Lessons from Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters: An Interview with Ana-Marie Jones, Part 1

Coordinated by Susan Sloan, Performance Management Specialist, Whatcom County (WA) Health Department and NACCHO Risk Communications and Information Sharing Workgroup member; Interview by Eric E. Holdeman, Principal, Eric Holdeman & Associates

Ana-MarieAna-Marie Jones is the Executive Director of CARD – Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters, a nonprofit located in Alameda County, CA. Created by local community agencies after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, CARD offers an alternative approach to emergency preparedness, disaster response, and planning activities. To learn more about CARD, visit the website archive at http://www.CARDcanhelp.org. See how local health departments have collaborated with CARD by viewing the Lane County (OR) Public Health Department’s 2011 NACCHO Model Practice award for its collaboration with CARD and use of their concrete, practical methods and tools for preparedness and response.

What were the origins of CARD and how did the organization get started?

Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD) started as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Three community agencies—Eden Information & Referral, BOSS, and the Emergency Services Network—came together in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake to address the unmet needs of their consumers and clients. In 1989, we learned what communities still struggle to accept today: disasters disrupt the provision of essential services, and that disruption causes exponential suffering and hardship that no amount of post-disaster response from emergency services agencies can overcome. Eldercare, daycare, faith agencies, food banks, treatment facilities, day and outpatient programs, and a host of other entities are the trusted providers of everyday essential services for tens of thousands of local residents. Over time, working closely with these agencies, we learned why preparedness and response offerings continued to fail our diverse communities. Our focus became finding solutions and closing the gap between government and the entities that provide essential services.

What were the guiding principles that governed the establishment of CARD?

Initially, CARD was about working with government and nonprofit partners to ensure a more coordinated and unified response to disasters. Over time, with many disasters both large and small, it became clear that a coordinated response for many hundreds of untrained and disconnected agencies was not possible without a new plan to move forward. There was a distinct and long-standing absence of a shared language and framework for a united, community-wide response.

CARD managed to survive and thrive longer than any agency attempting to address the issue of readiness for nonprofits and their more vulnerable constituents.  What made CARD fundable for so long?

Finding financial backing was a great challenge, particularly in the beginning. When I came on board as the interim executive director in 2000, CARD was near closing for lack of available funding. My first task was to speak with longtime partners, funders, and our nonprofit service providers. There was great appreciation for CARD and our efforts to keep preparedness and planning alive for nonprofits. However, few funders were supporting nonprofit readiness, much less actively looking to innovate or alienate partners in emergency management. The greatest support came from two people at the Office of Emergency Services, Coastal Region, Rich Eisner (regional administrator), and Lynn Murphy (deputy regional administrator). Lynn was my mentor and she recruited me to fill the executive director role at CARD. She was considered the godmother of the fledgling nonprofit preparedness movement, and she knew that the Operational Areas in the Coastal Region were entirely unable to address readiness and response for diverse communities without an on-the-ground partner making the in-roads and partnerships happen.

CARD worked with our partners at Coastal Region OES and a few cities to leverage other dollars and build more word-of-mouth support. Ultimately, we developed offerings that local agencies and businesses were willing to fund. With increased exposure for CARD, and the new tools and approaches we were creating, more jurisdictions requested presentations and adopted our language and tools. When 9/11 happened, CARD’s community-inclusive and lower-cost solutions gained popularity.

How did the events of 9/11 and the advent of Homeland Security funding impact CARD over the years?

I think I could write a book on just the topic of what we learned about readiness and vulnerable communities from 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. One obvious lesson is that it’s virtually impossible for local government agencies to sell the American public on planning for terrorism, when we’ve never been sold on sustainable readiness for common threats like earthquakes, floods, and fires.

The sudden influx of significant Homeland Security funding shifted local government priorities and mandates. Jurisdictions moved to fulfilling those mandates, achieving their targets, and buying items from approved lists. The significantly less sexy but exponentially more needed activity of building long-term mutually supportive relationships with prepared local service providers still takes a backseat.

What is your best advice for agencies working on business continuity planning?

For anyone truly committed to effective continuity planning, I advise them to rethink and retool their efforts to make actions both mission-centric and immediately beneficial to the entities engaged. Business continuity planning for its own sake or requirements, or just with the hope of avoiding future loss, usually results in compliance-level, disconnected activities. Without a faster and more meaningful return-on-investment, it becomes expense without benefit.  How many organizations have binders and brochures, plans and policies, but no sustained commitment or capacity to respond?

What remaining gaps are you most concerned about leaving unresolved? 

An enormous unresolved issue, which is true across the country, is that local government jurisdictions do not have the ability to appropriately and sustainably address preparedness, response, and continuity planning—even for the entirely able, well-resourced, English-speaking masses. Most jurisdictions build on this long-standing weakness by occasionally adding programs for our more vulnerable/less resourced communities (currently labeled as having Access and Functional Needs.) Despite overwhelming evidence proving that the traditional approaches have not yielded sustained success, as a nation we persist with using the same framework of “preparing for disasters” and planning for post-disaster recovery. While “disasters” generate clicks online, and they trigger actions for entities with related missions, mandates, and muscles, they are a tragically ineffective framework for getting the sustained buy-in and resources to create a vibrantly resilient society.

Funders and donors have been conditioned and actively pressured to fund and support particular entities to offer readiness-related services; after investing millions in a particular preparedness paradigm for many decades, funders are often resistant to change. It’s rare for funders to delve into the efficacy of established government-sanctioned approaches.

Emergency managers are most frequently generalists in serving the “general public.” CARD served as specialists for a wide range of diverse communities.

Our region no longer has an agency with specialization in vulnerable and at-risk communities, nor do we have an agency acting as the single point of coordination for the many thousands of nonprofits and faith agencies that make up the complex safety-net for tens of thousands of residents whose needs cannot be addressed by traditional agencies.

What of CARD’s accomplishments are you most proud of?

All of us at CARD, including our partners, took pride in several accomplishments:

  • We created viable, sustainable solutions for communities long-alienated by traditional approaches.
  • We assisted and observed agencies change their culture away from binders, brochures, and disaster conversations, to making readiness an integral part of how they serve their communities; how they empower their consumers and staff.
  • We rewrote, retooled, and reconfigured the Incident Command System such that it became one of our most popular offerings, and it allowed even the most vulnerable or underfunded groups to embrace the standardized language and framework for how we respond to disasters in this country.
  • We worked with many hundreds of agencies across the country to create new tools, approaches, and resources – which specifically provided the greatest result for the smallest investment of resources.

Stay tuned to the Preparedness Brief Blog for the second part in this series which will explore lessons learned from the closing of CARD and how local officials can use these lessons to work with a variety of response agencies.

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