in the 1980s in a new Mamas and Papas and to write and produce Kokomo for the Beach Boys.   

That was a while ago. But today I’d wear red if I were going to Kansas City, Missouri.  The reason is their START program.  This stands for Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment.  Volunteers will be conducting triage at the scene of an urban emergency using a color-coded system.  From the bottom up, Green stands for a minor injury, Yellow means attention can be delayed, Red requires immediate attention and Black is for Deceased.  

I say volunteers because in an emergency, as in war, everybody gets promoted one rank.  It will no doubt be someone’s intention to have trained medical personnel conduct triage, but they will end up providing actual medical treatment, not assessment.  A range of volunteers, medical students, yoga instructors and others will be doing triage—believe me.

Will they know what a dead person looks like?  Do you?  I am not sure I can distinguish a dead person from someone in extreme shock or a coma.  Years ago I saw people in catatonic trances before medication all but made the condition disappear.  They looked dead, but weren’t.  I don’t want to bet my life that a well-meaning volunteer with no medical training in Kansas City can.  So, I’ll wear red, signalling I need immediate attention and am not dead.  

In Houston they too have a triage guideline that I don’t want to be part of.  Black is also the category you don’t want to be in.  But in Houston there are several levels of dead—cardiac arrest, obviously deceased, and severe multiple blunt trauma non-survivable. That last category is probably more accurately termed ‘almost’ dead to be precise.  By deceased, Houston plan writers also mean “Non-Urgent.”  What an ‘urgent’ death might be is not stated.     

Speaking of the color black, as in the Black Death, San Francisco uses this color to signify the worst kind of emergency needing immediate attention.  So if this city is in the category “black” it’s a clue to send all possible assistance.  If a person in Houston or Kansas City is the category “black” that means give them no assistance—there’s no point.  

Perhaps on second thought I’ll wear a sign that says, “I’m not dead…really.”

Birmingham seems almost alone among urban emergency plans studied in its reference to the need for an emergency mortuary.  But that’s a reality check for urban emergency planners and the people who will have to use the plans they write.

There will be death–death of pets, livestock, and people.  Traumatic as this will be, the public health implications and logistical challenges will be an equal or greater challenge.  Some have talked about pre-arranged agreements with undertakers.  Others think of using hockey and curling rinks to store bodies.  Kansas City’s pet-plan is about the most comprehensive and speaks of incinerators and crematoriums.  

This is not pleasant.  But not planning for the unpleasant is worse.      

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