Lessons from Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters: An Interview with Ana-Marie Jones, Part 2

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-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 and view Part 1 of this series. 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 opportunities exist for FEMA to take on the role CARD has played?

FEMA will have to determine its role in supporting local community initiatives. We enjoyed a great relationship with our local FEMA team, but they were understaffed, without budget, and they faced many limitations regarding what they could do or embrace.  CARD had extreme flexibility; we were designed to be nimble and responsive to virtually any group seeking preparedness and response solutions. FEMA’s agility has limitations; for example, sometimes FEMA staffers are unable to support hyper-localized efforts, especially if the message doesn’t conform to standardized government campaigns.

What messages do you have for state and local emergency managers about how to work in concert with the range of nonprofits that some might consider “in their space?” 

First, I’d ask local emergency managers to be brutally honest and ask whether they are willing to speak truth to power. They must acknowledge that there is no way for local government agencies to address the ever-changing needs of their increasingly diverse community. All players in this shared space must accept our inter-dependence. To have genuine hopes of success, emergency managers must actively welcome, incorporate, and engage diverse partners in all aspects of emergency management.

What are some of the key messages that CARD used in your community outreach efforts?

At CARD, we created different outreach messages for different communities, but we also crafted universally appealing messages to be shared with virtually all communities. All communities are urged to reject fear- and threat-based messages. We reminded most communities that preparedness is not about the disasters; preparedness is about being ready to mobilize their assets to be able to accomplish their goals—quickly and effectively—whether those goals are related to disasters or to more positive aspirations. We worked with communities to create messages that motivate and inspire micro-communities. While this flies in the face of the traditional approach of standardizing readiness messages, it entirely aligns with how private sector companies change, niche, and nuance messages to effectively target specific communities.

What was your relationship with other nonprofits, like the American Red Cross, and how did you coordinate or avoid duplication of efforts?

In recent years, everyone on the CARD team enjoyed a supportive relationship with our local Red Cross partners. For many years this was not possible. In the beginning, successive Red Cross managers related to CARD as unwanted interlopers and a threat — something to be barely tolerated when CARD was a mostly unfunded volunteer agency. But as CARD grew in popularity, and then some of the few longtime funders began to support CARD and the nonprofit readiness movement, the competition for funds grew even more heated. In hindsight, it is clear that the Red Cross was always in an unsustainable position, and they could never actually address all aspects of preparedness, response, and recovery for all communities. It wasn’t until they reached that level of clarity and honesty of their own limitations, both locally and nationally, that they could see us as more than dangerous competitors, drawing resources from their agency. That’s when partnership became possible.

Duplication of services remains an issue across the region, as multiple entities periodically have short-term interest in this topic, and many one-time grants are made to agencies to address some “unmet” need. This, added to turnover in emergency management and in local government leadership, allows for these “random acts of readiness” and “senseless acts of planning” to continue.

What led to the demise of CARD? Are there lessons for others from your experiences?

The top-level, easiest to understand and explain cause is the lack of funding and the politics that create that condition. There is a fundamental disconnect between what local government is willing and able to provide, what is actually funded, and what is needed by service providers and the vulnerable constituents they serve.  In the world according to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), each Operational Area is ultimately responsible for ensuring a consistent level of readiness in their community. Over the years, even as the need continued to grow for preparedness in general, and the unique approach CARD offered in particular, deep cuts have continued to weaken our government partners. The Coastal Region Office of Emergency Services, the office that nurtured and promoted CARD and the nonprofit preparedness movement, is now half the size it was. Steadily losing that support, having local Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) dollars move toward funding government staff and internal priorities, with no incentives or pressure for individual cities or other partners to support our efforts—all of this left us without the fundamental support to move forward. The service providers we supported, the people they serve, and the issues that most matter to them, are simply not the current funding priorities.

A lesson to be learned is we can indeed create communities that are prepared to prosper. We can have service providers ready, willing, and able to work alongside government partners. We can save millions of dollars, reduce liabilities, attract more dollars, and so much more. But we cannot transform readiness by consistently denying communities the appropriate tools and tailored resources they need to prepare, and we cannot continue to pretend that local government can or will make it happen with another generic preparedness program or fear-based campaign.

What mistakes did you make that you learned from and how best should others avoid doing the same? 

One of the mistakes I made was feeling bound by CARD’s original mission, which directed us to do all things in partnership with local government. And I was naive: I believed that once enough local emergency managers understood why traditional preparedness methods didn’t work for vulnerable communities and the agencies that served them, I thought that they would want to change. We believed that if they saw how much more could be accomplished (for less money) with trained community partners, they would at least support their communities in having access to what works. The level of barriers, the nonstop turnover, the lack of support for anything beyond generic preparedness messaging, the degree to which the nation is committed to “disaster” messages and disaster messengers—all of it combined represented a formidable challenge. Local government entities are extremely vulnerable to the politics of preparedness. Even jurisdictions with incredible preparedness success stories were hard-pressed to continue supporting our innovative approaches. Changing to a culture of empowered readiness, and deciding to end America’s disaster victim cycle, is a major undertaking. CARD needed real champions, angel investors, and more private sector partners whose financial interests would be far better served by helping to reinvent how America prepares.

What advice do you have for others who are interested in promoting a better network of organizations collaborating to improve disaster resilience in a specific community?

My advice is this. Gather your most progressive leaders, thinkers and funders together, and decide to change the paradigm locally, and then fight for change regionally and globally. EVERY business can become more ready, resilient, and able to mobilize assets effectively. A multitude of other benefits become available when the conversation provides immediate benefits and positive outcomes for all. CARD was in a unique position: we had multiple disasters, diversity like few communities could imagine, and we were blessed to have the dollars to go deep, rather than simply skimming the surface of this issue. For other jurisdictions, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The successes are replicable, and the need continues to grow. If we can move beyond the politics and bureaucracy, we could prepare communities across the country to prosper.

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