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Be Safe & Have a Plan: Interview with Adam Montella


Mr. Montella is an internationally recognized subject matter expert, speaker, and writer on numerous topics relating to homeland security, disasters, survival, preparedness, and business continuity. With more than 27 years of direct homeland security and emergency management experience in government and private industry, Mr. Montella has worked at the local, state, and federal levels of government, as well as private industry, and with the American Red Cross. Montella is considered one of the top disaster planners in the United States. Montella is the on-camera disaster and homeland security expert on the Discovery Channel Series, The Colony. He currently serves as the Principal Subject Matter Expert for the Olson Group www.olsongroupltd.com.

Julie: Can you tell me about your background?

Adam: I've been in the emergency management, homeland security field for about 27 years starting with the American Red Cross. I have worked for federal, state, and local government agencies as well as private industry, and I have a very diverse background in preparedness and response for different audiences. My experience has been enhanced by serving in management or supervisory roles on over 100 headline disasters, including Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, and Katrina, the L.A. Earthquake, tornadoes, Nor'easters, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and the anthrax release at the U.S. Capital pretty much every major natural or man-made disaster in the last two decades.

Julie: It sounds like you've had a lot of hands-on experiences with disasters.

Adam: I have, and having to do the after-action reports on a lot of those responses helps with preparedness as well.

Julie: What do you think the responsibility of homeland security officials should be in the case of a disaster?

Adam: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must provide a meta-leadership role in defining policy and providing guidance at the federal, state, and local levels if we are truly to have a national posture of readiness. All plans must work together in a catastrophic disaster so we don't end up with another Katrina. Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), DHS has improved dramatically since Katrina. However, what is still lacking is the kind of deliberate planning that the military uses called JOPES. The military has done an excellent job in creating battlefield plans that are relevant and up to date. Imagine conducting a battle or war with a three-year-old-plan. Why would you respond to a disaster with information that is out of date? General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "plans are useless, planning is everything." What he meant was the process of planning itself is more important than the hard written plan because the plan, once you write it, print it, and stick it on a shelf almost becomes useless from the time it's published because it's not a living, breathing document. We need to take advantage of modern technology such as automated planning software and things of that nature that makes the planning process easier. I am not advocating a one-size fits all cookie cutter approach, but the ability to make changes to our plans as they occur and have those updated plans in the hands of the individuals who need to use them.

Julie: What about local law enforcement? What do they need to do to prepare?

Adam: Local government has a greater responsibility than the federal government. So, it doesn't matter whether it's a police department, sheriff's office, or fire department emergency manager, the buck stops here. The citizens of your community don't really care that the federal government was there to help; they are going to turn to you first. Where were the local fire and local police, local emergency management when the disaster occurred? Because the shortest distance between you and the government is at the local level. But, again, government can't do it all. There are only a limited number of resources to go around during a disaster response. So, government must rely on the local community, whether it's community or faith-based organizations, or private citizens shouldering some of the burden themselves. We need to take personal responsibility for our own safety and our family's safety, alleviating the additional burden of government to care for those who need it the most-—elderly, sick, injured, and those with other special needs. So, again, limited government resources can be spread further for those that need it the most. That is why the emergency management community pushes personal preparedness so hard, which makes it surprising that when I ask audiences of public safety and emergency management personnel if they have disaster plans for their families, an extremely small number (10-15%) actually raise their hands and say, yeah, I've done that for my own family. I attribute this to them being focused on doing their job at work, taking it for granted that their own families are going to be prepared. If you go back to any major disaster, Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina are good examples where the fire department, police department, and EMS actually walked off the job to take care of their own families because they were victims. And in Andrew, one of the local communities sent its public works crews to their employees' homes with plastic sheeting and plywood to shore up their homes so that they were safe. Only then did they return to work. So, a major lesson can be learned from that.

Julie: As for individual and family planning, what do you think people should do? Are survival kits enough? What type of training should be involved?

Adam: What FEMA talks about is having a plan, making a kit, and being informed. It's critical to have a family disaster plan to let your family know what to do in case of an emergency—where do we meet, if my neighborhood is affected, how do I get the kids that are in school and Mom that's at work and Dad that's at another job across town, how do we get back together if we can't go to our neighborhood? It's those kinds of things…and then we also need to plan for vacations as well. When we go on vacation to Disney World or to Hawaii or Tennessee Smokey Mountains or wherever it is, we tend to let our guards down, not expecting a disaster to happen.

Next, we need a disaster supplies kit. Basically, you need enough food, enough water, medical supplies—if you're on prescription medication, enough supplies for that—and cash because in a major disaster, credit cards aren't going to work. The infrastructure may be damaged, so ATM machines may not be working. Also, supplies for your pets are important, as pets are a big part of a lot of people's families. You need to have enough supplies for your pets—food and medicine—if the pets are on medication-—as well as for the elderly and for infants. You have to take a look at everyone's needs. So when you are writing your plan, conduct a needs assessment for the family—almost as if you were creating a plan for a business or a government agency. What are the requirements for me to function as a family for at least seventy-two hours, because that's about how long it's going to take before infrastructure starts coming back online to somewhat pre-disaster level. Roads are beginning to clear at that point and electricity is starting to be restored, that kind of thing.

The final piece is to be informed, meaning knowing what hazards are in your local area, if there are watches or warnings, and what your community's disaster plan is. If they have a special needs registration, register in advance so that persons with special needs can be accommodated for and planned for in the sheltering numbers. Being informed can also mean taking a class. You go take a CPR and first aid class at the Red Cross. Get involved in your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Know what the hazards are in your area. I can't tell you how many people move to a new area and have no idea what to do during a hurricane or tornado or even a lightning storm. Here in Florida, we tend to build homes and move to coastal areas or areas near water, not taking into consideration the risks of doing that as well. So that's what we mean by being informed.

It literally takes a community to respond or prepare for a disaster; from the federal level all the way down to Joe Q. Citizen. In my work on The Discovery Channel Series, The Colony, we conducted a social experiment where we took 10 people from different backgrounds and different economic conditions with different skill sets and put them together in a post-disaster environment to survive for 10 weeks with very limited resources. There were bits and pieces of what you would find after a major natural or man-made catastrophic disaster—broken pieces of machinery and solar panels, wire, batteries. What we found which is what I hypothesized for years, is that every individual has a skill set. You may not ever tap into it or realize you have it, but when you are put into a disaster situation, you might have a small piece of the puzzle that's makes all the difference in the survival of the group. So putting your skill sets together will actually help a group survive. In a post-disaster situation like Katrina, where we've got isolated pockets of neighborhoods, it may be as simple as having a freezer full of meat and your neighbor may a have barbeque grill and three extra gas tanks. So, if we put our resources and skills together, collectively we can better survive.

Julie: What other important lessons did you learn while working on "The Colony?" Did they always do as you expected or were there any big surprises?

Adam: No, there were big surprises, the biggest of which was that it was difficult for them to form a government. However, if you look back at U.S. history, it was extremely difficult to form our own government. Our early history was wrought with arguments and opposition between the colonies on what should go into our constitution, what should go into the Declaration of Independence. So the founding fathers had a tough time forming government and were facing kind of a disaster situation as well. We were at war with the British government, our king. After our own basic needs for survival, the first thing that has to happen in order for a group of people to survive is to form a government. You have to have rules and laws in order to protect society—whether it's protection from within or from outside our borders. Also surprising was that while the Colonists fought for food and water they neglected the safety and security of their compound, leaving them vulnerable to the attack and pilfering of their supplies. In a real disaster the very survival of the group would have been at risk.

Julie: Do you believe that the fight for survival is more learned or instinctual?

Adam: Oh, definitely instinctual, but there are things we can learn that enhance our ability to survive.

Julie: Why did the looting seem to be so much less in Japan after their major earthquake and tsunami compared to other places?

Adam: I think that had to do with the social norms of the two different countries. You take Katrina and you take Japan where the earthquake and tsunami hit and the subsequent nuclear emergency. The Japanese people are accustomed to having a lot of people crammed in a very small space with limited natural resources to begin with, so they portion their food on a day-to-day basis. Here in the United States, we are used to glut; we are expected to super-size our fries for $.99. Even our homeless in the United States have it better than the homeless in many other countries because we tend to take care of our own. Whether it's through government programs or community programs, we help ensure that even our impoverished individuals are able to survive, not necessarily on the scale that they would like to be, but they survive. In some of the other countries around the world, survival is a daily fight, whether it be in an emerging or third world country or even in a heavily populated country like China, Japan, or India.

So I guess the answer to your original question is that survival is instinctual. However, we can also do things like our great grandparents and grandparents did during the Depression. They learned how to survive with the resources they had. We as a country have almost lost that sense of national conscientiousness. You know, everyone during the Cold War, even in World War II, knew what to do in case of an emergency, how to duck and cover, where the bomb shelters were in their community. People have lost that sense because that sense of urgency doesn't exist.

The article "Dump the 3-Ring Binders," that I co-wrote last year for Inside Homeland Security®, refers to the Dopplarian effect of disasters—think of a disaster like an approaching train and you're standing on the train platform. You can feel and hear the vibration of the train approaching and as it hits you, it's the most intense, but as it passes the train platform, it becomes a distant memory. It fades off and we forget about it. A disaster is the same way. We as a nation, whether as an individual, a Fortune 500 company, or a governmental agency, we spend a lot of effort and time and money after a major disaster to be better prepared, but the further we get away from that major disaster, the less importance we place on preparedness because it becomes a distant memory…until the next disaster.

Julie: What do you believe is the biggest misconception about disaster preparedness?

Adam: I refer back to my statement from earlier; disaster preparedness is not just the government's responsibility. It is everyone's responsibility, especially at the individual or family level. Personally, I'm not going to trust my family's safety and survival solely to the government. It's not because I don't trust the government, but because the government has hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in a community to take care of. I'll just take Hillsborough County, Florida, where I live. Hillsborough is one of the largest emergency management agencies in the state of Florida. It's got about 30 full-time employees, but that's 30 full-time employees for 1.2 million residents and millions of visitors each year.

The resources to prepare or respond from government just aren't there and that's the very reason the federal government in the past has done TOPOFF or the Top Officials Exercise. Now it's called NLE or a National Level Exercise, where we actually take a look at having multiple catastrophic disasters occur at the same time in different parts of the country and then the Cabinet and the President and the department heads look at the use of federal resources and how to apply them. In some cases there is only one of a special resource and it might be needed in multiple locations. So those kinds of exercises give government an opportunity to see where it needs to shore up its capabilities. We look at risk, threat, and vulnerability to shape governmental budgets. We use these and other exercises to identify gaps and shortfalls affecting our readiness or preparedness levels. It's much better to use the safe environment of an exercise to determine if we have enough training, resources, and personnel, rather than finding out during the next major disaster.

Julie: The CDC released information on how to prepare in case of a Zombie pandemic. Do you believe that is a good way to prepare for a disaster?

Adam: You know, the whole point behind that (laughing) is not that Zombies are going to rise up from the ground, but if you take a Zombie attack, it has all the elements of a major natural or man-made disaster—it's a worst-case kind of thing that also appeals to a younger generation that is enamored with vampires, UFO's and yes, zombies. This is what we've done for years (without zombies) in developing exercises and plans. We must look at planning, training, and exercises with an all-hazards approach. It doesn't matter what the conditions are that cause a disaster…we still respond almost the same way in a lot of events. By this I mean, if we have a hurricane, a wide-spread flood, a major tornado, or a zombie attack, we're still going to need shelters.

So when planning, one of the biggest lessons that I can impart on people is, reuse a lot of what you have used for other types of plans. Take your worst case scenario—take the zombie attack or a Category 5 hurricane—and plan for the worst case. Anything short of a worst-case scenario we should be able to handle with ease.

Julie: I thought it was a good way to get young people involved as well.

Adam: It is. Look at the profession as a whole over the last 50 years. We came from Civil Defense where we had a retired fire chief or somebody that worked in the police department with an ancillary duty of being the Civil Defense director and he had a little hard hat and a Geiger counter. Not many had formal educations or specialized certifications. Today almost every major university in the United States has a full-time or part-time emergency management or homeland security degree program. So as the industry has become more professionalized over the years, it is attracting younger people to the profession.

Julie: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?

Adam: I'll go back to what I say all the time, that's kind of my catch phrase: "Be safe and have a plan." There are emergencies all the time. We have car fires, we have tornadoes, hurricanes, and maybe even in the future—zombies. Those aren't necessarily disasters. Disasters occur when an emergency extends beyond our ability or capability to respond. If we do well at preparedness, we are going to do well at response. If we do well at response and recovery, we aren't going to have a disaster; we're going to have a managed emergency.

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