On Line At New York

Outside the Helen Hayes Theatre, waiting for the doors to open, a very agitated male teenager passed on the sidewalk.  He was walking briskly and talking in a loud voice with himself.  He was also gesticulating, and in so-doing was using up all the free airspace in all directions.

“What’s the matter with him?” asked the woman on the line ahead of me.

“’T’s an angry young man.  What can I tell you?” replied her husband, as indulgent as he could sound.

This was my introduction to blasé New Yorkers.

Slowly the line shortened and I was up at the wicket at Lincoln Center.  I was mostly interested in seeing the spectacular setting and inside of the 16 acre site—home of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.  I was ready to listen or watch.  As it became my turn at the wicket, I asked:

“What’s playing?”  

Wicket keeper:  “Joo-lee-us Cee-ah.”

I guess I paused for a New York beat too long, so wicket man added:

“’Ts an Apra”

I bought a ticket and achieved all my goals.  

I would regularly walk on near the Ed Sullivan Theatre, home of the old David Letterman Show.  I watched the show on hundreds of occasions, and was in the studio audience several times.  I’d  occasionally stop in to chat with Rupert Gee, the deli-operator who was also a regular guest on Letterman.  Rupert is as he appears on TV—a little startled with the attention, but sincere.

On one occasion there was a big crowd extending down the block.  I thought perhaps Rupert was having a sale of special deli sandwiches.

No, it was a lineup to see someone coming in or leaving the stage door of the theatre.  This is where the guests came and went.  This time I was the talkative New York street performer:

“Who’s all this for?”

“Wa-keen Phoenix” said my fellow street performer.

This was early in Mr Phoenix’s career.  I guess after all my trips to New York I still paused a New York moment too long, because an older woman in the crowd showed some empathy:

“Ever since Frank Sinatra died, I don’t know any of them.

Way out in the Rockaways, I ran out of gas.  My GPS told me there was a gas station close by and so I locked my wife in the car and began walking.  The GPS was wrong and the gas station had closed.  I thought of lining up at a bus stop, but didn’t know how often busses came or where they went.  I lined up at a red light and thought I’d hitch hike.  Up came a convertible Thunderbird.  I could see inside and the driver could see me.  I explained my situation and asked for a ride.

“Sure” he said as he started moving a mountain of stuff off his passenger seat to the small spaces in the back of the car and between the seats.

“Oh, don’t worry, if you see my gun, I’m a cop.”

I pointed to a spot of blood on my shirt, and said:

“Great, and if you notice the blood on my shirt, I’m not an axe murderer, I just reached into my shaving kit this morning and cut my finger on my razor.”

“No problem.  Get in.”

Unlike so many New York stories, this man was a cop, seconded to the Triborough Bridge, and I wasn’t an axe murderer.  Many people go to the Big Apple to reinvent themselves.  Others remain who they actually are.      

Boston’s Wake Up Call

Where I live in Canada, Boston is well known for a few things. First, it’s “Maritimers’ Heaven.” Folks from the Canadian provinces bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, think Boston is pretty special and sophisticated. Boston is also known as a tough town.

Boston’s urban emergency plan and the Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change are a couple of tough documents, befitting a tough town. Boston’s not fooling around or mincing words. Alone among the 100 city emergency plans I’ve studied, Boston notes that it only has food on hand for 3-5 days and many facilities are located in a flood zone. So a severe winter storm or torrential rain could cause widespread hunger.

Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

But it turns out that Boston is actually doing something about the weather, and that makes it a leader in urban emergency planning. The Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change shows the way.   

A combination of sea level rising and soil erosion could spell big trouble for cities on water.

What’s the threat? Boston’s excellent emergency plan notes that the weather in Massachusetts may be more like the Carolinas by the end of this century. Since 1991 most of Boston’s emergencies have been caused by flooding.  There’s been a bad winter storm almost every year in Boston and winter precipitation could rise by 16% according to the Mayor’s climate change report.  One hundred year floods could occur every 2 or 3 years by 2050.  

There are already hundreds of deaths per year in the US because of extreme heat and that could get worse as Boston warms up. When the temperature goes up, crime in the streets goes down, but domestic violence goes up. Heat means more danger for the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Heat means more sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and other diseases.

There is an alarming inventory of vulnerable facilities in Boston, including those which will be needed to respond to emergencies — schools, 1500 units of public housing, 430 miles of roads, half the Centers for Youth & Families, one-third of all emergency shelters and more than 900 critical facilities are susceptible to flooding. Many ambulances are parked on streets and thus immobile in a snowstorm. Even the roof leaks in the Emergency Operations Center.     

Flooding is also a major health hazard since it circulates pollutants. Heat brings in new insects and diseases, such as West Nile.  

Somebody in Boston has done world class research, such as noting that the 1929 Newfoundland tsunami which killed 28 people—a fact many Canadians wouldn’t know.

Someone has actually noted the dangers of the weather in outer space. Solar storms could disable 300 large transformers in the US and cut power to 130 million people.  

Here’s where Boston is doing more than talking. A park on “Parcel 5” has been designed to help with drainage and surging tides. Boston’s plan calls for elevating and relocation boilers, electrical panels and computers. There’s also talk of modifying work schedules, spray mists and water stations at outdoor events. It’s not enough to use water pumps to keep roadways open during floods, Boston is talking about using absorbent paving materials.  New types of asphalt will absorb and even filter water so it can go back into the drinking water supply, not into people’s basements.

There’s always more work to be done. More trees and landscaping is a solution to both heat and flooding. About 35% of Bostonians don’t have a private vehicle, 10% are over 65, and 22% have disabilities. How will Boston evacuate neighbourhoods or move people around during an emergency? Where will the food come from?

Boston’s plan proves that simple, innovative solutions can save money and lives.

First Order of Political Business

Citizens who are hard at work, raising children, going to school and raising social capital might assume that there’s a good division of labour in the community.  They’d be right to assume that the first duty of politicians is to keep citizens safe and thus political leaders have lead the police, fire, EMS, and other first responders to make effective emergency plans.


But this isn’t always the case.


Many world cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.


Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist. Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.


Where does Auckland, New Zealand fit in? Auckland’s Emergency Management Group Plan 2010-2015 is a wake up call for the rest of the world. In a study that I conducted of 100 urban emergency plans from the top English-speaking cities in the world, none face up to lack of preparedness the way Auckland does. Auckland’s plan notes that only about 7% of its residents are prepared for an emergency. This means go bags, first aid kits, stiffening up homes for high winds, preparing for floods and so forth. For a city built in a volcanic field, this may seem alarmingly low, but it’s the truth.  Some Ontario response officials claim that 50% of the population is prepared, and I don’t believe it.


Knowing the impact of a disaster can be a good first step to preparing for it. So Auckland’s plan also notes the economic consequences of disasters. The estimate is that a severe natural event such as a volcano could have a catastrophic economic impact. Page 8 of the plan notes that there could be a reduction in GDP of 47% in the city of Auckland and 14% nationally. This is double the impact of the Great Depression.


Compare this to San Francisco’s plan, for instance, and you’ll see what an improvement Auckland’s plan is. San Francisco’s Hazard Mitigation Plan includes a section on “seismic hazards.” Surprisingly this is mostly about distinguishing among earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis. A brief history of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the event of those emergencies, nor any assessment of the effect that they might have.


Why don’t cities in California note the potential negative impact of an earthquake? How about American cities in Tornado Alley? What about the impact of climate change on cities everywhere?

No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take. Auckland’s plan rightly notes that “it is not possible to completely remove risk.” It’s important to be flexible and realistic.  Too few cities use pictures to show the risk the way Auckland does, and I don’t recall one that speaks of the “emotional, social, economic and physical well being of individuals and communities.”  There might be one other city that notes the danger from solar winds.  The right kind of storm can knock out power to 131 million Americans, but I don’t see Americans particularly worried about this.

There’s always room for improvement in evacuation, shelter in place, emergency kits, and so on.  But Auckland is on a better track than the vast majority of plans I’ve seen.

For Safety’s Sake…Think Again

We often assume the police, fire, EMS, mayor, and other first responders are fulfilling their duties to keep us safe.


But according to my studies of plans from the top 100 English-speaking cities in the world, this isn’t always the case.


Many of our cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.


Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist.  Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.  Contra-flow for evacuations, with all roads leading out, has been called potentially life-threatening by researchers.  


Where does San Francisco fit in?


San Francisco has two main emergency plans: the All-Hazards Strategic Plan and the Hazard Mitigation Plan


The biggest strength of San Francisco’s All-Hazards Strategic Plan is the emphases on a comprehensive training program for city workers, the use of volunteers, and social media.


But the All-Hazards plan was last updated six years before I studied it, and the plan has not followed the maintenance schedule set for it. Moreover, when I studied it, I found myself wondering whether anyone is really safer as a result of reading San Francisco’s statements describing how the plan was developed or what the visions, missions, and guiding principles of it are. It’s hard to see how these help anyone prepare for an emergency, but they take up about a quarter of the plan.


The Hazard Mitigation Plan is different. It’s newer that the All-Hazards plan. But it has some of the same problems.


The Hazard Mitigation Plan is full of very general statements and is often overly preoccupied with semantics definitions. The section on “seismic hazards,” for example is mostly about distinguishing earthquakes from landslides and tsunamis. A brief history of the effect of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the even of those emergencies.  How does it help  victims to be absolutely sure they are being swept away by a landslide versus a tsunami or earthquake?


It looks as though San Francisco’s plans were not intended for the general public. They offer hardly any information on individualized, micro-level measures that citizens can take to prepare themselves to deal with emergencies.


No city’s crisis plan is perfect. But a good plan can mean the difference between a well-handled crisis and disaster which can cost lives.


Some other cities’ emergency plans do have something serious to say — Boston’s climate change study, Kansas City’s dealing with pets, for whom residents will risk their lives, and Richmond, B.C.’s links to great information on personal preparedness. These are just some of the elements that stand out and which could be duplicated by other cities.


If San Francisco or any other city lacks the money or time to write a better plan, the best advice from publicly available plans could be cut and paste it into a better document than is on most websites in North America.


Some of the plans, including San Francisco’s may have been updated in the months since I read them. No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take, so it’s important to be flexible and learn from the experiences of other cities.  But the main focus should be on useful, clear information for the average citizen.  

The City of the Future


I’ve always thought of Seattle as a symbol of modernity.  Growing up in Vancouver, I viewed the Space Needle as an example of American prosperity and progress.  It reached toward outer space while the monorail sleeked along the ground toward the future.  I now live in Toronto, but visit Seattle when I can, to keep in touch with the future. 


The world almost missed getting these two lasting symbols from the 1962 World’s Fair.  The Fair was originally going to be called The Festival of the West, as hard as it is to mix cowboys and technology—Broncos and Boeing.  More futuristic heads prevailed and the fair became known as the Century 21 Exposition with the motto “Living in the Space Age.”  The Fair turned a profit and left a legacy of civic amenities and revitalization. 


Edward E. Carlson, one of the great civic boosters of any time and any city, extracted a victory within a victory.  He famously drew the Space Needle on a napkin, obtained funding for the project, started it a little late, but finished on time.  The Space Needle retired it’s debt in 18 months.  It now has a new pod for more weddings and parties.


My book Safer Cities of the Future is a study of better urban experiences through better design.  I began the book with a picture of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline.  I recounted the story of Mr Carlson and the world’s fair as an example that we get things right occasionally.


It’s a lifetime later and Mr. Carlson and Seattle should be remembered for success and foresight.  But now we have new challenges — terrorism, a sluggish economy, severe weather events and little faith in space, the future, or in anything.  This is where Seattle can lead the world again.


Seattle’s All Hazards Mitigation plan is one of the best I’ve studied. It offers a very realistic view of the risk of floods, earthquakes, and terrorism. The plan notes, for example, that 32.75% of Seattle’s housing stock was built before 1939, an astonishingly high percentage considering that the seismic building code dates from 1992. If there were a serious earthquake, the damage could be enormous and could come at a very high cost. Seattle’s plan notes that property damage claims against the city have totalled as much as $12 million since 2006. In the event of a serious storm or earthquake the cost would be exponentially higher.


Seattle’s plan also includes a detailed summary of activities to mitigate the impact of earthquakes. These include upgrades to buildings to correct structural deficiencies, disaster recovery needs for all IT systems, and replacement of older underground cables. And the plan notes that city departments, the police, and public utilities have all received briefings and training in order to prepare them for seismic events.


These are all steps in the right direction. But Seattle’s plan could be improved by including specific instructions for residents on what to do or where to go in the event of earthquakes, floods, or other disasters; what to take with them; and even how to ensure the safety of their pets.


Don’t get me wrong: no plan is perfect, and there are some very good plans out there that Seattle could borrow from. Auckland, New Zealand, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a volcanic eruption. Kansas City has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities.
Most plans leave much to be desired.  But Seattle’s is a template for progress.  

Stirred, not Shaken


Every now and then the topic of earthquakes comes up in Vancouver.  The most recent event was the 4.8 quake on 29 December, 2015.  I have worked on the topic of earthquakes for federal authorities for some years and continue to follow the issue.

Vancouver’s emergency planning documents put the risk of an earthquake in perspective.  They note that 60% of Vancouver’s building stock was built before seismic building codes.   There’s been no damaging earthquake in modern times and so all these buildings are vulnerable. 

Interestingly, my father was partly responsible for construction of one of the first earthquake resistant buildings in Vancouver — 200 Granville Square.  I remember first hearing about earthquakes when I lived in Burnaby in the late 1960s.  I was a young teenager and my father was General Manager of “Project 200”, an early attempt to revamp the waterfront.  Nobody played nicely, not even consortium members Woodwords, Canadian Pacific, Grosvenor Lang, or Sears.  City planners didn’t react quickly or lead the discussion, and neither the federal nor provincial government seemed interested.  Project 200 is another story—a missed opportunity.  But the earthquake resistant building is highly relevant today.


There was a lot made about Granville Square.  It was among the first density transfers of its kind in North America with my father having to help obtain a mortgage for the air above the CP railway tracks.  Usually mortgages are for land and buildings, but this building was built on stilts above the CP railway tracks. 

While this deal was being done and the building designed, my father would regale us at the dinner table about his day at work.  One day it was the promotional copy that told of the “giant pedestrian mall” that would abut Granville Square.  “And where will you find the giant pedestrians?” I asked.  Another night my father toyed with some promotional copy that would tell the story of Granville Square being the only building left standing after a major earthquake.  He thought it would be fun to tell potential tenants that they’d be able to work in peace, quiet, and safety, if only they could climb over the rubble of all the other buildings in the city.


In those days, earthquake-proofing a building meant constructing sockets, lined with neoprene on which concrete pillars stood, which in turn held up the building.  My father said he had no idea what neoprene ended up like after he’d put a building weighing many hundreds of tonnes on top of it.  He certainly had no idea how to perform maintenance on the assembly after construction.


Now, Vancouver’s plan goes well beyond building materials. Memoranda of Understanding with other Canadian cities are now part of the plan in order to ensure rapid deployment of resources after a disaster.  Similarly, the Vancouverites are recommended to reduce dependency on electricity and natural gas grids and develop back-up power sources. Even if buildings are still standing after an earthquake, supply lines and energy infrastructure might be severely damaged or destroyed.


Even the best-designed earthquake-proof building might need to be evacuated in case of fire or other emergency. This is why Vancouver’s plan requires buildings’ structural drawings and fire plans to be copied and stored centrally in order to speed-up assessment of complex and high occupancy dwellings.

There’s more to be done in Vancouver and neighbouring cities.  Some have designated disaster routes (DDRs) and others don’t.  Some link to useful provincial government preparedness documents, and others don’t. We’ve never sure how many individual citizens are well prepared and would rather not find out after an earthquake.   

Flight Out of Danger

It’s hard to warn people to stay clear of dangerous situations. Motorists will remove road barriers and drive right into danger. They’ll even use logging roads to get around road closures. Vague direction to “be aware” or “take shelter” may be misunderstood or ignored by many.


For the most part, urban emergency plans are dominated by vague jargon and buzzwords. Aspirational statements about emergencies abound, but few plans offer real solutions to crisis situations, or even realistic language.

But thankfully, Jacksonville/Duval County has taken a few steps in the right direction when it comes to public safety. Instead of vague directions to stay safe, Jacksonville provides vivid descriptions of the danger. A hurricane is described as “…a bulldozer clearing everything in its path…” Flying debris in a windstorm is called “…a battering ram destroying objects in its way…”


This sort of language is a wake up call for people who have not lived through a serious storm and just think of high winds or a big wave of water as good fun.

I might need similar creativity to help Floridians understand the danger in a Canadian snow storm. I wouldn’t want people thinking of big fluffy flakes of snow, as in a Disney cartoon. I’d want them to think about thousands of pins and needles hitting their faces, flesh freezing in minutes, and air so cold it’s hard to breathe.

There’s another reality check in Jacksonville. The plan notes that “temperature-related deaths in Florida exceed those caused by hurricanes and tornadoes combined.” For all those who go to Florida for the warm weather, this is a useful alert.

Most of the 100 urban emergency plans that I studied don’t have Jacksonville’s creative and effective way of describing a threat.


Some use Quantitative Risk Analysis (QRA) with complex formulae 
and decimal points. These are lost on most people, including me, and I’ve been trained in QRA. Others have the useful direction to make sure your drinking water isn’t poison after a flood, but no indication of how to do this. Jacksonville is a leader in plain speaking and simple warnings.

It’s also smart to use the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Dora to remind people of the danger and pictures to tell the story, including vividly showing a storm surge.

No plan is perfect. There’s work to be done on Jacksonville’s plan too. The public doesn’t need or understand the pages of legal authorities, information on appeals to FEMA, 18 pages of civic boosterism, and less than fascinating acts. Is the public any safer reading that “…the PW goes to the FCO for approval. If there is a disagreement on the PW, it is returned to the applicant for resolution of the discrepancy. The second review, conducted by FEMA staff, is done before final approval of the FCO. If the PW is approved, it is forwarded to the ECO for approval.”


The language here could be simplified, but I wonder if that information is really necessary at all.

Official responders don’t need their own job descriptions in a plan. Nevertheless, the Jacksonville plan includes these. Jacksonville’s plan also includes something that they call the “Planning P”: an informational graphic designed to explain how to assess and respond to a threat. The “Planning P” may be good graphic art, but it’s unique in the emergency response field and not easily understood. Best to stick with plain English.


Windshileld surveys (driving around) and flyovers are out of date now that drones have been invented. If wedding photographers can benefit from drones, so can 
emergency responders.


The high points in Jacksonville’s plan are a reminder that those dedicated to saving lives can never stop putting better systems in place.  

Houston Has Solved a Problem


The communications component of a crisis is often as much of a challenge as is the crisis itself.

Former Exxon Chair, the late Larry Rawl, was famously told in a congressional hearing that if the Valdez oil spill had happened in Japan the entire management team would resign to let others take over.

Mr. Rawl snapped back that the Japanese also kill themselves and he refused to do that. BP’s Tony Hayward, trying to manage the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and fire in the Gulf of Mexico ironically said he wanted his life back. This was a thoughtless comment given that eleven of his colleagues had actually disappeared in the disaster and were never seen again.

These unfortunate remarks happened on the international stage, but the same insensitivity can sink response to a local event too. Although there’s little advice on public communication in most of 100 urban emergency plans that I’ve studied, but Houston’s plan sets a very good tone.

“Be courteous and don’t play favorites…” is a solid start. Newsmakers say the darndest things to reporters, calling them left or right wing, saying their questions are stupid, or that they’ve asked the wrong question. This kind of abrasive behaviour would get you ostracized at a dinner party, and why some newsmakers think it will help the relationship with reporters is unfathomable.

Courtesy doesn’t cost anything and takes less time than discourtesy. The advice not to play favourites doesn’t work.  A newsmaker does have to deal with reporters on deadline ahead of feature writers whose magazine will publish a month later. But with all reporters on the same deadline, they should all be treated much the same.  One confusing matter these days is that most media also have websites with print, audio and video on them—so determining deadlines is tough.

Houston’s plan goes on: “avoid ‘off the record’ remarks…Never say anything you would not want to see printed or broadcast…” This sounds obvious, like not volunteering to a traffic cop what’s in your glove compartment if it’s inappropriate.

Many newsmakers think they will ingratiate themselves with a few juicy “off the record” remarks. But this raises a question.  What does it mean to have a remark “off the record…on background…on deep background…not for attribution…”? There’s no consistent definition among reporters, news outlets or spokespeople. Oh…except that what’s off the record is what you didn’t say.

“Listen to the reporter’s questions” is good advice in an emergency because if reporters have to make a public point of repeating the same question, it sounds as if you’re being evasive.

“Don’t accept the reporter’s definitions of what happened…Pause, think; take more time if you need it…” is logical advice from Houston’s plan writers, because by definition you, the expert, know what happened, what the issue is, and what can be discussed better than a reporter who has just arrived on the scene. If you don’t know, say so and also say when you might know.  You can also say that one of your colleagues might know.  Or you can say that no one may ever know.  What’s the truth?

“Respond only to the question you’ve been asked. Don’t speculate. Stick to the core message” is even more powerful advice if you recognize that the reporter might not be on the right track and adding safe, rehearsed, powerful information can be a good upgrade. But this can’t be done on the spur of the moment.

All cities need pre-written messages, policies and fact sheets to give reporters the ammunition they need to fill pages and newscasts in an emergency.

No urban emergency plan is perfect, but Houston’s sets a high standard for communication policy.

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.

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.